The Jackson State History Thread

A few weeks ago I devoted a History Thread to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970. Just eleven days later, on May 15th, another campus shooting shocked the nation. While Kent State remains widely known (enough to inspire a flurry of 50th anniversary reminiscences this month), Jackson State is comparatively obscure. There are a variety of reasons, as the situations weren’t perfectly analogy, though it’s hard to avoid the fact that one shooting occurred at a predominantly white campus, and the other at an historically black university.

Jackson State University (then Jackson State College), located in Jackson, Mississippi, had been the site of occasional disturbances and civil rights protests throughout the ’60s. Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael had visited the campus in 1967, causing a small flurry of unrest. A particularly sore point involved Lynch Street, a thoroughfare which passed through the campus; white residents of Jackson often drunkenly drove down the street, peppering black students with racial epithets and beer bottles. On several occasions, this led to violence: in February 1964 a white motorist struck and killed a black student, Mamie Ballard, triggering in turn a prolonged campaign to close Lynch Street to white traffic.

The events leading to the shooting began on May 13th, 1970. Exactly what caused the unrest was unclear: there had recently been protests about Kent State and the draft, along with the usual civil rights activism, but nothing large enough to worry authorities. Donna Antoine, a freshman at JSU, claimed that the incident began on Lynch Street with an all-too-typical occurrence; a car drove through campus and its occupant stopped in front of the woman’s dorm at Alexander Hall. Several students responded by throwing rocks and bottles at the car until it drove off. Police arrived later that night and dispersed the rock-throwers, suggesting this wouldn’t be anything more than a routine night of trouble.

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Protesters at Alexander Hall

Nonetheless, events spiraled from there. Small groups of students began roaming the campus, ignoring the pleas of student leaders and orders of policemen to disperse. There were further incidents of violence, albeit mild ones: several police received minor injuries from thrown rocks, and other students set fire to trash cans and other debris. The worst incident of the night occurred when a group of students tried to set fire to the ROTC building with Molotov cocktails. Sergeant Stringer, one of the Deans of Students, arrived with a .38 caliber pistol and dispersed the mob by firing a shot in the air. Although the rioters succeeded in causing a few minor fires, they were easily extinguished by Stringer and his aides (Stringer recalled one was “smothered out with his shirt”).

However ephemeral, this outbreak on the 14th brought a disproportionate response. Mayor Russell B. Davis of Jackson, after a quick visit to campus, called in both local police and the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The Jackson Police, like most police departments in the Deep South, had a long and shameful history of racism. But the Highway Patrol was even worse; throughout the Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s it had invariably been on the side of reaction, whether attacking Freedom Riders or standing by as white mobs attempted to storm James Meredith’s dormitory at Ole Miss. A National Guard battalion was placed on standby, but wasn’t involved in the impending incident.

The police nonetheless performed their job efficiently, at first, closing off Lynch Street to traffic and managing to defuse tensions (aside from some students who heckled the patrolmen as they entered the campus). Numerous students recalled May 14th as “routine”: students attended classes and a band concert without incident, and events seemed. Then Inspector Lloyd Jones, head of the Highway Patrol, decided to reopen Lynch Street over the protests of University President John Peoples and various student leaders.

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At Kent State, it’s difficult to pin the blame for what happened on a single individual; at Jackson State, it’s easier to find a villain (or at least a primary instigator). Jones was a longtime veteran of the Highway Patrol who’d been present at Ole Miss, broken up protests in Jackson and suppressed a previous disturbance on Lynch Street where he fired live rounds at demonstrators. A hulking man admired by local whites as a “redneck hero” who boasted of being “tough on n******” Jones was less beloved by blacks in Jackson who dubbed him “goon.” This “toughness” was emphasized as, rather than rely on teargas or other nonlethal weapons, he issued his troopers shotguns loaded with double-aught buckshot. Asked why, Jones explained that “they look mean, and because they are effective riot control weapons” and that if the students persisted in defiance, “something will be done about it.”

Still, there was no longer a riot to control until Jones’ truculent actions pushed events to the breaking point. On the evening of the 14th, rumors spread around campus about police intentions, including one that racists had murdered Charles Evers, Civil Rights leader and Mayor of nearby Fayette. With Lynch Street reopened, white motorists driving through campus exchanged the usual insults with students, and again were met with rocks and other projectiles. Dean Tommie Smith, who witnessed these initial disturbances, blamed the violence not on students but a group of local troublemakers known as the “corner boys” who hung out on campus and occasionally picked fights with students and authorities. Such distinctions were lost, especially as several hundred students began roaming the campus.

M.B. Pierce, the Jackson Police’s Chief of Detectives, belatedly ordered Lynch Street closed off as events escalated. Pierce heard rumors that snipers and Black Power agitators had arrived with plans to ambush and murder the police. To his credit, Pierce dismissed the rumors, saying later that “there was no talk of any possible anti-police action”; accordingly, he kept his officers on a short leash. Less to his credit, Pierce shared the rumors with Inspector Jones, who had no such inclinations towards restraint.

Around 10:30 pm, a group of mostly male students stole a dump truck from a nearby construction site and drove it up Lynch Street. Exactly what they planned to accomplish was unclear, although one writer assumed it was “part of the effort to gain attention to the students concerns.” Regardless, the truck broke down and angered students smashed the windows and set fire to it; someone in the crowd fired a handgun at the burning truck. Someone from the Highway Patrol radioed the campus security, asking if “they can’t scatter them n******”; when this failed, a mixed force of State Troopers and Jackson City police entered the campus, with orders to “scatter the Negroes out of the street…and also clear the area.”

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Initially the police, some riding an armored car called “Thompson’s Tank” after the officer who designed it, met resistance. Lieutenant Warren Magee, leading the contingent of Jackson police entering campus, recalled a “very large and unruly” crowd of students “throwing brick bat, rocks and hub caps.” Nonetheless, they inflicted few injuries and dispersed before the police without incident. A brief clash at Stewart Hall, one of the main dormitories, led Mayor Davis to ask for National Guard assistance. Poor communications prevented this from happening, however, as the police patrolled Lynch Street, clearing it of students (though not making any arrests) until they converged on Alexander Hall, where the trouble had begun the previous night, around 11:30 pm.

A crowd of students gathered in front of the dorm, though their number and intentions were widely disputed after the fact. Police testified that up to 400 students were assembled in defiance of curfew and police orders to disperse. Students remembered differently. Judy Glover, a resident of Alexander Hall, remembered it as a small gathering of the type that occurred “on any warm night,” with a few dozen students hanging out. Vernon Steve Weakley agreed, remembering that “kids were outside having a good time…[and] music was blasting.” Larry Breland recalled students chatting with wives and girlfriends, drinking beer and generally socializing, unconnected to the disturbances elsewhere on campus. “Everybody was just chilling out,” Breland remembered.

The arrival of Jones and Magee’s troopers, however, provoked them. Bert Case, a local TV reporter, recalled students calling the police “white bastards, motherfuckers and so on”; an order to disperse was met with a chant of “Pigs, pigs” directed towards police. The students disobeyed the order, and many onlookers joined the crowd. Inspector Jones interpreted this menacingly (“the crowd seemed to swell at the Highway Patrolmen,” he later testified) even though Lieutenant Magee recalled that “All the [police] that had been in the street had cleared it.” Still, the confrontation escalated, and all it needed was a spark.

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Aftermath: blood and bullets

“And then,” in the words of historian Nancy K. Bristow, “a glass bottle struck the pavement, the officers opened fire, and the entire night sky lit up.” The police unleashed a sustained barrage of rifle and shotgun fire, first into the crowd, then into the windows of the dorms in Alexander Hall. Firing lasted for almost thirty seconds, with hundreds of rounds deliberately shot at students. Given the provocative actions and belligerent attitude of Jones’ troopers, the incident was probably inevitable; the main surprise is that casualties among students (two dead and a dozen wounded) weren’t higher.

Gregory Antoine, outside the dorm, initially thought the officers were firing blanks. “Then I saw kids falling and…glass coming out…the girls were hollering and screaming and then I knew that they weren’t.” Vernon Steve Weakely received a shotgun blast to the leg, watching students “pushing and screaming wildly as they tried to get inside the glass west wing door.” A student who tried helping him was knocked over by a trooper who told him to “stay your ass on the ground.” Andrea Reese, near Weakely, hit the ground at the first shots and only later noticed that she’d been hit in the leg.

Students inside the dorm weren’t exempt from violence, as bullets and buckshot shattered the dorm windows. Climmie Johnson looked out the window and was struck in the forehead by a blast of buckshot; amazingly, her wounds were minor. Tuwaine Davis “felt a burning sensation on my back and legs” as several bullets struck her, ricocheting wildly off the dorm walls. Gloria Mayahll was struck in the back and scalp by bullets; Fonzie Coleman, visiting his girlfriend, was hit in the thigh and passed out from blood loss. Leroy Kinter was crippled by buckshot that riddled his pelvis and shattered his leg.

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Victims: Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green

Two students died. James Earl Green, a high school student walking home from work, was hit by a rifle shot that passed “through both the right and left sides of his heart” and “through the left lung.” Phillip Gibbs, a junior studying politics and history at College, had recently married fellow student Dale, who unknown to Gibbs was pregnant with their first child. He was hit in the shoulder with a shotgun blast, then struck twice more in the head and killed instantly. Larry Breland lamented that Gibbs “lost his life for nothing, when he hadn’t done anything.”

The police remained on campus after the incident. Initially triumphant (“there’s another dead n******,” one crowed after finding Green’s corpse), they soon realized the implications of what they’d done and began shaping a narrative that they’d been under serious threat. Lieutenant Magee insisted that “we were fired upon from the building,” a refrain that other officers echoed despite a complete lack of evidence. John Peoples, the College President, defiantly denounced “two of our brethren slain wantonly and determinedly. This shall not go unavenged.” Campus was closed, though many students refused to leave, whether from stubbornness or solidarity with the victims.

National politicians, including Senators Edward Brooke (R-MA) and Walter Mondale (D-MN), visited the campus soon after the shooting and came away rattled by what they found. Brooke, then the nation’s only black senator, pronounced the incident “really unbelievable” while Mondale ridiculed the police defense of their action: “every time there’s an overreaction, that unfound sniper always gets the blame.” Joseph Rauh Jr., a civil rights lawyer, pronounced the shootings a “group lynching.” Roy Wilkins of the NAACP accused the Mississippians of feeling “renewed license to shoot from the hip at any Negro challenge to the status quo.” Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) led a delegation of politicians and civil rights leaders to attend James Green’s funeral on May 22nd.

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Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh at Alexander Hall

Despite the national attention, despite protests and boycotts by students and black leaders (including a rally of 8,000 organized by Coretta Scott King and Ralph Albernathy in Atlanta), the incident had little lasting impact. Though roundly condemned by the Scranton Commission’s report and the national media, conservatives easily justified the shooting as another assertion of “law and order”; an attempt to prosecute officers in 1972 resulted in acquittal. Constance Slaughter-Harvey, an attorney who assisted the prosecution, was chilled by the reaction to the verdict. “It was the biggest display of rebel yells,” she recalls, “and I will never forget the pain that was reflected in the eyes of the plaintiffs.”

When remembered today, Jackson State is generally folded into Kent State and the wave of protests resulting from it, even though its origins were different. It’s sadly recognizable as one of a seemingly endless pattern of white police shooting black men and women without consequence. That, unfortunately, failed to make as lasting an impression on the American psyche as white students at a Midwestern school being shot by the National Guard.

Today, Jackson State University retains signs of the shooting; there’s a memorial to the fallen students on campus, although the most striking monument are the bullet holes that still pockmark Alexander Hall. Some have sought to find an uplifting message in the tragedy: “What the shooting did,” says JSU Professor C. Liegh McInnis, “is that it showed, even through this heinous act, black intellect could not be stopped.” But Dale Gibbs, Phillip’s widow, recently lamented that if her husband “he had died in a car accident, it would have been devastating, of course. But the way it happened, I don’t know if I will ever get over that.”

Man Behind Bullet-Riddled Glass

Note: this article draws primarily from Nancy K. Bristow’s Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College (2020).