Pilgrimage to Racial Reconciliation explores racism, tragedy in Orangeburg Massacre

By the Rev. Amiri Hooker

Have you ever been on a trip, to an event or had an experience that changed your life?

When I was in middle school I went to Youth Annual Conference, and the interaction at YAC with youth on fire celebrating the love of Christ moved me toward a life of full-time ministry.

In October this year, on the campus of South Carolina State University, I had a similar experience. The Racism Reconciliation Design Team, a team with the given purpose of developing a model for improving conversations around race and racial justice in the S.C. Annual Conference, engaged in a life-changing event.

The Rev. Bernie Mazyck and Rev. Ryan G. Spurrier worked tireless hours to set up an event with the staff of S.C. State University to create a pilgrimage destination that allowed us to have conversation about one of the sorrowful moments in state and national history. The team worked to create for its members a Racial Reconciliation Pilgrimage around the Orangeburg Massacre.

Our Pilgrimage to Racial Reconciliation looked how an act of racism—in a South Carolina town across from a major United Methodist Church on a campus that has produced so many leaders in our church—led to one of the most wretched days in the history of South Carolina and a 40 -ear cover-up and campaign of misinformation by the governor and state government.

We wrestled with how a peaceful protest by frustrated black college students, who were denied use of the community’s only bowling alley, led a conservative Southern governor wanting to appear tough to his white constituents to overreact to the civil rights protest by ordering a massive show of armed force. This in turn led to emotions fraying and the situation veering out of control. That day, white highway patrolmen opened gunfire onto a college campus, killing and wounding black students.

When we arrived on the S.C. State campus we jumped right into the discussion of the massacre and saw a presentation by Bobby Eady, a student protester who was wounded during the massacre.

Eady told how it felt to be there during the time and the pain he felt from the betrayal of his state, community and church in the cover-up. Eady said all the students were unarmed and in retreat from the highway patrolmen at the time of the shooting.

“Yet, without warning, they were shot in their backs with deadly buckshot,” Eady said. “And that to help protect its ‘progressive’ self-image on racial issues, a web of official deceptions was created by South Carolina’s young governor Robert McNair and his administration to distort the facts and conceal the truth about what happened in Orangeburg.”

The state claimed the deaths were the result of a two-way gun battle between students and lawmen at the college. The highway patrolmen insisted their shooting was done in self-defense in order to protect themselves from an attacking mob of students. While there was never any support for this propaganda, the newly formed United Methodist Church, like most of South Carolina, remained cloaked in a shroud of mystery.

The killings occurred on Feb. 8, 1968—46 years ago—on the campus of S.C. State in Orangeburg. Until the shooting, South Carolina was a Southern state that had proudly celebrated a record of nonviolence during the turbulent civil rights years. To bolster that claim and deflect responsibility from its own actions, the state hastily devised a media campaign to blame the riot on Cleveland Sellers, a young black activist working to organize area college students.

The Racism Reconciliation Design Team met at S.C. State University, and Sellers told his story of persecution and being banned from Orangeburg for years. However, one of the key conversations we experienced was a campus staff member who related her personal stress, year-to-year during the commemorations of the massacre, of getting people to understand the needs for healing from the pain.

We had some great facilitated discussions led by Tan Kirby Davis, founder and lead consultant for The Kirby Resource Group, a consulting and training organization that specializes in organizational effectiveness, leadership development, diversity and inclusion and community relations. We discussed how there are places in South Carolina that from one side of the tracks might as well be in Ferguson, Mo.—just as strange, just as uncomfortable, just as much another world, just as full of suffering and strangers and fellow believers and “angels unawares,” and just as significant for our learning what it means to be Christian.

These Pilgrimages to Racial Reconciliation are going to change the church. And as we change the way we talk about the pain and the hope that comes from conversation around racism as pilgrims and learners, these events will bring persons from across the conference in different ages, races and classes.

But as Amy Grant, multi-award-winning Christian music pioneer, says, “It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, your life is broadened or diminished by the company you keep.”

I found one of the keys to the gathering was the wonderful company and the insight what God is calling the body of Christ to be as we journey together. Scripture reminds us in 1 Peter 1:18, “Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God.”

Some would wonder why we should have these pilgrimages. Well, sometimes you have to touch and feel to get a true understanding. I am encouraged and pray that the April event, that will be opened to persons across the annual conference, will have a similar influence on S.C. United Methodists, no matter the location or the event we encounter.

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