COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina State University is honoring the civil rights figures slain during the Orangeburg Massacre with three bronze statues.

The statues, unveiled during a ceremony on campus Saturday, are busts of Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton, who were killed after the S.C. Highway patrol opened fire on a crowd of black protesters in 1968, killing three and wounding 28.

The unveiling marked the 52nd anniversary of the massacre.

"As I look into the audience, I cannot help but think we are the same age as the S.C. State and Claflin students were" during the massacre, said Julie Sainyo, the president of S.C. State's student government.

Family members of Smith, Hammond and Middleton attended the ceremony - more than 125 people attended overall - and several spoke during the ceremony.

Yvette David, one of Hammond's first cousins, recalled "Sam" as "charismatic, handsome, articulate." He was a popular athlete with a big heart who was more than capable of devouring an entire tray of his grandmother's biscuits, David said.

"Part of his dream was to play in the NFL" for the Baltimore Colts, David said during her speech. David has little doubt he would have thrived as a professional football player.

"We hear the names. We see the photos, but sometimes we don't know the person," David said.

Germaine Middleton never got to meet her uncle. Born roughly three years after Delano Middleton was killed, her memories are second hand. Some of those memories come from her father, who still struggles to talk about the death of his little brother.

"As much as I would love to tell you a story of how great my uncle was, I can't," Middleton said.

Middleton called on the audience to honor her uncle's legacy by continuing the fight for civil rights.

"Fifty-two years later there are still legacies being interrupted because of the mindset that putting bullets into someone is the best thing to do," Middleton said.

Vanessa Hughes honored her uncle Henry Smith by framing his involvement in civil rights as something more than a righting of Earthly wrongs. To him, the fight for justice was a calling from God.

"He understood his chance at justice would serve as a beckoning call," Hughes said. "Instead of speaking out to injustice, he screamed to intercede."

National Guard called in on third day

Orangeburg, home to two historically black universities - Claflin University and S.C. State - has long punched above its weight when it came to educating African-Americans. In 1968, many African-American students began protesting the owner of a local bowling alley for refusing to integrate his business.

The protest began with several students going into the bowling alley and being asked to leave, which they did, according to History.com. The second day, a larger group of protesters showed up and were pushed back by police who hit them with billy clubs. The third day, then-governor Robert McNair called in the National Guard.

Protesters started a fire at the campus entrance and threw rocks at police officers, according to History.com. Police, claiming to have heard gunshots, fired shotguns into the crowd. Many of those who were shot suffered wounds in the back or side, according to History.com.

The Orangeburg Massacre was the deadliest single incident in American Civil Rights history, according to an article from the Charlotte Observer.

Despite the human toll, and despite a personal message about the incident sent from Martin Luther King, Jr. to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Orangeburg Massacre has remained a relatively obscure piece of Civil Rights history.

"Unfortunately, the Orangeburg Massacre was far less cited and overlooked compared to other events," such as the Kent State shootings, Clark said.

The Orangeburg Massacre may have been the most visible protest in S.C. State's history, but it is far from the first. In 1960, S.C. State and Claflin students staged a sit-in at a local lunch counter, according to the program ceremony. A month later, around 400 students were arrested after a peaceful protest against segregation in Orangeburg, the program said.

Preceding the statue unveiling was an on-campus viewing of the film "Orangeburg: A Town, A Team, An American Tragedy," after which survivors of the massacre held a public discussion.

In 2015, S.C. State began awarding the Smith Hammond Middleton Justice Award, which is given to those who have worked to "eliminate injustice for those deprived of their civil rights," S.C. State President James Clark said during the ceremony.

This year's recipients are Barbara Williams Jenkins, a Union native who served as a librarian, professor and dean at S.C. State; Oscar Butler, a former S.C. State dean of students, and Tolulope Filani, a Nigerian-born artist who serves as the department chair for visual and performing arts at S.C. State. Past recipients have included Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights activist who was shot during the Orangeburg Massacre, and Ida Mae Dash, who served as a nurse during the massacre, according to the program.

Filani sculpted the bronze statues of Smith, Middleton and Hammond.

For the time being, S.C. State will keep the statues at an on-campus memorial of the massacre. Once S.C. State raises enough money, the statues will be housed in a more permanent, undetermined location.

"We cannot forget our history," Jenkins said. "You can't learn history when you just skim something."

Visit The State (Columbia, S.C.) at www.thestate.com

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