It’s hard to explain the situation in May 1970. I was in ninth grade at a junior high school administered by the US Department of Defense for what are known as dependents in military jargon. In plain English, they are family members of those in the military. Even from that seemingly remote environment, the events taking place in the mother country affected us—high school walkouts, GIs refusing to work, junior high students wearing black armbands and demanding an assembly, German students and workers marching on the IG Farben building where at least three US military commands were headquartered. We were not immune from the strikes, protests and battles raging across the United States in the wake of the US invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970. Given my experience thousands of miles away from the United States, I still can only imagine the considerably more intense climate there.
After the invasion was announced, students took to the streets around the United States and elsewhere in the world. A committee of organizers of national protests to free Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins on trumped-up charges in New Haven immediately called for and began organizing a national student strike. Protests escalated across the nation. On May 4th, 1970, troops opened fire on protesters at Kent State University. Four students were killed and at least thirteen others were wounded. Police and troops fired live ammunition on other campuses, but none had the horrendous results as those thirteen seconds of gunfire in Ohio. Naturally, the protests grew exponentially until eventually, most US campuses had witnessed some action against the US war against the people of Southeast Asia and young people in the United States.
Often lost in the retelling of this historical moment are two other massacres by law enforcement. The first, which took place in Augusta, GA. On May 11th. It was during an uprising against a racist police force and city government that men attached to the Augusta Police Department, Richmond County Sheriff’s Department, Georgia National Guard, and the Georgia State Patrol opened fire on African-American protesters killing six (four unarmed) civilians and wounding more than eighty. A few days later, On May 14th, members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the Jackson, Mississippi police force fired hundreds of shots at students hanging around the Jackson State campus, killing two people and wounding several more. All of those shot were Black.
It is the skin tone of those killed in Augusta and Jackson that provides a large part of the reason those murders did not get the headlines the murders of the Kent State students did. As any critical observer of US history knows (even if they won’t admit it), killing African Americans is not an aberration of policy. Indeed, in most cases it is policy. The statistics detailing police murders of African Americans prove this to this day. Of course, if that’s not convincing enough, there is the entire history of the nation.
In her new book, Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College, author Nancy K. Bristow utilizes that history as the basis for her examination of the Jackson State massacre. It is her contention that it was more than anger at the US invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings that inspired some students at Jackson State to gather and protest; it was also more than the constant harassment of those students by police. By presenting a history of the college, its legacy as a public and historically Black college, and its ongoing struggle with white racist politicians in Mississippi as an institution, Bristow provides the reader with a scenario familiar to most Black Mississippians even today. When expanded into the greater political and cultural context present in the 1960s throughout not just the US South but the entire nation, it becomes evident that the murders of students at Jackson State were a logical escalation of events forced onto the dead and wounded by the racist legacy of the United States. Hence the title Steeped in the Blood of Racism.
If one were to divide the text into smaller portions, the most obvious divisions would be the history of Jackson State and its place in Mississippi history, a recounting of the people and events of the week the murders took place, a discussion of the local and national media coverage of the events, and the subsequent presentation of the Jackson State killings in the historical retelling. Throughout each section the stain of white supremacy conscious and otherwise leaks into the story being told. Any discussion that left this out would not only be dishonest, but an insult to the truth that made the massacre not only a possibility, but a fact.
When Bristow describes the night of the murders, the Mississippi darkness comes alive, the hint of another steamy summer is present in the cooling air of the night even as the sirens and police ranks beat and chase young men and women through the campus and the streets. As she describes the final moments before law enforcement kneel en masse, turn and fire their variety of weapons at a women’s dormitory and the students hanging around it, this reader’s breath stopped even though I remember envisioning the maneuver the first time I read the news in the Stars & Stripes newspaper that day in May 1970.
Steeped in the Blood of Racism is a harsh reminder of the essential nature of the country that is the United States. As Bristow makes clear in her closing pages where she discusses the legacy of the murders and the nature of today’s USA; where Black men and women are still shot by police for no discernible reason other than fear and the hate that fear produces, that history is not only in the past. She also makes it clear—in addition to what the news states daily—that the white supremacist society that informs the fear and subsequent violence continues its hateful legacy. Bristow’s erudite and evocative text on the Jackson State massacre is an important and essential addition to the library of books on the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.