'I could hear the bullets whizzing past my face': Survivors remember the shootings at Jackson State
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The bullet-riddled windows of Alexander Hall at Jackson State College.
AP Photo

Fifty years ago today, two African-American men were killed and at least a dozen other people were injured in a hail of gunfire at Jackson State University.

“I hadn’t done anything. I was just stepping out of my dormitory,” said Gailya Porter.

In May of 1970, Porter was a sophomore majoring in Sociology at the then called Jackson State College. The Monticello native lived in Alexander Hall, which was the women’s dormitory on Lynch Street where the shootings took place. Porter says she remembers rolling her hair in soupcans before bed the night of the fourteenth.

“Someone on the hall yelled ‘the corner boys are burning a vehicle down the street,’ said Porter. “My roommate said to me ‘well let’s just see what’s going on.’ So we did.”

"I remember hearing bullets whiz past my head," said Porter.

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Porter suffered injuries from glass, concrete and other debris. She says her roommate was shot in the arm during the seconds of gunfire that led to the deaths of 21-year old Phillip Gibbs, a Junior and 17-year old James Earl Green, a Jim Hill High School Senior.

At the time, Lynch Street was a main thoroughfare that went through the campus. Porter says students were routinely harassed by white motorists.

“Many of the white motorists would say obscenities to the female students,” Porter said.

“They would also sometimes use the n-word as they’re traveling through the campus at a fast speed. And sometimes they would even throw objects out of the window.”

(L) Phillip Gibbs (R) James Earl Green
Credit
Gailya Porter, Jackson State College Class of '72
Courtesy of Gailya Porter

May 1970 was already a time of national unrest on college campuses. Students were protesting the Vietnam War. It was May 4, 1970, when the National Guard killed four students protesting at Kent State University, in Ohio.

Porter says tension on Jackson State’s campus had been mounting for some time, but not over Vietnam. The issue was something much closer to home — racism. Porter says she later learned some students started fires on campus after a false rumor spread of the death of civil rights activist Charles Evers. The fire department responded and requested police backup.

The National Guard was placed on standby and Jackson Police closed off entrances to the campus. It was just before midnight when highway patrol officers and Jackson police marched up Lynch Street. Jackson State alumni James “Lap” Baker believes it was all planned.

“The city policeman and highway patrol said there was a sniper. If there was a sniper - which there wasn’t - on the third, fifth, fourth floor of Alexander Hall... why are they shooting on the opposite side of the campus as well,” asked Baker.

Baker, a native of Picayune, was a graduating senior at Jackson State majoring in Geography. He lived in a nearby apartment when he heard the commotion on campus. He says he and some friends walked onto campus and stood on the opposite side of the street facing Alexander Hall, which happened to be near where Green was shot and killed. Baker says he remembers seeing at least a hundred other students hanging out, on the grass and in the windows at Alexander Hall before “all hell broke loose.”

"It felt like we were in a war zone," said Baker.

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It was after midnight when the assault on the unarmed students ended. Every window on the narrow side of the building facing Lynch Street was shattered. A reported 460 rounds were fired by 38 highway patrol and five Jackson police officers using shotguns from 30 to 50 feet away.

John Peoples was President of Jackson State at the time of the shooting. He cancelled remaining events on campus including commencement, closed the college for the summer, and mailed graduating seniors their degrees. Lynch Street was closed on campus and renamed Gibbs-Green Plaza in honor of the two slain men: Phillip Gibbs, a married father with an 18 month old child and another child on the way, and James Earl Green, who was walking across campus on his way home from work.

In 1970, an attorney filed a $13.8 million federal lawsuit against state and local officials and law enforcement officers over the wrongful deaths of Gibbs and Green. The case went to trial in February 1972 and an all white male jury offered up a not guilty verdict. There were no arrests in connection with the slayings.

“I remember also not ever wanting to return to the campus because I couldn’t believe that that had happened,” said Porter. She says the events that transpired late night on May 14 and into the early morning hours on May 15 continue to haunt her.

“Every year Jackson State calls us back and we have to bring up the thought processes for what took place,” said Porter.

“And, realizing the older you get you think about things that you’ve encountered in life and you think about those that really could have been detrimental to your health… to your existence.”

James “Lap” Baker says he can forgive, but he'll never forget May 15.

“See, it gave me strength,” said Baker.

“I was the first black to receive a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from San Jose State University. And the reason wasn’t because of where I was. The reason was because of where I had come from.”

James "Lap" Baker speaking in front of Alexander Hall.
Charles A. Smith/JSU

Reporter’s Note: I’ve listened to my father recount what he was doing when he heard about the shooting. A young boy growing up in Rankin County about 20-30 miles from Jackson State College, he told me he went to the campus after the shooting. The unity among students, the activism, young people standing up for themselves despite racism, hatred and bigotry motivated him to later attend Jackson State. My father met my mother at Jackson State. My mother lived in Alexander Hall, the same hall as Gailya, on the first floor in the late 1970s. I also lived in Alexander Hall on the first floor in 2010. The holes remain in the concrete walls where bullets ricocheted 50 years ago. A space that witnessed terror, blood and tears brought my parents together and made way for a legacy I’ll forever cherish.