On March 21, 1960, thousands of black people in Sharpeville marched to their local police station to protest the enforcement of pass laws. At that time, every black (African, Indian or coloured) person in South Africa had to carry a dompas, which stated where they were allowed to be. Any person caught by police without it was arrested.
Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Party, rallied his party members and others in Sharpeville to participate in the march. The protesters left their passbooks at home, and gave themselves up for arrest.
Police opened fire on the demonstrators without orders, killing 69 people. The day was from then on known as Sharpeville Day.
Drum magazine's assistant editor Humphrey Tyler reported the following at the time:
The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones - and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with 'ferocious weapons', which littered the compound after they fled.
I saw no weapons, although I looked very carefully, and afterwards studied the photographs of the death scene. While I was there I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies. The crowd gave me no reason to feel scared, though I moved among them without any distinguishing mark to protect me, quite obvious with my white skin. I think the police were scared though, and I think the crowd knew it.
After the African National Congress came to power in 1994, the name of the commemorative day was changed from Sharpeville Day to Human Rights Day, and declared a public holiday. At the advent of democracy in South Africa, days of commemoration were changed from people- and site-specific names to accommodate everyone in the country.