May 15, 1970: The Jackson State Killings


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


If this story sounds a lot like a story you've already read this month, that is because it is nearly identical. However, the media coverage, and our memory of the event as a nation, could not be more different.


On May 15, 1970, after city and state police confronted a group of Jackson State students protesting the Vietnam War, and the shooting of 4 students at Kent State, which occurred only 11 days before, they opened fire on the group of student protestors, injuring 12 and killing 2 students.


The nation's attention was captured by the Kent State shootings. They were heavily memorialized, politicians mourned their deaths. Songs were written about the event, and specific victims of the shooting. The same cannot be said for the victims of the Jackson State shootings. Perhaps the nation had already reached their capacity for mourning students lost to gun-happy police during Vietnam protests... Or perhaps, it was because the students at Jackson State were black.

THE TIMELINE


Unlike the Kent State shootings, there is not a ton of information about this tragic event available. The entire Wikipedia page is about as long as one section for its Kent State counterpart. Through a few other sources, I'll try to put together as robust a story.


On the evening of May 14, a group of about 100 (black) students gathered on Lynch Street, which split the Jackson State campus in 2. Reportedly, they had been throwing rocks as people drove down the main road through campus. The street was, allegedly, a frequent site for confrontations between black and white residents of Jackson. (1)


By 9:30, the students were still throwing rocks, but additionally, fires had been started and cars were being overturned. Tensions had been a bit high for awhile, as the students had past friction with law enforcement in the area. Additionally, a rumor started that local politician and civil rights leader Charles Evers and his wife had been killed. (2)


Firefighters were sent to the scene, and requested police backup. When police responded, both students and non-students threw rocks and bricks at the officers. (1)


The responding police officers, all white, had a history of bigotry while dealing with students from the predominantly black Jackson State. Sure, there was unrest: fires, rocks, flipping cars. But there was a fair reaction, and there was an overreaction, and the police responded with the latter. (2)


The police arrived with "weapons better suited to a military assault than crowd control". The fire was put out, and after things seemed to calm down, the activity far below what would be considered a "riot", the police moved to the center of campus in front of the Alexander Hall dorm, and turned to face the students gathered around. (2)


The students were confused: the site of any trouble was not at the dorm. The students in the dorm area were just hanging out. But when they saw various armed police officers standing guard by their dorm, they were angered. Some began to yell at the officers. One student threw a bottle.(2)


And then, shots were fired.


The officers began shooting into the crowd for about 28 seconds, and over 460 shots were fired between 40 officers. Every window on one side of the building facing Lynch Street was shattered Once they stopped, 2 men, a local high school senior James Earl Green, and a Jackson State junior Phillip Gibbs, lie dead on the ground. 12 other young people lay on the ground, bleeding from their bullet wounds. (2)


Once the gunshots ceased, students rushed to the wounded to help in any way they could. But not the Jackson police or the Mississippi highway patrolmen. They went to pick up their bullet shells. (2)


The commander for the Mississippi Highway State Patrol, Inspector Lloyd Jones, ordered some of the students at gunpoint to check on those who appeared to be dead. He contacted headquarters, reporting several injured. When pressed for details, he said: "they're n****r students", and then counted the number of "n****r gals" and "n****r males" who had been wounded. He said "they ain't hurt all that bad" before mentioning that there were 2 fatalities. (2)

THE VICTIMS, & THE AFTERMATH


James Earl Green was 17 years old. He was passing through campus on his way home from his after school job. He was a good student, quiet, but well-liked by his peers. He was a track star and dreamed of going to the University of California at Los Angeles. He worked at a grocery store every day and gave his money to his mom at the end of each week. He was one of 8 children. (3)


Phillip Lafayette Gibbs parents both died when he was young. He finished at the top of his high school class before attending Jackson State, hoping to become a doctor, and then switched his sights to becoming a lawyer. He was a member of the Civil Rights Council, was active at his church, and played basketball. He had recently married his high school sweetheart, and they had a son together. (4)


In the aftermath, the President's Commission on Campus Unrest investigated the event. Much like at Kent State, there were no arrests made, but the Commission included that: "the 28-second fusillade from police offers was an unreasonable, unjustified overreaction". So, in 2 situations where a group of students armed with rocks and anger are gunned down by the police/National Guard, it was unjustified, unreasonable and an overreaction, but not murder. Okay. (1)


The University has memorialized the shooting, and the victims, by naming the area of the shootings the Gibbs-Green Plaza after the fatalities, and a large stone monument sits in front of Alexander Hall to honor the victims. (1)


But as much as this resembles the tragedy at Kent State, students realized it wan't as similar as it seemed. They didn't feel like they were shot at because they were protesting... They felt they were shot at because they were black. Black people in the community and across the country were angered by the shootings. (2)


And just because the protest similarities and time proximity leads one to liken this to Kent State, it could also be likened to a lot of other crimes, specifically against black Americans: the racist slaying of Ben Brown near Jackson State in 1967, the killing of 3 black students at Orangeburg in in 1968, the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, 2 Black Panthers in 1969, or the police's shooting of 6 young men, shot in the back, during civil unrest in Georgia just a few days before. (2)


But the white community didn't acknowledge that the shootings may have been rooted in racism. And it certainly make sense that, at face value, the killings would seem to be in relation to campus protests and not racism. After all, a similar thing had just happened at Kent State, and white students were killed, so how could the actions be racist? But there is always a deeper layer. This protest wasn't the first problematic encounter students had with the police in the area. It was just the most deadly. (2)


In the minimal media attention that the shootings received, white conservatives blamed the shooting on the students. They were portrayed as dangerous criminals who needed to be controlled by law enforcement. Police were applauded for stopping the threat that the students were posing to "rights, lives, and property of others". In my research for the Kent State shooting, I did not get the impression that the students were blamed, though they did similar things (throwing rocks, yelling, setting fires). (2)


But it certainly wouldn't be the only instance wherein black people engaging in the same actions as white people is perceived as "dangerous". A black person walking down a street at night is more likely to be considered a threat than a white person. An unarmed black man can get shot doing just about anything because "he could have had a gun", but a white man can scream in the face of a police officer while protesting, carrying an assault rifle. It is proven time and time again: people associate black people, specifically black men, as being more threatening. So it would make sense that while the victims of the shooting at Kent State would be mourned, the victims at Jackson State would be blamed... Even though they were doing the same things.


It would be remiss to talk about this story and just compare it to Kent State without mentioning the massive factor that race played into the event. Yes, we know from Kent State that white students can be killed for engaging in a rowdy protest, but that does not mean that these cases are a 1:1 match.


I've heard of the Kent State shootings my entire life (though it is appropriate to mention that I live in Ohio.) I had never heard of the Jackson State killings. Jackson State started off as a side-bar to the Kent State shootings, but eventually, faded from memory. The Kent State shootings became an "iconic representation of the depth of generational division and the height of governmental suppression in the era", while the Jackson State killings seem to have been erased.


It has been 50 years since 2 young men with big dreams and bright futures lay dead on the sidewalk at Jackson State College, and today is the first time I have heard about it. 50 years since 2 people were murdered, and no one was held accountable for it. 50 years since trigger-happy police and racism robbed 2 people of a future. Their names were James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs, and I hope that they are remembered.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackson_State_killings

2. https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/jackson-state-shootings-fifty/

3. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/27082892/james-earl-green

4. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/132310602/phil-gibbs

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