IT was 50 years ago today that police officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina, carried out the first massacre by the American law enforcement authorities of unarmed students protesting on their campus, that of the South Carolina State College, now a university.

Three African-American students died and 27 others were wounded, some very seriously, when a civil rights protest ended with state police officers from the South Carolina Highway Patrol firing on a group of 200 students and other protestors.

The three men who died on the night of February 8, 1968, were Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr, Delano Harmon Middleton and Henry Ezekial Smith. The first two were aged 18, while Smith was just 17 and a student at the local Wilkinson High School who was not even part of the protest – he was sitting on the steps of a dormitory waiting for his mother to finish her work shift at the College.

EARLY 1968 was a time of rising protest in the US. The Tet Offensive the previous month had shown Americans they weren’t winning in Vietnam and protests against the war were growing. Civil rights campaigners were still protesting against the refusal of many local authorities and white business owners to recognise the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

One of these was the owner of the All Star Bowling alley, Orangeburg’s only such establishment. Despite many pleas from local activists, Harry K Flood refused to admit non-whites. African-American students began to gather there and demand that he de-segregate the alley. Floyd refused on February 5 and over the next three nights protests escalated as police reacted violently and arrests were made. South Carolina Governor Robert E McNail called out the National Guard and the tensions heightened.

On the night of February 8, attention switched to the campus where a bonfire was lit and 200 students protested, faced by dozens of police. As students threw wood to keep the bonfire going while police and firefighters tried to extinguish it, a sizeable lump of banister hit Highway Patrol Officer David Shealy in the face. It is thought that one of his colleagues fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but immediately at least nine officers fired rifles, revolvers, and carbines into the crowd. The students ran for their lives, and many were shot in the back.

NONE. Instead nine officers were charged by the federal authorities with using excessive force. No-one has ever explained why the other officers on site did not fire. No evidence was produced in court that any protestor was armed, never mind fired at the police.

All nine were acquitted of all charges. The only man jailed in connection with the incidents at Orangeburg was civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers who was convicted of inciting a riot – he spent several months in jail and was later pardoned.

GOVERNOR McNair blamed Black Power activist for stirring up hatred. No such evidence was ever found. Floyd was forced by law to desegregate his alley.

The killings divided Orangeburg and South Carolina for many years. It was only in 2003 that Republican Governor Mark Sanford issued an apology: “I think it’s important to tell the African-American community in South Carolina we don’t just regret what happened in Orangeburg 35 years ago, we apologise for it.”

To this day there are still call for an inquiry into the massacre.

BLACK lives matter, but from the point of view of American history, they certainly matter less than those of whites. Two years and 12 weeks after the Orangeburg Massacre, four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by National Guardsmen who fired on a protest against the Cambodian Invasion authorised by President Richard Nixon. It was the single most devastating incident in the rising tide of feeling against US involvement in Vietnam and polarised the country into pro- and anti-war camps.

Violence erupted on campuses across America and 11 days after the Kent State murders, for that is what they were, two more African-American students were shot and killed during a subsequent protest. They were Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a 21-year-old Jackson State student and married father of a baby daughter, and James Earl Green, 17, a local high school student.

Such was the intensity of feeling among young people that Nixon was taken to safety at Camp David while the White House was put under armed guard by the 82nd Airborne Division.

Orangeburg and Jackson State feature less in the narrative of those bloody times, while Kent State has become a global symbol of state suppression. All four students killed at Kent State were white.