It was 45 years ago today that two African-American men were killed and at least a dozen injured in a hail of gunfire at Jackson State University. Desare Frazier reports.
May of 1970 was a time of national unrest. Students at hundreds of colleges and universities held demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Jackson State University Alumni James Lap Baker and Clarence Johnson dispute claims that they were protesting the war. They say students here were protesting racism and that's what 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. They met me outside Alexander Hall, the women's dormitory on Lynch Street, where the shootings took place. Baker says at the time, Lynch Street was a main thoroughfare that went through the campus and students were routinely harassed.
"They used to come through and throw eggs, the white motorists and holler the n-word. They hit one student here while she was crossing the walkway under the red light. Some students responded throwing rocks and bottles at them," said Baker.
Johnson says student's expressed their frustration, reacting to blatant acts of racism.
"It was a matter of social justice. We were taking a stand against social injustice and it has been maybe mischaracterized over the years, given the fact that Kent State and Jackson State were so close together," said Johnson.
It was May 4, 1970, that the National Guard killed four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University, in Ohio. Just days later, on May 12, Baker says students at Jackson State were involved in disturbances around the campus in response to driver intimidation. Johnson says the situation intensified when young men near the campus orchestrated their own defiant act chanting "Hell No We Won't Go." It too drew law enforcement attention.
"I came out and we looked down Lynch Street toward the east and we saw a group of young men, not Jackson State students, walking up the street with a cross-tie, and they came to the intersection of Lynch and Dalton Streets and set it on fire." said Johnson.
The National Guard was placed on standby and Jackson Police cordoned off entrances to the campus. Students continued to protest and on May 14, James Lap Baker says they stopped later that night because they knew the National Guard had been called. He estimates about 200 students were hanging out, on the grass and in the windows at Alexander. According to court testimony in a civil suit, it was just before midnight when 69 highway patrol officers and Jackson police marched up Lynch Street.
"This highway patrolman stepped out with a bullhorn and he said 'may I have your attention please,' and by that time a bottle was thrown and it burst. When that bottle burst, that's when all hell broke loose--all the shooting. All we saw was fire going over our heads and hearing students holler 'oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.' Twenty-nine to 30 seconds of shooting on both sides of the campus, not just over here," said Baker.
It was after midnight when the assault on the unarmed students ended. The record shows 38 highway patrol and five Jackson police officers fired their weapons. Clarence Johnson had walked home shortly before the officers arrived on campus.
"And I remember seeing ambulances without their sirens and lights on just coming quietly towards this direction. I thought that was very odd, at night," said Johnson.
That's something Baker didn't know.
"That was the first time I've heard about the ambulance. But that's so significant. That tells me that was premeditated. It was already planned. I keep telling people it was planned." said Baker.
Officers fired a reported 460 rounds killing 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. At least a dozen students were injured. Baker says officers picked up the gun shells before they left. Green's oldest sister, 70-year old Mattie Hull, says their brother Samuel walked to the campus several times that night looking for James.
"Whoever did the shooting never came and told us that child had been killed, never told the family," said Hull.
Law Enforcement's response was that a sniper fired a shot from the fifth floor of Alexander Hall. The dorm was riddled with bullets from top to the bottom. Retired Jackson Police Officer Edd Swinney was at a campus road block that night and says the gunfire came from the officers. He heard Mayor Russell Davis talk to a highway patrol officer before they marched up Lynch Street.
"And he told the mayor he said, this is state property Mr. Mayor and it's out of your jurisdiction now. He just said forward march and they were up there about five minutes and that's when the shooting started," said Swinney.
Jackson State President John Peoples closed the college for the summer and mailed graduates their degrees. Lynch Street was closed on campus and renamed Gibbs-Green Plaza. No one was prosecuted for the shootings. But, Attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey filed a $13.8 million civil lawsuit in 1970 against state and local officials and law enforcement officers. The case went to trial in February 1972 in Biloxi, and an all white male jury came back with a not guilty verdict. Slaughter-Harvey says the officers in the courtroom erupted in cheers. No one has been held accountable for the shootings.