The Jackson State Murders, May 14, 1970
Recently, the US press gave a few lines of coverage to the murders of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen during antiwar demonstrations at the school thirty-five years ago. Sometimes these reports also included a reference to the murders of two more young people ten days later at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. These murders have always been a footnote to the Kent State killings. Part of the reason for this is the fact that they occurred after the Kent actions, but another aspect to this perception and portrayal is the fact that the young people who were murdered by police in Jackson were African-American. Through no fault of the Kent victims, the nature of US society is that white deaths count for more than those that occur to darker-hued individuals.
The facts of the assault on the Jackson State campus are as follows. Protests at Jackson State against the April 30, 1970 US invasion of Cambodia had been growing in intensity ever since the murders at Kent State. This in itself was not that unusual. Indeed, over 200 college and university campuses had closed in the days following the invasion and murders because of the intensification of protest and a growing student strike. The strike itself was even spreading to high schools and military bases as students rallied and GIs refused to fall into formation or work. In addition, only days after the Kent murders police forces killed six blacks in Augusta, Georgia during civil rights disturbances there. In the campus district of Jackson, the protests were growing larger and bolder, with motorists being harangued and told to drive a different route. Then when the rumor that the mayor of nearby Fayette, Charles Evers, (brother of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers) and his wife had been shot and killed, things began to really heat up.
As one might imagine, there was an underlying current of racism and its accompanying tension present in the protests. After all, this was the United States and it was the South. In fact, it was Mississippi-a state that was still fighting the Civil War in 1970. Given this tension, the fact of the war’s racism, including the disproportionate numbers of Black men dying in the war, and the racist fear of much of white Mississippi, one could argue (at least in retrospect) that it was only a matter of time before something tragic occurred.
As the evening grew dark, students and other protestors lit several fires in trashcans and on the grounds of the campus. When firefighters came to extinguish the fires, they were met with rocks and very vocal resistance from those who were rebelling. This was not unusual-firefighters often found themselves the recipients of abuse during protests where they were called in. As was also usually the case, the fire department called in police. A combination of seventy-five fully-armed Jackson police and state troopers arrived and held the crowd back until the firefighters put out the fires and left.
Then the cops moved in.
As they advanced towards a women’s dormitory on the campus, the cops were met with a barrage of verbal abuse and rocks. The cops continued to advance, took their positions and opened fire, loosing a barrage of shotgun fire into the crowd and the women’s dormitory behind them. According to the FBI report on the incident, over 460 rounds hit the building and an unknown number were fired directly into the crowd. When the order to stop shooting was finally given, two young men were dead. One of them was Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, a junior pre-law major and father of an 18 month-old son; and the other was 17 year-old James Earl Green, 17, a senior at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, who was walking home from work at a local grocery store when he stopped to watch the action. Twelve other college students lay on the ground wounded. According to an investigation conducted into the shootings by US Senators Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh, police did not call any ambulances to treat the wounded until they had picked up all of the shell casings that they could find. In other words, they did not call the ambulances until they had removed the evidence.
Just as in the aftermath of the Kent massacre, officials claimed that they had been shot at. Of course, no evidence to substantiate this claim was ever found. Furthermore, Jackson city officials claimed that their officers were not involved in the incident. This flies directly in the face of eyewitness reports from bystanders and students. However, unless there is a truth commission set up in the US some day in the future, the facts will always be murky and the truth will never be acknowledged by the forces in power.
As one can well imagine, these murders only exacerbated the state of crisis in the country. In fact, Nixon curtailed his war plans and, under heavy pressure from his more pragmatic advisors and antiwar liberals in the Congress, promised to withdraw US troops from Cambodia in sixty days.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org