Oldspeak: One of the most colossal blunders in Mississippi law enforcement history. 2 young men killed, 15 more wounded. A farce of an investigation and trial following the tragedy. All in the name of sqaushing people’s rights to be free and equal citizens of this country.
Without a doubt, the spring of 1970 was a tense and hot season for American college students. Protests and riots flared up over the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the sending of US troops to Cambodia, the environment, civil rights, and the inclusion of women into many formerly all-male universities and colleges. Certainly Kenyon College was experiencing just such a difficult transitional period. At Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, tensions were particularly high in regards to racism and civil rights.
Since its establishment as a teacher’s college in the late 1800s, Jackson State had been subject to racism. The school moved from its original location because it was too close to an all-white area, and established a new campus in an entirely black neighborhood. Lynch Street, named for Mississippi’s first black congressman, bisected the new campus and linked west Jackson, a white suburb, to the downtown area.
In the early 1960s, a Masonic Temple just down the block from the university on Lynch Street was the headquarters for the Mississippi civil rights movement. Despite the proximity of the headquarters to the school, JSU students participated little in demonstrations and protests. A state school, Jackson could not afford to alienate the all-white board of education.
At nearby private institution Tougaloo College, students openly protested and organized sit ins, and brought a march to Jackson State after being forced from a whites-only library. Instead of organized protests, JSU students resorted to throwing rocks and bottles at white motorists who shouted racial slurs at them as they drove from their downtown jobs to their suburban homes via Lynch Street.
Every spring, a mini-riot occurred at Lynch Street and the thoroughfare was temporarily closed, but the city still refused to permanently reroute traffic despite numerous pleas from university officials.
In the spring of 1970, a popular female student was injured by a white motorist while attempting to cross Lynch Street. White motorists already angered the student population by shouting racial slurs and epithets from their windows while driving past campus, and students had retaliated by throwing rocks and bottles. With the already mentioned national stress factors, and the death of four Kent State University students over a week earlier, Jackson State students had enough to be worried about. Racism and the struggle for civil rights made their situation even more unbearable.
What occurred at Jackson State University was a protest against racism. Unlike Kent State, students had not rallied to protest the war in Vietnam.
On May 13, 1970, students amassed on Lynch Street but did not get out of hand. Governor John Bell Williams ordered the Highway Patrol to establish order on the Jackson State campus, and students did not resist.
The next day, the President of the school twice met with students to listen to their concerns, but tension continued to mount.
Around 9:30 PM on May 14, JSU students heard a rumor that Fayette, Mississippi mayor Charles Evers, brother of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers, had been killed along with his wife. Students again gathered on Lynch Street and began rioting.
The ROTC building was set on fire, a street light was broken, and a small bonfire was built, but the riot was still a small one. Several white motorists called police to complain that students had thrown rocks at their passing cars, but eyewitnesses later proved that it was non-students, known as “cornerboys,” who did the rock throwing. Firemen arrived to distinguish the fires, but requested police protection after students harassed them as they worked.
Police arrived, blocked off Lynch Street, and cordoned off a thirty block area surrounding the University. Later police told the media that they had received reports of gunfire for an hour and a half before arriving on campus. On the west end of Lynch Street, National Guardsmen assembled, still on call for rioting of the night before. The guardsmen had weapons but no ammunition.
There were seventy-five city police men and Mississippi State officers on the Lynch Street side of Stewart Hall, a men’s dormitory, to hold back the crowd as firemen extinguished a blaze. They were armed with carbines, submachine guns, shotguns, service revolvers and some personal weapons.
When the firemen had departed, the police marched together, weapons in hand, down Lynch Street towards Alexander Center, a women’s dormitory, for reasons still unclear today. A crowd of 75 to 100 students massed together in front of the officers at a distance of about 100 feet. There were reports that students shouted obscenities at officers and threw bricks.
Someone either threw or dropped a bottle, and it broke on the pavement with a loud noise. Some say police then advanced, while others insist the officers simply opened fire, or even others believe a campus security officer had the students under control. At any rate, police began shooting, and later said they had been fired upon by someone inside the Alexander West dormitory or that a powder flare had been spotted in the third floor stairwell window. Two television news reporters agreed that a student had fired first, but were unsure as to where, while a radio reported believed a hand holding a pistol had extended from a window in the women’s dormitory.
At 12:05 AM on May 15, then, police opened fire on Jackson State students and fired for approximately thirty seconds. Students ran for cover, mostly inside one of the doors to Alexander West dormitory. Later police insisted that they had only fired on the dorm, but today bullet holes can still be found in a building façade 180 degrees across the street.
Struggling to get inside, students bottlenecked at the west end door of Alexander West. Some were trampled, while others fell from buckshot pellets and bullets. They were either left on the grass or dragged inside.
Fifty feet from the west end entrance to the dormitory, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, age 21, lay dead from four gunshot wounds: two in his head, one under his left eye, and one in his left armpit. Gibbs left behind a wife, one child, and another on the way.
Behind the police line across the street, James Earl Green, age 17, was lying dead in front of B. F. Roberts Dining Hall. Green was a senior at Jim Hill High School and on his way home from work at a grocery store when he paused to watch the riot. Police later claimed they had been fired on from the dining hall. Green was killed by one gunshot.
Fifteen other students were wounded, at least one of whom was sitting inside the dormitory lobby.
Each window facing the police in the five story dormitory was shattered. At least 460 rounds were fired on the building, while investigators counted over 160 bullet holes on the outside of the stairwell alone.
Ambulances were not called for the injured students for twenty minutes while officers picked up their shell casings. Police also attempted to remove the shattered glass, but students and even sympathetic whites camped out on the lawn to prevent this until investigators had arrived.
Police and state troopers left the scene, while National Guardsmen remained behind. Jackson city officials later denied that city police had fired, and made no issue of the involvement of highway patrolmen.
“At Kent State there are photographs from the beginning of the incident on,” comments current Jackson State University archivist Juanita Murray. “There are no photographs of that night at Jackson State. There are no photographs of the bodies lying on the ground… there was enough time to cover up what happened before the next newscast.”
Local media coverage was poor and racist, with a few papers reporting that blood tests revealed that Gibbs was legally drunk when he was shot. Even the university newspaper did not report on the tragedy until a special edition one year later.
Members of a grand jury and a jury at a civil trial refused to indict any of the officers involved in the shootings. In 1974, a US Court of Appeals ruled that the officers had overreacted but that they could not be held liable for the two deaths that resulted. In 1982, all but two US Supreme Court Justices refused to hear the case.
On June 13, 1970, President Nixon formed the Commission on Campus Unrest. After the Commission’s first meeting on June 25, public hearings were held for thirteen days at Jackson, Mississippi; Kent State, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, California. Despite the testimony of Jackson State administration, faculty, staff, and students, no arrests or convictions were made.
The Jackson City Council voted to permanently close Lynch Street to through traffic, and added the initials J. R. to street signs to denote John R. Lynch, Mississippi’s first black congressman.
After the closing of Lynch Street, a plaza was constructed. The Gibbs-Green Plaza, commonly referred to as “Plaza,” is a multi-level brick and concrete structure that blocks off J. R. Lynch Street and lies between Alexander Hall and the University Green. Students often meet and spend time here in good weather. Jackson State frequently holds outdoor events on the Plaza, such as dances, concerts, Greek shows, and Homecoming gatherings.
Just north of the Plaza is the Gibbs-Green Monument, which stands outside of Alexander West dormitory.
In 1995, Demetrius Gibbs, son of Phillip Gibbs, received his degree from Jackson State. He says, “If I try to tell people about the shootings at Jackson State, they don’t know about it. They don’t know until I say ‘Kent State.’ For us to even be acknowledged, it had to happen at Kent State first.”