Northern Light’s “Scarred Justice” at Harvard

On the night of  February 8th, 1968, students from  South Carolina State College at Orangeburg  attempted to (perhaps, needless to say, peacefully) enter the (largely Black) town’s bowling alley.  Before the evening was through, three students lay dead and at least twenty two more were seriously wounded in an attack by law officials on a student body which wanted nothing more than to be allowed to be treated, in practice , as equals to the white students who, though in a minority themselves in that particular town were treated  as  (to paraphrase Geoge Orwell’s Animal Farm) “more equal”.   Though the legal rhetoric of the time supposedly protected them by  insisting on the students’ right to be served its’, presence ,  (in the written word),  on the books drawn up after the mass protests and law suits of the early sixties culminating in the 1964 civil rights act, it did nothing in actual fact to protect these students from being brutally assaulted and murdered.

While the two students killed two years later at  Kent State in Ohio in response to the, protests of the Vietnam war    (similar only to Orangeburg in the sense that the students were involved in  non-violent activity)  is often remembered as a moment in history when the nation ‘lost its innocence’, the Orangeburg massacre, while occasionally mentioned  in an academic text in  the context, perhaps, of a college history class it has never received the reverential attention paid to the, (as the Neil Young song goes) “two dead in Ohio”.

Scarred Justice was conceived by Northern Light Productions as a way to rectify this near-silence.   Some southern law officials now assure the public that, given there is now a plaque in place in Orangeburg which memorializes the students, that all necessary truths about the flagrant abuse of justice which was Orangeburg have been aired.  While the governor at the time, Robert E. McNair later publicly claimed responsibility for the deaths, one wonders how much of this claim was for the sake of positive publicity, and is not supported by any restitution,  made to the former students and their families.

Judy Richardson, the narrator, writer and co-director (along with Bestor Cram) of the movie mentioned in the Q + A portion of the movie’s showing at the Harvard Film Archive that it took six years to get an interview with some of the law officials who were directly responsible for the incident.   The officers have never been punished.   As she put it, in response to those in the audience who may have thought that the incident was best left in the past, unexamined, “You gotta have the truth before you can have the reconciliation.”

– Sarah Pearlstein


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