by Jack R. Johnson Photo Illustration by Doug Dobey
If you Google Jackson State today you have to work to even catch a glimpse of the violence that happened on their campus between May 14 and 15, 1970, just ten short days after the Kent State massacre. Perform that same Google search on Kent State, of course, and there’s no doubt that something horrific happened. History has swallowed the incident at Jackson State College Mississippi, but it’s no less noteworthy than the massacre at Kent State.
On May 14 and 15, 1970, Jackson State students were protesting the Kent State killings, as well as agitating for civil rights. A few 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 put out the blaze, met a hostile crowd. Fearing for their safety, the firemen requested police backup.
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. After the firemen extinguished the blaze and left, the police and state troopers marched along the unfortunately named Lynch Street toward Alexander Center, a women’s residence, weapons at the ready. No one seems to know why.
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.
That’s when the police opened fire on the unarmed students. Over 200 hundred rounds were discharged. Miraculously only a dozen or so were wounded, but two students were killed.
Twenty-one-year old Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a Jackson State College student, and 17-year old James Earl Green, a Jim Hill High School senior, were murdered on May 14, 1970 just 6 short days after the Kent State killings. It would be the second time in less than a week that U.S. authorities had murdered unarmed U.S. students, yet hardly any one remembers the Jackson State killings. Nor do they remember yet another time U.S. authorities murdered unarmed U.S. students, though it was at least as horrific as the Kent State massacre.
That incident began two years prior to Kent State, on the night of February 8, 1968, when South Carolina State University students started a bonfire near the entrance to the Orangeburg, S.C. campus. As police and firefighters attempted to put out the fire, officer David Shealy was injured by a heavy wooden bannister thrown in his direction.
Shortly thereafter South Carolina Highway Patrol officers rolled up to the campus grounds and began firing into the crowd. There were around 200 protesters. Eight highway patrol officers fired carbines, shotguns, and revolvers at the protesters, firing for around 10 to 15 seconds. Twenty-seven people were injured in the shooting, most of whom were shot in the back as they were running away, and three African-American men were killed. The three men killed were Samuel Hammond Jr., Henry Smith (both SCSU students), and Delano Middleton, a student at the local Wilkinson High School. Middleton was shot while simply sitting on the steps of the freshman dormitory awaiting the end of his mother’s work shift.
In all three incidents—Kent State, Jackson State and South Carolina
State—no one was ever convicted. In the succeeding years, many in the anti-war movement rightfully referred to the Kent State shootings as “murders,” although no criminal convictions were obtained against any National Guardsman. In December 1970, journalist I. F. Stone wrote the following:
“To those who think murder is too strong a word, one may recall that even Spiro Agnew three days after the Kent State shootings used the word in an interview on the David Frost show in Los Angeles. Agnew admitted in response to a question that what happened at Kent State was murder, ‘but not first degree’ since there was – as Agnew explained from his own training as a lawyer – ‘no premeditation but simply an over-response in the heat of anger that results in a killing; it’s a murder. It’s not premeditated and it certainly can’t be condoned.’”
Another question: you know about Kent State, of course, but why were Jackson State and South Carolina State never given the same level of coverage? Those incident were never featured in national news magazine covers, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, or popular songs memorializing the deaths, as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” did for Kent State.
According to CNN, for those who lived through the time, the reason for the lack of coverage on the other campus shootings is pretty simple: “Kent State was four white students in Ohio,” said Gene Young, a former Jackson State professor, when asked by NPR why the tragedies at Jackson State and South Carolina State aren’t as prominent in the nation’s memory.
“Jackson State and Orangeburg were black colleges in the South,” Young continued. “Black students on a black college campus in Mississippi that had the history of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. It was just another day of business as usual, racist law enforcement officials victimizing black people.”
So it’s not really a mystery. They weren’t covered nationally because—for their community—a violent assault by establishment officials was not even news.