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Methodists unpack ‘pain of racism’ at reconciliation pilgrimage

Methodists unpack ‘pain of racism’ at reconciliation pilgrimage
Photo by Jessica Brodie

By Jessica Brodie

ORANGEBURG—Calling themselves “pilgrims of pain and hope,” more than 100 Methodists gathered May 15-16 for a racial reconciliation pilgrimage to bring healing and awareness about the Orangeburg Massacre and the long history of racism in this state.

Organized by the conference’s Racial Reconciliation Design Team, the two-day event unpacked the events of the 1968 police shooting of unarmed black students during a segregation protest. On the night of Feb. 8, 1968, three students—Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith and Delano Middleton, who was still in high school—were killed by police gunfire on the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg. Twenty-seven others were wounded. None of the students were armed, and most were shot in their backs or the soles of their feet.

The Rev. Amiri Hooker, chair of the Racial Reconciliation Design Team, said the pilgrimage was “eye-opening.”

“It really did continue the conversation on race in South Carolina and how we talk about racism,” Hooker said. “I came with preconceptions of what people wanted to talk about and needed to talk about, and just hearing some of the takeaway from the dinner—things like the life and purpose of South Carolina State University, conversations about where were you when this was happening, conversations that talked about personal pain and personal healing—I didn’t foresee that.”

The pilgrimage was presented by South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston, who led worship, and Joe Benton, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers, who served as discussion group facilitator. It began Friday evening on the campus of South Carolina State University with dinner and a lengthy roundtable discussion, followed by a showing of the documentary “Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre.” Saturday featured a panel discussion about the massacre, with sharing from Dr. Jack Bess, Dr. Bobby Eaddy and Dr. William Hines.

“Dr. Eaddy, as long as he lives, may be one of the best orators as to the pain of that week in Orangeburg that I think we have left,” Hooker said. “His personal account of the Orangeburg Massacre and his personal account of being injured made everything we talked about and dealt with real. And when you make things real for people, it helps pull off the scabs and the cover-up.”

The day progressed with discussions on racial healing and how South Carolina can move forward, a walking tour to the site of the massacre, discussion around how the church can move forward, and a closing worship led by Holston that challenged attendees to move toward healing by sharing their scars so others can understand better.

Members of the Racial Reconciliation Design Team echoed much of that in their own remarks during the pilgrimage.

“We can’t be reconciled to our neighbors unless we’re reconciled to God,” the Rev. Ryan Spurrier said in the opening devotion, “and we cannot love God without loving our neighbors—all of them.”

Benton opened the pilgrimage Friday night with a revealing discussion on the “21 Things You Can’t Do While Black,” illuminating the way racism is still very much evident in the world today, nearly 50 years after the Orangeburg Massacre. He reviewed a list of commonplace activities black people were engaging in when they got arrested or killed—sometimes, killed by police: listening to loud music at a gas station, wearing a hoodie, driving after swimming, driving in a car with a white girl, walking home from a snack run to 7-11, drinking iced tea in a parking lot, and 15 more real-life examples.

But there’s hope, Benton told the crowd.

“Anything created by a human being can be solved by a human being,” Benton said. “We’ve got to get rid of the ‘ism’ part and understand there’s no such thing as the ‘race’ part.”

Hooker said the conference is planning another pilgrimage soon, this one at the Penn Center in Beaufort, site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves. The event will be developed by the Religion and Race Committee, he said.

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