Last week saw numerous commemorations in South Carolina of the Orangeburg Massacre, the 1968 incident in which three African American young men—all less than eighteen years old—were shot and killed by South Carolina State Troopers. In a year that will be filled with memorial services to events in 1968, the commemorations of Orangeburg’s tragic events will be the most personal for the citizens of South Carolina. One of the many pieces written about the event, by yours truly, talked about both the event and some of the national—and international—reaction to it. What tied together so many pieces about Orangeburg, however, is the unified nature of it being a “forgotten” moment in history. Or, at the very least, “overshadowed” by other shootings of college students (Kent State in 1970) or other violent events in 1968 (the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, for example). We would do well to ask ourselves as Americans, why are certain events from the past—even, and especially, the recent past—so quick to fall down the memory hole?
Soon we shall come upon the fortieth anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, and then the fiftieth anniversary of both the Kent State and Jackson State shootings of 1970. Out of these three events, most Americans are likely only familiar with Kent State. What ties all these events together is the fact that they showcase both what, in theory, is best about America—peaceful assembly and freedom of speech in protest—with what has, time and again, proven to be America’s darker elements. It would be easy to argue that we do not remember Greensboro or Jackson State because most of the victims in these shootings were African American—or, in the case of Greensboro, protesting in favor of anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics.
I am not entirely sure that’s the only reason. After all, we someone says “Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman,” I believe most historically-literate Americans know those names. I would imagine most of those Americans might have an idea of who Medgar Evers is, or even the tragic death of Viola Liuzzo. In thinking about this question—what do Americans, as a nation, tend to remember—I think forward again to 2019: will there be commemorations for the centennial of “Red Summer,” the race riots that rocked America in the aftermath of World War I? Will there be any sort of contemplation about the First Red Scare that gripped the nation that same year?
Of course, in 2019, an even bigger anniversary looms: the importation of the first African slaves to North America. I expect something to be done for that—although what it will be, I have no idea. With the existence of institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we’re getting more public commemorations of events that were once only recalled in African American spaces. With other sites, such as the first National Park devoted to Reconstruction, more Americans will—hopefully—be exposed to a fuller understanding of the past.
Still, there remains a question of how far Americans are willing to go to think hard about a difficult past. Commemorations of events from 1968 should give us an opportunity to have a national dialogue about how far we still have to go on a wide range of issues. As Lora Burnett’s post last week showed, there’s a number of ways we can push our students in the classroom to think about the hard, depressing stories of the past. When reading Douglas Egerton’s Thunder at the Gates, a fascinating book about the three regiments of United States Colored Troops raised in Massachusetts during the American Civil War, I found myself thinking about my own journey as a historian. As I’ve written here before, I find it unlikely I’d be in the historical profession today if it weren’t for my father sitting me down and watching Glory on VHS in 1991.
Reading about the Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts regiments, along with the Fifth U.S. Calvary, I was reminded of how important stories are to getting people to pay attention to history. It was not Egerton’s scholarship that drew me in—although it was certainly commendable. The stories that came alive, via quotes from the soldiers who stormed Battery Wagner and fought their way out of a trap in Olustee, Florida—that was what had me riveted. It’s stories that we as historians must continue to tell the public. Even if—and especially if—these stories aren’t pleasant and force us to think about the kind of society we live in today.
I suppose the stories of Orangeburg, Jackson State, and Greensboro are harder to tell because they don’t fit the “heroic” narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. Talking about the massacre at Fort Pillow is less appealing than thinking about brave black men in blue storming Fort Wagner and reminding the nation (again) that African Americans could fight and die with the best of them. This is something historians are going to have to wrestle with for many years to come, especially as the debate over whether historians are actually speaking to the public continues to intensify.