By Jessica Brodie
ORANGEBURG—United Methodists are heading to South Carolina State University this month for a two-day racial reconciliation pilgrimage centered on the 1968 police shooting of unarmed black students during a segregation protest.
Set for May 15-16 on the campus in Orangeburg, the pilgrimage comes just weeks after a North Charleston police shooting left an unarmed man dead (see article). Officer Michael T. Slager, a white man, has been charged with murder after a video shows him fatally shooting Walter Scott, a black man, several times in the back after an altercation during a traffic stop. That shooting has prompted much dialogue in the Lowcountry and elsewhere about police use of lethal force and the sometimes-difficult interaction between police and African-Americans, not only recently but far into the past.
The South Carolina Conference’s Racial Reconciliation Design Team, led by the Rev. Amiri Hooker, is organizing the May pilgrimage to bring healing, hope and awareness about the Orangeburg Massacre and the long history of racism in this state. But with recent events, organizers said it is even more critical for people to attend and work together as a church body for healing.
“The conversation this week is that we really need to have this pilgrimage because it is based on historic interaction between police officers and African Americans and how painful that history and heritage was in South Carolina,” said Hooker, chair of the RRDT, noting that as the pilgrimage plans evolved, the team discovered many people didn’t even know about the Orangeburg Massacre, which heightened the need. “And looking at recent events, there’s still a lot of pain and historically hurt feelings.”
Hooker said they hope the pilgrimage will begin the process of healing as people of all races and ages journey to Orangeburg and take first steps beyond the pain.
South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston and Joe Benton, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers, will be the pilgrimage’s presenters. Holston will preach the worship service, while Benton will be the discussion group facilitator, helping people to unpack their own concepts of what is race and culture and what it means to be culturally sensitive.
“We are called to examine our lives so that those seeing us may see Jesus through us,” Holston told the Advocate. “This pilgrimage is our faithful witness that leads us to a pathway of healing. Our participation is a way to become disciples God can use.”
The Rev. Bernie Mazyck, RRDT member, said the pilgrimage is a brave step forward on the path to racial reconciliation, and he hopes many people—clergy and laity—attend.
“The parallels could not be more strongly drawn between what happened in the Orangeburg Massacre, where highway patrol fired upon unarmed students, and what happened in the City of North Charleston,” said Mazyck, who serves the South Carolina Association for Community Economic Development and also pastors Murray UMC, Summerville. “Of course we celebrate the fact that city leaders responded immediately (in the recent shooting), but it also raises the issue of lasting vestiges of distrust that exist, possibly along the lines of race but also possibly between law enforcement and the community.”
Mazyck said the church can play a significant and unique role in both awareness and healing.
“If there’s any role the church is supposed to play, it’s to be the source of healing, the source of reconciliation,” Mazyck said. “As a church, we The United Methodist Church can play a very powerful role in demonstrating how reconciliation can occur and possibly serve as a model for the country.”
A night of pain
On the night of Feb. 8, 1968, three students—Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith and Delano Middleton, who was still in high school—were killed by police gunfire on the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg. Twenty-seven others were wounded. None of the students were armed, and most were shot in their backs or the soles of their feet.
Hooker has said the Orangeburg Massacre has remained one of the least known and most misunderstood events of the civil rights era—a chilling history lesson on the horrors of law enforcement motivated by racism and hatred.
With the pilgrimage, the RRDT hopes that when people get the chance to walk in the places where such horrific violence and racism occurred, they can begin to understand and take initial steps toward healing and hope. With the church leading the way, Hooker said, God’s abundant love can begin to transform hearts and lives.
Two-days of healing and hope
The pilgrimage begins at 5 p.m. Friday, May 15, with a reception on the campus of South Carolina State University, followed by dinner, a lengthy roundtable discussion and film clips showing the Orangeburg Massacre. The next day, Saturday, begins with a continental breakfast at 8 a.m., then a full day of speakers, debriefings and discussions about how to move forward. The event ends at 3:30 p.m. with closing worship led by Holston.
Registration is $10 and includes all meals: Friday’s dinner and Saturday’s breakfast and lunch. Attendees can come to all or part of the event. Lodging is separate; two recommendations are the Fairfield Inn by Marriott (803-533-0014) and the Country Inn & Suites (803-928-5300).
To learn more, or to download the registration form, visit www.umcsc.org/home/racial-reconciliation-pilgrimages. More information about racial reconciliation and healing, including racism resources, is also available on the Connectional Ministries Advocacy section of the website at www.umcsc.org/home/ministries/advocacy.
Members of the RRDT include Hooker, Mazyck, Doug Markham, the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin, the Rev. Paul Harmon, Joanna Donegan, Frances Hill, the Rev. Ryan Spurrier and the Rev. Genova McFadden.
By Jessica Brodie