The Divide

The Divide

We were sitting in a booth in the IHOP on North Road in Orangeburg, S.C., in February 2010. We could easily have been at any IHOP anywhere in America. The aromas of coffee, fried bacon, and pancakes. The shouts in the kitchen and the scampering wait staff. Only a few tables were empty when we walked in, and I could sense that my companion was a bit nervous—where were we going to sit so that no one would hear what we were talking about?

We found a corner booth, and the steady din of the Saturday lunch crowd drowned out most of what we were saying. Nonetheless Clyde Jeffcoat leaned forward and spoke in hushed tones. When someone walked up to our table to greet him, he cut off quickly. Chatted it up with his friend. Waited until he left and cut back to our conversation.

This was a big deal for Jeffcoat. Outside his circle of friends, he had never really talked to anyone about what he had experienced one night in 1968. There was a lot at stake for him. He’s from this community, and he lives and works here. He knew what people would think if he told his story, if he explained how far he had come in his own thinking about race, if he said what he wanted to say: that what happened at South Carolina State College on February 8, 1968, shouldn’t have happened.

What happened that night in 1968 was that Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith were killed by South Carolina Highway Patrolmen as they fled the scene of a protest in front of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. The violence was the culmination of weeks of disruption over continued segregation in medical facilities and in a local bowling alley, including an attempt to integrate the bowling alley on the Tuesday before the shooting that ended in a brawl between students and law enforcement officers. Communications between the college and the community reached a standstill. National Guardsmen rolled in. Patrolmen loaded their weapons with buckshot. And on Thursday night those three young men were killed and at least twenty-eight black men and women were wounded. South Carolina Governor Robert McNair expressed his sorrow, but claimed the students had been out of control, were threatening the patrolmen, and, in fact, had fired at them—a charge the students and other witnesses denied. McNair blamed one man—former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Cleveland Sellers—for what had happened. Sellers became  the only person connected to the events of that week to serve any jail time. The white highway patrolmen involved were eventually exonerated. The victims of the event received no restitution.

Jeffcoat was across the street from those students, standing alongside his National Guard unit. In order to understand what serving in such a racially charged atmosphere meant to someone like Jeffcoat, you have to start at the beginning.

His story begins on a farm in rural Orangeburg County. Like most folks from his generation, he remembers playing with black children as a child, but he also remembers obvious and apparent separation: “We had several black men who worked on the farm year ’round,” he remembers. “When we would butcher a hog or something, they would eat in the house but at a separate table. … I believed in segregation at the time. It was the only thing I knew. We were taught it and that was the way that we understood fairness. And of course we didn’t have anything to do with the system—we were born in it.”

He was aware of the fact that “the system” was crumbling. He knew there were protests in Orangeburg and elsewhere. “My thing with black people was never any hatred. I always wanted to be fair to a guy—white, black, whatever. I just believed in segregation.” Back then he didn’t think black students should be making such a big deal about a bowling alley, but at the same time he didn’t think they should be shot for it. He doesn’t think any of the violence connected to the civil rights movement was necessary. “I don’t think that it was necessary for those kids to get bombed in that church in Alabama. That was always despicable to me. Even those people in Alabama now who knew about it and covered it up is still a sore spot to me on that state.” But that violence always seemed distant to him; the water hoses and German shepherds weren’t a part of his world.

But when he was called up on Tuesday night, February 6, to assist law enforcement with the protest at the bowling alley, his views changed. His memories from that first night are blurry; things got more precise when he remembered being out there by the railroad tracks between Boulevard and Magnolia on the evening of February 8, when another protest broke out on the South Carolina State campus. He wasn’t far from the students, but he couldn’t see them that well. “But we could hear. We could hear everything very well.” Jeffcoat knew this part of Orangeburg like the back of his hand. At the time, he worked for an insurance agency. “And my debit route was Russell Street. Maxcy Street. Dickson Street. Directly across from the college. And I worked almost five years for the same company, and most of the time I was right there across from the college. And most of the time I’d collect at night ’cause that’s when people were home. As soon as we were off duty that week, I was back out there on Maxcy and Dickson Street. I would park my car on Maxcy or Dickson and walk all through there. And I’m talking 8:00 at night. Directly after going off duty from the Guard [on the 8th], I was back out there where we’d been. And I never felt threatened even then. I knew a lot of the people there.”

Standing out there, a soldier on the streets where he worked as a civilian, felt strange for 25-year-old Jeffcoat. He was a squad leader, and the situation was intense. They had been warned about a two-story house across from where they were stationed. Rumor had it that Cleveland Sellers, the SNCC organizer, was in that house, and they were to keep an eye on it. He recalled that one light was on in an upstairs room, but that was it. The action, he said, was happening in the opposite direction. Jeffcoat and the other men in his squad could hear what sounded like gunshots, but they couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the sounds were coming from. “They didn’t even sound like they were in close proximity, the few shots that we heard. I couldn’t tell if they was from a firecracker or a gun. I thought it was a gun. But again, it was very sporadic.” His men asked him how they should respond. Many were concerned about their duties and the repercussions of those duties. They didn’t have any orders except to assist law enforcement, which never gave the guardsmen specific orders. How far did things have to go before they should or could act? They asked him. Jeffcoat told them, “If we’re fired upon, we’ll return fire. That’s the only case. We don’t return fire if we just hear a gunshot. If we know that we’re fired upon, we’ll return fire. But we never was.” This is the part of his story that he was so hesitant to tell. This is the part of his story that still bothers him.

“I can tell you this: where we were, we never felt threatened. … obviously when you’re in the area where tensions are as high as they were, there’s got to be a certain amount of anxiety. But I never felt enough of a threat to allow the guys to lock and load.” They had full-clip ammo at hand, but Jeffcoat never felt any need to distribute it.

"I'd shot guns my whole life. And I do recollect this: it was not like they went 'pow' and then stopped. It was like you had less than ten seconds and it was like you fired off as many shots as you could."
"I'd shot guns my whole life. And I do recollect this: it was not like they went 'pow' and then stopped. It was like you had less than ten seconds and it was like you fired off as many shots as you could."
"I told the powers-to-be that if there was any way to keep the children off the street tonight, do so. Because if not, they're going to kill 'em. And they did. They shot 'em in the backs, retreating."

George Dean told me it went like this: first of all, he was no gung-ho soldier by any stretch of the imagination. Joining the National Guard was a good way to avoid a one-way ticket to Vietnam, and he knew it. Didn’t care that there weren’t any black men in the South Carolina National Guard. Didn’t care that his friends might think he was crazy for joining up. He just wasn’t interested in going to Vietnam. And his parents sure as hell weren’t going to pay his way to Canada. It was that simple. Join the Guard. Avoid ’Nam. Lots of folks were joining it for the same reason.

There was nothing terribly heroic about this move, he’ll admit, but nonetheless he did integrate the South Carolina National Guard in 1965. “And I caught hell for at least three of those six years. But I learned a lot about the South and the southern white man’s mentality. I’m the lone black man in the whole damn South Carolina National Guard. And I’m with farmers, lawyers, everybody. And then I’m just with human nature. I find out that it ain’t about no vocation, it’s about the person now.” Peer pressure, he told me, shaped the way many people interacted with him. “Now it’s not just that he don’t like Dean. It’s just that if he is seen by his peers talking to Dean.”

Dean wasn’t necessarily looking for a helping hand, and based on how he was treated, he didn’t even expect it. He said that when he’d walk through the chow line, the cooks would slam food so hard on his tray, they’d knock it out of his hands. The first time he went on a bivouac, nobody would share a tent with him. “I’m not talking about what I heard—when I sat on one end of a table, they would move to the other end. I’m not talking about what I heard; I’m talking about what I experienced. But I hold no malice for no man.” And yet, he said, the National Guard was hell. “I’m dodging Vietnam, and I get caught on the other side of the fence in the civil unrest of the South. That was hell.”

George Dean comes from a long line of tough-nosed, boundary-crossing, erudite, and persistent dissenters. His family has deep ties to South Carolina and Orangeburg. Rev. A. J. Townsend, his grandmother’s brother, was a graduate of the University of South Carolina right after slavery. His grandfather, Rev. I. H. Fullerton, was pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. At one time the church stood where the county courthouse is today. Local officials, Dean said, wanted to use the spot for the courthouse and seized the land. For years church members worshipped in a tent while constructing the current building, which is located across the street from State and Claflin. “My history is a part of this fabric, you understand, and when I think of my hometown, I think of it different than just 1968. I don’t define Orangeburg as so many people do, by the Orangeburg Massacre. You know, this is my hometown. And this is my heritage. My grandmother is a graduate of Claflin College. My mother is a graduate of Claflin. My father, he’s class of ’31 at South Carolina State.”

Dean grew up in his grandfather’s house on the corner of Highway 601 and Dutton Street, not far from South Carolina State. His father worked for Clemson College Extension Service and his mother was a schoolteacher. He doesn’t have a “typical African-American rags-to-riches story.” That wasn’t his life. His people were middle-class black Americans. They were proud and hardworking. “My perspective of things in this community, and my experiences, might be a little bit different than some because I was in a certain setting. But when I grew up here, in the fifties, the South was the South. And everybody knows the history of the South.”

Dean was never afraid to confront that South. In 1956, for example, when he had just started high school, a young and brash George Dean was driving around town with some friends. They decided to stage their own little protest and drove their car up to the window at the A&W Drive-In. They asked for four hot dogs and four sodas. “And the reply was that ‘we don’t serve niggers.’ And so we said, ‘We didn’t ask for niggers. We asked for four hot dogs and four drinks.’” Despite their wit, they didn’t get served. But they were young and persistent. They hatched a new plan. This time they decided to get the entire football team to ride along with them to the A&W and take up all the spaces in the parking lot. Someone exposed their plan to the assistant principal and then to their parents, who were petrified, thinking, “The Klan’s gonna throw our children in the Edisto River!” He chuckled when he told me about it, but said that incident taught him to be a bit more covert, to work behind the scenes: “There are so many people in Orangeburg and all over the South and all over America who were heroes who never shined. People in the background who kept things going—who kept stability within the movement. Back then this was referred to in print as ‘the civil rights movement.’ We who were in the struggle called it just what it was—‘the struggle.’ And it was a struggle.”

What people don’t understand, Dean said, is that because of the two colleges, Orangeburg was a mecca for civil rights activism. This is too often glossed over because of what happened in 1968. Not that what happened then isn’t important, but it wasn’t the first time students had protested. “A lot of my peer group,” he said, “who were the children of college professors, for example, became activists. Because, you know, we had seen the passiveness of our parents and the results of their passiveness in the South. A lot of the activists of the sixties were coming out of college and university settings. They weren’t rabble-rousers. They were intelligent and could interpret the inequities of the system.”

As he matured, though, Dean gained some perspective on Jim Crow and what it did to his parents. He started to understand what he then thought was simply accumulated passiveness. His father, for example, was a state employee and, therefore, was in a particularly difficult position. Speaking out too forcefully might have meant losing his job. And losing a job is a big deal when you have seven children to feed. Years later Dean discovered that, in the wake of the shootings, his father had served on a biracial committee whose goal it was to ease tensions in the community. He learned again that sometimes subtle efforts to foster change can be as effective as direct ones.

Maybe both are necessary.

An attempt to integrate the bowling alley on the Tuesday before the shooting ended in a brawl between students and law enforcement.
An attempt to integrate the bowling alley on the Tuesday before the shooting ended in a brawl between students and law enforcement.

"I told the powers-to-be that if there was any way to keep the children off the street tonight, do so. Because if not, they're going to kill 'em. And they did. They shot 'em in the backs, retreating."

There was nothing terribly heroic about this move, he’ll admit, but nonetheless he did integrate the South Carolina National Guard in 1965. “And I caught hell for at least three of those six years. But I learned a lot about the South and the southern white man’s mentality. I’m the lone black man in the whole damn South Carolina National Guard. And I’m with farmers, lawyers, everybody. And then I’m just with human nature. I find out that it ain’t about no vocation, it’s about the person now.” Peer pressure, he told me, shaped the way many people interacted with him. “Now it’s not just that he don’t like Dean. It’s just that if he is seen by his peers talking to Dean.”

Dean wasn’t necessarily looking for a helping hand, and based on how he was treated, he didn’t even expect it. He said that when he’d walk through the chow line, the cooks would slam food so hard on his tray, they’d knock it out of his hands. The first time he went on a bivouac, nobody would share a tent with him. “I’m not talking about what I heard—when I sat on one end of a table, they would move to the other end. I’m not talking about what I heard; I’m talking about what I experienced. But I hold no malice for no man.” And yet, he said, the National Guard was hell. “I’m dodging Vietnam, and I get caught on the other side of the fence in the civil unrest of the South. That was hell.”

George Dean comes from a long line of tough-nosed, boundary-crossing, erudite, and persistent dissenters. His family has deep ties to South Carolina and Orangeburg. Rev. A. J. Townsend, his grandmother’s brother, was a graduate of the University of South Carolina right after slavery. His grandfather, Rev. I. H. Fullerton, was pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. At one time the church stood where the county courthouse is today. Local officials, Dean said, wanted to use the spot for the courthouse and seized the land. For years church members worshipped in a tent while constructing the current building, which is located across the street from State and Claflin. “My history is a part of this fabric, you understand, and when I think of my hometown, I think of it different than just 1968. I don’t define Orangeburg as so many people do, by the Orangeburg Massacre. You know, this is my hometown. And this is my heritage. My grandmother is a graduate of Claflin College. My mother is a graduate of Claflin. My father, he’s class of ’31 at South Carolina State.”

Dean grew up in his grandfather’s house on the corner of Highway 601 and Dutton Street, not far from South Carolina State. His father worked for Clemson College Extension Service and his mother was a schoolteacher. He doesn’t have a “typical African-American rags-to-riches story.” That wasn’t his life. His people were middle-class black Americans. They were proud and hardworking. “My perspective of things in this community, and my experiences, might be a little bit different than some because I was in a certain setting. But when I grew up here, in the fifties, the South was the South. And everybody knows the history of the South.”

Dean was never afraid to confront that South. In 1956, for example, when he had just started high school, a young and brash George Dean was driving around town with some friends. They decided to stage their own little protest and drove their car up to the window at the A&W Drive-In. They asked for four hot dogs and four sodas. “And the reply was that ‘we don’t serve niggers.’ And so we said, ‘We didn’t ask for niggers. We asked for four hot dogs and four drinks.’” Despite their wit, they didn’t get served. But they were young and persistent. They hatched a new plan. This time they decided to get the entire football team to ride along with them to the A&W and take up all the spaces in the parking lot. Someone exposed their plan to the assistant principal and then to their parents, who were petrified, thinking, “The Klan’s gonna throw our children in the Edisto River!” He chuckled when he told me about it, but said that incident taught him to be a bit more covert, to work behind the scenes: “There are so many people in Orangeburg and all over the South and all over America who were heroes who never shined. People in the background who kept things going—who kept stability within the movement. Back then this was referred to in print as ‘the civil rights movement.’ We who were in the struggle called it just what it was—‘the struggle.’ And it was a struggle.”

What people don’t understand, Dean said, is that because of the two colleges, Orangeburg was a mecca for civil rights activism. This is too often glossed over because of what happened in 1968. Not that what happened then isn’t important, but it wasn’t the first time students had protested. “A lot of my peer group,” he said, “who were the children of college professors, for example, became activists. Because, you know, we had seen the passiveness of our parents and the results of their passiveness in the South. A lot of the activists of the sixties were coming out of college and university settings. They weren’t rabble-rousers. They were intelligent and could interpret the inequities of the system.”

As he matured, though, Dean gained some perspective on Jim Crow and what it did to his parents. He started to understand what he then thought was simply accumulated passiveness. His father, for example, was a state employee and, therefore, was in a particularly difficult position. Speaking out too forcefully might have meant losing his job. And losing a job is a big deal when you have seven children to feed. Years later Dean discovered that, in the wake of the shootings, his father had served on a biracial committee whose goal it was to ease tensions in the community. He learned again that sometimes subtle efforts to foster change can be as effective as direct ones.

Maybe both are necessary.

If you were to perform the events of  that week in February 1968, the cast would be complicated and large. First start with students at a woefully underfunded historically black state university and their historically black private-college neighbors. Students frustrated by the pace of change, offended by the status quo. Typical college students in some ways, but in others not. Students who knew about the violence of racism. Add administrators, also frustrated but knowing that confrontation might take the students nowhere except the hospital or the morgue.

Put these groups on a stage with a white community for the most part resistant to change and fed on the pap of a news media and state government that misunderstands the black power movement, that sells them images of violence in northern cities, conditions unlike Orangeburg in some ways though alike in others. And where is the governor in all of this? Governor McNair, who a year before handled a student protest at State with level-headedness and an attentive ear, earning the respect of many students, faculty, and administrators? Why didn’t he do what he did in the spring of 1967? What had changed? Was it the fear of a Newark-style riot in South Carolina happening on his watch?

Bring out the National Guardsmen. Some are soldiers through and through; others are just doing their best to avoid Vietnam. All are from the area. They know the community. They may not be professionals, but they do their best to act professionally given the circumstances and where they are. Hustle in the South Carolina Highway Patrol, some from the town, others not. Professionals. This is what they do. Someone has been telling them that black power advocates are in town. They think they know what that means. And they feel—so they say afterward—threatened by the students. But no weapons are ever found that can be directly linked to the young people standing around the bonfire. Many eyewitnesses note that there was sporadic gunfire throughout the night, but all indications are that the gunfire was coming from a .22 fired from the vicinity of dormitories on the edge of the Claflin campus. That weapon is never found.

There’s no clear reason why the patrolmen loaded their guns with buckshot, none that makes sense to me. And there’s no clear evidence to prove that an order to shoot was given or that there was some sort of conspiracy. And in some ways, this makes what happened that night all the more tragic, all the more resonant. If no one gave an order to shoot—it becomes a last gasp, a movement of the collective unconsciousness of the white community to shore up the final vestiges of a three-hundred-year reign. The white patrolmen felt threatened by a group of students who were throwing bricks and bottles, not shooting guns. They were threatened by a crowd of black college students, young black men and women. They were threatened by an idea, by a potentiality, by a possibility. They had heard reports of violence from cities in the North the summer before. They had heard that black power was in town. They had heard about or participated in the melee at the bowling alley two nights before. Because there was no true communication between parties after Tuesday, there was no real way for them to understand each other and the situation—that Cleveland Sellers was more or less a local, that the bowling alley wasn’t the real issue, and that no one wanted violence.

For all intents and purposes, the white men standing out on the streets that night did not understand what was going through the minds of the students, who in turn didn’t understand the possibilities that those men envisioned. So it was that nine men opened fire on a group of unarmed students over what can best be described as a fiction. On February 8, 1968, Alabama and Mississippi came to South Carolina.

In April 1969 and again in February 1970, when students occupied Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina (hometown of Sellers), and demanded a majority black board of trustees and faculty, the campus was shut down. And in both instances students were arrested, but no one was killed or injured as National Guard troops occupied the campus. In those moments the guard proved that violence wasn’t necessary—there was another way.

Jeffcoat agreed to that original interview if I promised to use a pseudomyn. Later he changed his mind and said I could use his name, but only if he could first read what I had written. So a few months after our first interview, Jeffcoat met with me again at the same IHOP. I let him read what I’d written about him thus far. I sat there in silence as he read, nervously fingering the sugar packets and pretending to take notes. When he was done, to my surprise, he said he liked it.

As we left the restaurant we talked football. He asked me about my daughter. I asked him about his family. His son, a missionary in India, happened to be in town that weekend. I asked him if I could take a picture or two for the book. He wondered why I wanted to include a picture of him, but okay. That’s fine. Later that day, I uploaded the photos on my computer and looked through them. It was noon when I took them, so he’s squinting his eyes in most of them. I’m disappointed. He looks sad, almost overwhelmed.

And then there’s one photo, at the very end of the series. Jeffcoat’s looking away from the camera, and he’s grinning.

 

A version of this story originally appeared as a chapter in Blood and Bone, a new book by Jack Shuler, assistant professor of English at Denison, who also teaches courses in black studies. It is reprinted here with permission from the University of South Carolina Press.

"My history is part of this fabric... and when I think of my hometown, I think of it different than just 1968. I don't define Orangeburg as so many people do, by the Orangeburg Massacre."
"My history is part of this fabric... and when I think of my hometown, I think of it different than just 1968. I don't define Orangeburg as so many people do, by the Orangeburg Massacre."

There’s no question, however, that racial tensions were out in the open and on the table in 1968. When those students showed up at that bowling alley, Dean said, it wasn’t just about having more options for recreation. “In 1968 every community was fighting in some way. You know, they took ten years after Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate.” And the schools in Orangeburg were still virtually segregated on that cold day in February 1968 when he was called up for duty. Dean counts himself lucky because he had a commanding officer who respected him as a human being. His name was John A. Shuler (no relation to me), and he was from Bowman, S.C. Shuler first made Dean his Jeep driver, not a bad gig if you weren’t an officer. But that didn’t last long because the white community started talking.

They didn’t like having a black man driving the commanding officer around town—especially in that moment. Dean was quickly given a job at the armory, out of the public eye. He wasn’t down by the railroad tracks where Jeffcoat was stationed, but he still saw and heard a hell of a lot. “And I never said a word. I never said a word.”

From his position inside the armory, Dean could tell that tensions were mounting at an alarming rate. Some folks were taking things out of proportion and were afraid of what a bunch of college students might do to Orangeburg. The first chance he got to leave the armory he went home, took off his uniform, showered and shaved, hopped on his bicycle and made a beeline for State’s campus. “And I told the powers-to-be that if there was any way possible to keep the children off the street tonight, do so. Because if not, they’re gonna kill ’em. And they did. They did. They shot ’em in the backs, retreating.”

On the night of the shooting Dean witnessed something that disturbs him to this day: Pete Strom, the head of South Carolina Law Enforcement, walking into the National Guard Armory, grabbing a box of ammo, and walking out. Dean couldn’t believe it then and doesn’t believe it now. “And his words were, on the way out of that armory, ‘I’m tired of playing with these niggers now.’ I don’t know what Strom did with that box of ammunition when he walked out of the armory with it. But I tell you one thing I do know: less than an hour afterwards, [28] children was wounded in the back, and three were dead. I know that. And I don’t need nobody to tell me that.”

Today Dean still rides around Orangeburg seeing and reliving that week. He sees his fellow guardsmen in combat gear and the tanks in the streets blocking intersections, and he relives the fear and tension. These are his battle scars, his own deep and festering wounds. And he wonders whether or not others who saw those tanks and those soldiers feel the same way. What did the children of Orangeburg think when they saw those tanks and soldiers? “I don’t think the southern white man realizes the scars he has left on generations of people. It still bothers me a lot as I walk my walk, day to day. You know, all a man wants is just to be respected as a human being, wherever he lives.”

Dean stopped and told me he didn’t want to talk about ’68 anymore. “You know. Jack, you don’t keep eating things that you don’t like. You don’t keep talking about things that hurt. You know? One day you realize that you’re eating off a plate of apples and the apples are bigger than you.”

If you were to perform the events of  that week in February 1968, the cast would be complicated and large. First start with students at a woefully underfunded historically black state university and their historically black private-college neighbors. Students frustrated by the pace of change, offended by the status quo. Typical college students in some ways, but in others not. Students who knew about the violence of racism. Add administrators, also frustrated but knowing that confrontation might take the students nowhere except the hospital or the morgue.

Put these groups on a stage with a white community for the most part resistant to change and fed on the pap of a news media and state government that misunderstands the black power movement, that sells them images of violence in northern cities, conditions unlike Orangeburg in some ways though alike in others. And where is the governor in all of this? Governor McNair, who a year before handled a student protest at State with level-headedness and an attentive ear, earning the respect of many students, faculty, and administrators? Why didn’t he do what he did in the spring of 1967? What had changed? Was it the fear of a Newark-style riot in South Carolina happening on his watch?

Bring out the National Guardsmen. Some are soldiers through and through; others are just doing their best to avoid Vietnam. All are from the area. They know the community. They may not be professionals, but they do their best to act professionally given the circumstances and where they are. Hustle in the South Carolina Highway Patrol, some from the town, others not. Professionals. This is what they do. Someone has been telling them that black power advocates are in town. They think they know what that means. And they feel—so they say afterward—threatened by the students. But no weapons are ever found that can be directly linked to the young people standing around the bonfire. Many eyewitnesses note that there was sporadic gunfire throughout the night, but all indications are that the gunfire was coming from a .22 fired from the vicinity of dormitories on the edge of the Claflin campus. That weapon is never found.

There’s no clear reason why the patrolmen loaded their guns with buckshot, none that makes sense to me. And there’s no clear evidence to prove that an order to shoot was given or that there was some sort of conspiracy. And in some ways, this makes what happened that night all the more tragic, all the more resonant. If no one gave an order to shoot—it becomes a last gasp, a movement of the collective unconsciousness of the white community to shore up the final vestiges of a three-hundred-year reign. The white patrolmen felt threatened by a group of students who were throwing bricks and bottles, not shooting guns. They were threatened by a crowd of black college students, young black men and women. They were threatened by an idea, by a potentiality, by a possibility. They had heard reports of violence from cities in the North the summer before. They had heard that black power was in town. They had heard about or participated in the melee at the bowling alley two nights before. Because there was no true communication between parties after Tuesday, there was no real way for them to understand each other and the situation—that Cleveland Sellers was more or less a local, that the bowling alley wasn’t the real issue, and that no one wanted violence.

For all intents and purposes, the white men standing out on the streets that night did not understand what was going through the minds of the students, who in turn didn’t understand the possibilities that those men envisioned. So it was that nine men opened fire on a group of unarmed students over what can best be described as a fiction. On February 8, 1968, Alabama and Mississippi came to South Carolina.

In April 1969 and again in February 1970, when students occupied Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina (hometown of Sellers), and demanded a majority black board of trustees and faculty, the campus was shut down. And in both instances students were arrested, but no one was killed or injured as National Guard troops occupied the campus. In those moments the guard proved that violence wasn’t necessary—there was another way.

Jeffcoat agreed to that original interview if I promised to use a pseudomyn. Later he changed his mind and said I could use his name, but only if he could first read what I had written. So a few months after our first interview, Jeffcoat met with me again at the same IHOP. I let him read what I’d written about him thus far. I sat there in silence as he read, nervously fingering the sugar packets and pretending to take notes. When he was done, to my surprise, he said he liked it.

As we left the restaurant we talked football. He asked me about my daughter. I asked him about his family. His son, a missionary in India, happened to be in town that weekend. I asked him if I could take a picture or two for the book. He wondered why I wanted to include a picture of him, but okay. That’s fine. Later that day, I uploaded the photos on my computer and looked through them. It was noon when I took them, so he’s squinting his eyes in most of them. I’m disappointed. He looks sad, almost overwhelmed.

And then there’s one photo, at the very end of the series. Jeffcoat’s looking away from the camera, and he’s grinning.

 

A version of this story originally appeared as a chapter in Blood and Bone, a new book by Jack Shuler, assistant professor of English at Denison, who also teaches courses in black studies. It is reprinted here with permission from the University of South Carolina Press.

Published June 2012