Two Events, Two Perspectives

Two characters in If You Walk Long Enough, Reid Holcombe, white, and Joe Terrell, black, served in Vietnam at the same time. They returned to their South Carolina homes within weeks of each other. Through a series of circumstances, they begin to argue.

            … “and I sure not gonna be no Marine Lifer,” Joe said.

            “What the hell were you doing over there?” Reid asked.

            “Humph.” Joe snorted and crossed his arms. “After cops shot up the brothers at  Orangeburg—and that was a state university—I needed to do something.” …  Joe shook his head and spoke in a hard voice. “I decided Vietnam would be safer than college. At least I’d have a gun. …”

Two similar and dissimilar events occurred which affected these men differently—Kent State University (Ohio) and Orangeburg (S. Carolina). In both events, college students were killed and the racial divide between Reid and Joe underscored.

 The Civil Rights Act of 1964 escalated black hopes that were dashed in the 1968 Orangeburg incident.  Protests at a segregated bowling alley by black students erupted on the South Carolina State University campus in February that year. The campus confrontation between the students and the SC Highway Patrol resulted in three students shot dead and 27 others wounded. The incident was blamed on outside agitators affiliated with the Black Power movement. No known evidence supported this allegation.

By contrast, the Kent State University incident erupted after several days of arson and protests. The Ohio National Guard fired on white students, May 5, 1970, as they protested bombings in Cambodia, killing four students and wounding nine.  No one was held accountable.

As a result of Orangeburg, for the first time, the federal government brought charges against state patrolmen for excessive use of force.  All nine white defendants were absolved of any charges despite 35 witness accounts to the contrary. The Orangeburg Massacre  remains  largely unknown.  The series of events has created a template of black-white protests and justice followed from 1960 into today.

The Kent State incident, memorialized in “Ohio,” a song written by Neil Young and sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The song is popular whenever white protests flair. The photograph of student Mary Ann Vecchio screaming and bending over the body of a fellow student immortalized the Kent State event in the minds of Americans. The John Filo photo won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970. 

Reid and Joe argue about the two incidents. Their perspectives are as different as black and white. Which incident do you remember most clearly?

4 comments

  1. I have no recollection of the Orangeburg Massacre. But Kent State I recall vividly.
    The photograph became an icon. I may conclude that killing white students created outrage, while in Orangeburg, Black lives didn’t matter.
    Joan Reid

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  2. Not many realize the significance of Orangeburg — it was the first time police were brought up on any charge for the shooting of a black person. In the case of Orangeburg, all those charged were acquitted of any blame.

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  3. The late 1960s and into 1970s were filled with such angst and confusion. Many pundits say this was the beginning of our current political and social divide. Then, again, other historians and pundits trace the divide to the open conflict, brother-against-brother of the Civil War. For sure, the issues so divisive in both conflicts have not been resolved.

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