Fewer people remember the equally horrific attack on college students eleven days later in Mississippi.
At Jackson State College, May 15, 1970, Jackson City Police and Mississippi State Troopers fired on a group of students, killing two and injuring 12.
That week more than 500 colleges across the country had been shut down as students protested the killings at Kent State, where the Ohio National Guard shot four and injured nine.
Steve Vernon Weakly was shot in the leg. “So, the bottle is in the air; it’s as if it’s suspended in the air like forever." Weakly says, "It floated down and came in from behind [the police] and hit right in the middle of them and it burst,” says Weakly. “It was as if they just went crazy from there… they started shooting the guns immediately – immediately – and it was like all hell broke loose.”
Students at the school, now Jackson State University, an historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi, experienced repeated harassment by whites.
The night before the shootings, white people had riled students by driving through campus shouting racist insults at black students and sexual slurs against black women students. Black students had responded by throwing rocks.
The next day students grew more agitated when a false rumor circulated that Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, had been killed. Then, a non-Jackson State student set fire to a dump truck in the area, bringing fire-fighters and police to the scene.
“The carnage on that side of the street was just incredible,” he says. “The kids trying to get in [the dorm], everybody was screaming, and all of a sudden everything got eerily quiet. Then it started back again. It was like 10 times louder than it was before. People were screaming, girls were fainting, blood was everywhere.”
Police and state troopers fire 140 rounds in thirty seconds.
Two young black men died in the barrage of bullets. Philip Lafayette Gibbs, a political science student in his junior year, had planned to go to law school. The 21-year-old man was the father of an 18-month-old son.
“There is always a different narrative to how the American media treats black activists and survivors versus how they treat white activists and survivors,” says C. Leigh McInnis, professor of creative writing at Jackson.
Black Americans have less trouble understanding what happened after the shootings at Jackson State.
“Black folks did what black folks always do; they simply kept living,” says McInnis, “Returning to JSU in the fall for classes even with the bullet holes still fresh in the buildings, because ‘success’ and ‘revenge’ for black folks has always been survival, especially survival through education and self-determinism.”
It might be some progress to see a nationwide outcry at the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia this week. But still sickening that Ahmaud was shot, and that the the shooters were arrested two months after the killing, and only because a video of the event surfaced.
Let's add the faces of Philip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green to the conversation, two young men who's killers were never held accountable. And let's remember the many students in the line of fire that night in Mississippi who went on to graduate, raise families, succeed in careers. They were young black people in a long line of African Americans who have continued on, survived and thrived in spite of obstacles white Americans cannot truly comprehend.