‘Reminiscent of the 1950s’: HBCU President Says South Carolina Law Enforcement Targeted a Group of Students from Her School During a Trip to a Conference

The president of the oldest HBCU in North Carolina is speaking out against a recent incident where law enforcement stopped a busload of students from the school and instructed dogs to sniff the young people’s personal belongings.

The school official said the act was “reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s.”

On Monday, Oct. 10, Dr. Paulette Dillard, the President of Shaw University, said she was “outraged” by the way 18 of her students and two staffers were treated during a stop by South Carolina Law Enforcement in Spartanburg County on Wednesday, Oct. 5, according to an op-ed she wrote.

The cohort was traveling from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend the Center for Financial Advancement Conference when their chartered bus was pulled over on a highway. A statement from the president said the bus driver was stopped by officers who told him he was swerving, ultimately resulting in a warning ticket for “improper lane use.”

Dillard wrote, “Traveling by contract bus, South Carolina Law Enforcement stopped the team in Spartanburg County under the pretext of a minor traffic violation.” 

“A couple of officers boarded the bus and asked the driver where he was headed,” she continued to explain. “Multiple sheriff deputies and drug-sniffing dogs searched the suitcases of the students and staff located in the luggage racks beneath the bus.”

The educator said she was “outraged” and believed the officers targeted the students of their race, much like police antagonized and provoked students at the school during the civil rights movement.

“This behavior of targeting Black students is unacceptable and will not be ignored nor tolerated. Had the students been White, I doubt this detention and search would have occurred,” Dillard remarked.

“It’s 2022. However, this scene is reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s — armed police, interrogating innocent Black students, conducting searches without probable cause, and blood-thirsty dogs.”

Shaw University in the late 1950s and early 1960s was at the helm of the civil rights movement, with the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) taking place on the campus in 1960. The organization was founded in part to address issues like illegal or unwarranted searches.

So influential was the social justice mission of Shaw U and the SNCC organization, formed by Ella “Fundi” Baker, Dr. David C. Forbes, Sr, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Marion Barry, Julian Bond, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson (and mentored by Rev. James Lawson), many claim the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the election of President Barack Obama might never have happened without those organizations’ influences.

Dillard believes this stop was in the same vein as those days when the young people formed SNCC to protest the ills of Jim Crow, including racially biased policing in the South.

The president said that the officers did not discover anything illegal on the bus or on the persons of the students when it was searched. She also mentioned that while the search was an “unnerving and potentially dangerous situation,” she commended the students and staff members for conducting themselves with “tremendous restraint.”

Despite the holdup, the students are said to have made it to the conference safely.

“I wish to be perfectly clear. The action taken by South Carolina Law Enforcement in Spartanburg County was unfair and unjust. I firmly believe had the bus been occupied by White students, they would not have been detained,” the 18th president of the school declared. “I have asked our Shaw University General Counsel to investigate this situation as we explore options for recourse — legal and otherwise — available to our students and the university.”

By contrast with the Shaw president’s claims the bus was singled out that day, local station CBS 17 reports that it came during the same week the state was conducting its annual Operation Rolling Thunder drug interdiction and civil forfeiture campaign of mass highway stops. Out of the  67 improper lane change citations issued on the day in question in Spartanburg County, the bus with Shaw students was not listed or recorded in the data, CBS 17 said.

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