S.C. college marks 'Orangeburg Massacre' anniversary
ORANGEBURG, South Carolina (CNN) -- A South Carolina college on Thursday marked the anniversary of the 1968 killings of three civil rights protesters by state police, joined for the first time by the state's governor.
Three students were killed and 27 were wounded on the South Carolina State University campus when state troopers fired on demonstrators demanding the desegregation of Orangeburg's only bowling alley.
Gov. Jim Hodges, a first-term Democrat, stopped short Thursday of offering a formal apology for the killings, long known as the "Orangeburg Massacre." But he told the ceremony on campus: "We deeply regret what happened on the night of February 8, 1968."
"Even today, the state of South Carolina bows its head, bends its knee and begins the search for reconciliation," Hodges said.
The shootings mark one of the least remembered chapters in U.S. civil rights history, overshadowed by the successive blows of that turbulent year -- the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rioting that followed; the slaying of Robert Kennedy; and the street battles around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The Orangeburg shootings happened on the fourth night of protests over the refusal of the bowling alley's proprietor to integrate.
Students from South Carolina State and nearby Claflin University, both historically African-American colleges, started a bonfire on the state college's campus.
Authorities moved in to put it out, and one officer was injured by a piece of a banister that was thrown at him. The crowd facing the officers began to grow, and then the shooting began.
"What actually started the shooting was a highway patrolman firing his carbine in the air a couple of times, intending it as warning shots, and others started shooting," journalist and author Jack Bass, who wrote a book about the Orangeburg killings, said.
Killed were Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond, both 18, and Delano Middleton, a 17-year-old high school student.
"Gunfire went off. I heard nothing that preceded it," civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers said. "There were no warnings, nothing."
Nine Highway Patrol officers faced federal charges in connection with the shootings. All were acquitted.
"My heart still goes out to the families of those who lost their loved ones," Jordan Simmons, who was shot in the back of the neck at Orangeburg, told CNN. "Three guys were killed, (and) the state and those who were involved, they will have to deal with that. I cannot deal with that for them."
Sellers was convicted of rioting during one of the protests in the nights before the killings, becoming the only person ever convicted in protests at Orangeburg; he was later pardoned.
Sellers began to speak to the gathering Thursday -- then, overcome with emotion, he turned away from the microphone before continuing.
"Many of the survivors have experienced terrible pain that resulted from this tragedy," he said after regaining his composure. "This pain extends beyond the victims and the survivors, and today we seek to begin the healing process. Today we exonerate and honor all the victims of this tragedy."
In addition to Hodges, a six-man contingent from the South Carolina Highway Patrol -- none of whom participated in the Orangeburg killings -- attended Thursday's gathering.
"They felt a need to be here, and I think that's important," said university president Leroy Davis, a South Carolina State student at the time of the shootings.
CNN Correspondent Brian Cabell and CNN.com writer Matt Smith contributed to this report.
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