May 15, 2009

Jackson State anniversary

Posted in History, Racial issues at 3:15 pm by The Lizard Queen

Late last night/early this morning (at approximately 12:05 am) marked the 39th anniversary of the shootings at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). I first learned about this event when I was in high school; it was given about as much attention as the Kent State shootings (which is not to say very much; the 20th century, or at least the post-WWII era, was shoehorned into the last few weeks of school). If this thread over at Crooks & Liars is any indication, however, it seems I’m in the minority insofar as having heard about the Jackson State shootings is concerned, so I wanted to take some time to discuss the event.  You can get a thumbnail sketch of what happened from Wikipedia, through which I came across this archived site, which appears to originally have been on the JSU website (please note that there’s at least one paragraph and one photo in there that are potentially triggering).

In a nutshell, what happened is that escalating tensions relating to the Vietnam war and the invasion of Cambodia, race relations in the US and especially in the South, and the shootings at Kent State University led to protests, then to a riot on the Jackson State campus on the night of May 14, 1970.  At approximately 12:05 am, police opened fire on a knot of students gathered in front of a dormitory.  Two young men — Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, a Jackson State junior and the father of an 18-month-old son, and James Earl Green, 17, a student at nearby Jim Hill High School — were killed, and twelve other Jackson State students were injured.  No police officers were injured.  The students claim that the officers were not provoked.  The event was investigated, but no arrests were made in connection with the two young men’s deaths.

In all honesty, it’s hard not to feel like a big part of why people remember the tragedy at Kent State and not the one at Jackson State is simple racism — perhaps unconscious racism, but racism nonetheless.  Phillip Gibbs and James Green deserve to be remembered just as much as Alison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder do.  The spring of 1970 was a dark period in our nation’s history, and it needs to be remembered, and I say that not because I’m a right-wing caricature of a left-wing anti-American pinko hippie*, but because I believe that our country needs to learn from events like the May 1970 campus shootings in order to move in the direction of living up to its moniker of “sweet land of liberty.”

(*indeed, one might argue that the attitude that protesting the actions of the US government and/or dissenting in other ways makes one anti-American is part of what led to the Jackson State and Kent State shootings in the first place…)

A more detailed account, from the archived site referenced above, is below the fold:

According to reports, the riot began around 9:30 p.m., May 14, when rumors were spread that Fayette, Mississippi mayor Charles Evers (brother of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers) and his wife had been shot and killed. Upon hearing this rumor, a small group of students rioted. . . .

The rioting students set several fires and overturned a dump truck that had been left on campus overnight at a sewer line construction site. Jackson firefighters dispatched to the blaze met a hostile crowd that harangued them as they worked to contain the fire. Fearing for their safety, the firemen requested police back-up.

The police, who later told the media that they had received reports of gunfire in the area around the college up to an hour-and-a-half before they responded to the call, blocked off Lynch Street and cordoned off a 30 block area around the campus. National Guardsmen, still on alert from rioting the previous night, massed on the west end of Lynch Street. Mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers, the guardsmen had been issued weapons, but no ammunition.

Seventy-five city policemen and Mississippi State Police officers armed with carbines, submachine guns, shotguns, service revolvers and some personal weapons, responded to the call. Their combined armed presence on the Lynch Street side of Stewart Hall, a men’s dormitory, staved off the crowd long enough for the firemen to extinguish the blaze and leave.

After the firemen left, the police and state troopers marched along Lynch Street toward Alexander Center, a women’s residence, weapons at the ready. No one seems to know why.

Falling back before the approaching officers, the students congregated in a thick not [sic] in front of the dormitory. At this point, the crowd numbered 75 to 100 people. Several students allegedly shouted “obscene catcalls” while others chanted and tossed bricks at the officers, who had closed to within 100 feet of the group.

The officers deployed into a line facing the students. Someone in the crowd either threw or dropped a bottle which shattered on the asphalt with a loud pop. At the same time, an officer fell, struck by a piece of thrown debris.

Accounts disagree as to what happened next. Some students said the police advanced in a line, warned them, then opened fire. Others said the police abruptly opened fire on the crowd and the dormitory. Other witnesses reported that the students were under the control of a campus security officer when the police opened fire. Police claimed they spotted a powder flare in the Alexander West Hall third floor stairwell window and opened fire in self-defense on the dormitory only. Two local television news reporters present at the shooting agreed that a shot was fired, but were uncertain of the direction. A radio reporter claimed to have seen an arm and a pistol extending from a dormitory window.

Whatever actually occurred, the police opened fire at approximately 12:05 a.m., May 15, and continued firing for more than 30 seconds. The students scattered, some running for the trees in front of the library, but most scrambling for the Alexander Hall west end door.

There was screaming and cries of terror and pain mingled with the noise of sustained gunfire as the students struggled en masse to get through glass double doors. A few students were trampled. Others, struck by buckshot pellets or bullets, fell only to be dragged inside or left moaning in the grass.

When the order to cease fire was given and the gunfire ceased, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, a junior pre-law major and father of an 18-month-old son, lay dead 50 feet east of the west wing door of Alexander Hall.  Two Double-0 buckshot pellets had punched into his head while a third pellet entered just beneath his left eye and a fourth just under his left armpit.

Across the street, behind the line of police and highway patrolmen, James Earl Green, 17, was sprawled dead in front of B. F. Roberts Dining Hall. Green, a senior at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, was walking home from work at a local grocery store when he stopped to watch the action. He was standing in front of B. F. Roberts Hall when a single buckshot blast slammed into the right side of his chest. The police later claimed that they had taken fire from the direction of B. F. Roberts Hall.

Twelve other Jackson State students were struck by gunfire, including at least one who was sitting in the dormitory lobby at the time of the shooting. Several students required treatment for hysteria and injuries from shattered glass. Injured and carried to University Hospital for treatment were Fonzie Coleman, Redd Wilson Jr. , Leroy Kenter, Vernon Steve Weakley, Gloria Mayhorn, Patricia Ann Sanders , Willie Woodard, Andrea Reese, Stella Spinks, Climmie Johnson, Tuwaine Davis and Lonzie Thompson.

The five-story dormitory was riddled by gunfire. FBI investigators estimated that more than 460 rounds struck the building, shattering every window facing the street on each floor. Investigators counted at least 160 bullet holes in the outer walls of the stairwell alone — bullet holes that can still be seen today.

The injured students, many of whom lay bleeding on the ground outside the dormitory, were transported to University Hospital within 20 minutes of the shooting. But the ambulances were not called until after the officers picked up their shell casings, a U. S. Senate probe conducted by Senators Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh later revealed.

The police and state troopers left the campus shortly after the shooting and were replaced by National Guardsmen. After the incident, Jackson authorities denied that city police took part in the fusillade. That the highway patrolmen fired was never at issue.

On June 13, 1970, then President Richard Nixon, established the president’s Commission on Campus Unrest. The commission held its first meeting June 25, 1970. Subsequently, it conducted thirteen days of public hearings in Jackson, Mississippi; Kent State, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, California. At the Jackson hearings, the administration, faculty, staff and students testified. There were no convictions and no arrests.

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2 Comments »

  1. DavidD said,

    I agree with you that racism was a major element in the different coverage of these two events. Even after your description here, I’m not sure I remember the killings at Jackson State. I know I have no visual memories about this, though it sounds just a little familiar. Of course, I don’t know when I first heard of Kent State. Maybe it was from the evening news that night. Maybe it was much later.

    I have many visual memories of Kent State. I’m sure I watched many reports about it and at least one full documentary. There was film of the guardsmen lined up. There’s the famous photo of the woman yelling out over one of the victims. Then there’s more, like the Crosby, Stills, & Nash hit song. I’m not sure how much Kent State was discussed at further protests about Vietnam across the country, but it certainly was discussed.

    Now they’re killing white kids! Unarmed, peaceful white kids. Police had been killing black kids for a while. I watched reports about that, from Watts in the mid-sixties, from more eastern cities later in the sixties. I cared about this, but there was some distance between me and those conflicts. There was no distance at all between the victims at Kent State and me. I hadn’t planned on getting in the way of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Tactical Squad in 1971, but foolishly I did. I was lucky not to get a baton upside my head. That’s getting pretty personal.

    As I recall the song lyric, it goes, “Gotta get down to it. Soldiers are cutting us down. Should have been done long ago.” Maybe the killings of black students were part of that last sentence, but I don’t know. It was a very popular song on campus, whatever the words meant. It was definitely about “us”.

    Who is “us”, and who is “them”? There is certainly racism in the reality that answers that question, certainly more racism in 1970 than today. Yet there are still plenty of elements today as to who is “us” and who is “them”. I’m not sure how old I was until I realized how afraid the trigger-happy guardsmen and police were when they were my enemy, if not afraid for their safety, then afraid for the possibility that they might not do their duty in putting down a riot, even if it really wasn’t a riot. There was even a Law & Order episode about that. Whoever is “us”, whoever is “them”, in many ways we are alike.

    In some matters, I am one with all humans, with DNA that proves I am a cousin to all living things, even non-living things. For other things, I have only spirits on my side. Other people tell me which things are which. Sometimes it’s apparent they’re still talking about race, even if no one now would use the epithet for those who side with blacks the way they still were in 1970. More often it’s other things, like ideology, which I’d say is a much bigger problem in the media now than personal traits like race. Then again the popularity of pretty, thin, young white women in distress isn’t ideological.

    My goal is still to avoid getting hit in the head with a baton or worse. I know there’s a better way than that.

  2. […] in Mississippi.  You can read about the shootings at this site, the text of which is reproduced in the post I wrote on the subject a year ago.  I also appreciated seeing that NPR recently covered the […]


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