In My Town, an Undy­ing Is­sue

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor - Eu­gene Robin­son

ORANGE­BURG, S.C. — Right near the el­e­men­tary school play­ground where we used to chase each other in cir­cles, spin­ning of a dif­fer­ent sort was be­ing done Thurs­day night.

In the “spin room” at the South Carolina State Univer­sity stu­dent cen­ter, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s peo­ple were try­ing to con­vince jour­nal­ists that their can­di­date had won the first Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bate. Barack Obama’s peo­ple were try­ing to con­vince us that he was the win­ner. John Ed­wards’s peo­ple were ex­plain­ing how the Clin­ton and Obama peo­ple had it all wrong.

The fact is that no can­di­date re­ally won or lost the de­bate. Set­ting aside Mike Gravel, the for­mer sen­a­tor from Alaska who seemed to be repris­ing Peter Finch’s per­for­mance in the movie “Net­work” (“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not go­ing to take this any­more!”), the ri­vals for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion were re­mark­ably po­lite and un­com­monly uni­fied in their ba­sic mes­sage: We’re not Ge­orge W. Bush, and we gen­uinely want to win the White House this time.

The only clear win­ner was Orange­burg. It has been 39 years since my home town got so much at­ten­tion. On Feb. 8, 1968, po­lice fired into a crowd of demon­stra­tors protest­ing a seg­re­gated bowl­ing al­ley, killing three un­armed black stu­dents — Henry Smith, Samuel Ham­mond Jr. and De­lano Mid­dle­ton — and wound­ing 27 oth­ers. Two of the men had at­tended S.C. State, a his­tor­i­cally black col­lege founded in 1896; the other was a stu­dent at Wilkin­son High School, which was the “black” high school in Orange­burg.

The killings be­came known as the “Orange­burg Mas­sacre.” They were ev­ery bit as egre­gious as the Kent State killings two years later, al­though they re­main lesser known.

Thurs­day night, af­ter the de­bate, the lead­ing Demo­cratic can­di­dates for pres­i­dent of the United States were in­vited to a re­cep­tion at the S.C. State ath­letic arena, which is named the Smith-Ham­mond-Mid­dle­ton Me­mo­rial Cen­ter in honor of the slain stu­dents. Yes, things have changed a bit.

I spent my el­e­men­tary and ju­nior high years at Fel­ton Train­ing School on the S.C. State cam­pus, across the street from the stu­dent cen­ter and right next to Dukes Gym­na­sium, where the Bull­dogs used to play their bas­ket­ball games be­fore the new arena was built. For me, com­ing home to cover the de­bate was one of those time-warp ex­pe­ri­ences that leave you awestruck.

The orig­i­nal Fel­ton school­house is long gone, as is the lunch­room, which was a sep­a­rate build­ing out back. The old play­ground was sur­rounded by a hedge filled with hon­ey­suckle, and in the spring­time we Fel­ton kids used to suck the nec­tar from the blos­soms, even though our par­ents and teach­ers told us not to. Our play­ground is a park­ing lot now, and last week it was oc­cu­pied by television trucks that belched ex­haust fumes. For an in­stant, though, I could have sworn I got just a whiff of hon­ey­suckle.

Dukes Gym­na­sium still stands. The pave­ment out front was our roller-skat­ing venue, and I can’t tell you how many pairs of glasses I broke in falls and crashes. Last week, the wide steps of Dukes Gym served as ris­ers for the fan­tas­tic S.C. State march­ing band, which pro­vided a “Drum­line”-style sound­track dur­ing the de­bate fes­tiv­i­ties.

The stu­dent cen­ter, where we used to get the best french fries in the world, had been turned into the me­dia cen­ter for the de­bate. On an elab­o­rate tem­po­rary set out­side the build­ing, I was do­ing television com­men­tary Thurs­day when I looked down and rec­og­nized one of the white po­lice of­fi­cers pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for this big-deal event on a black cam­pus. He and I had gone to high school to­gether.

You see, I went to Orange­burg High, the “white” school, a few years af­ter it had in­te­grated. We black stu­dents were still a small mi­nor­ity, even af­ter some whites had de­camped to a private all-white “academy” across town. I was a sopho­more when the Orange­burg Mas­sacre took place.

My fam­ily’s house is close to the S.C. State cam­pus. The 1968 protests lasted sev­eral days, and I re­mem­ber wak­ing up one morn­ing and look­ing out the win­dow to see a dozen po­lice cars lined up across the street. The of­fi­cers had their ri­fles drawn. They were look­ing for one of the protest or­ga­niz­ers, who had been stay­ing in a house a cou­ple of doors away. By the time they ar­rived, hap­pily, he was gone.

It would have been good if at least one of the Demo­cratic can­di­dates had taken the oc­ca­sion Thurs­day to talk about race in this coun­try — how far we still have to go, how very far we’ve come. But no one did.

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