This month marks the 50th anniversary of the day the National Guard fired on a student anti-Vietnam War demonstration at of Kent State University in Ohio. For people of a certain age in America, May 4, 1970, was one of those days you never forget.
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.
The shootings at Jackson State, now Jackson State University, erupted after a bottle smashed in the middle of the officers who had marched onto campus in riot gear.
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.
A group of young people threw stones at the police, as they advanced through campus. Steve Weakly was hanging out with fraternity and sorority friends outside of the girls’ dorms when gunfire exploded.
“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.
Also killed, James Earl Green, a 17-year-old track star who was still in high school. The boy had planned to go to the University of California at Los Angeles. He was shot and killed behind the line of law enforcement officers.
While the shootings at Kent State topped the news around the nation, word of the twelve students shot and injured and the two killed in Jackson did not travel far and wide.
“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.
Even today, American opinions differ on whether the deaths at Kent State increased opposition to the Vietnam War, or merely increased disillusionment with the power of protests to end the war.
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.
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