Jackson State holds special graduation for class of 1970, 51 years after deadly police shooting on campus
JACKSON, Miss. - The mayor of Mississippi’s capital city and a state senator both apologized Saturday for shootings 51 years ago by city and state police officers that killed two people and injured 12 others on the campus of a historically Black college.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and state Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson spoke during a graduation ceremony for the Class of 1970 of what was then Jackson State College, now Jackson State University.
Lumumba apologized on behalf of the city to the families of the two men whose lives were cut short by the violent police response to the protest against racial injustice. Killed were 21-year-old Jackson State student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old James Earl Green, a high school student who was on campus while walking home from work.
Jackson State’s 1970 commencement was canceled because of the bloodshed, and graduates that year received their diplomas in the mail, if at all. On Saturday, 74 of the 400-plus 1970 grads donned caps and gowns and stood in the sunshine to receive the recognition denied to them a lifetime ago.
"As James Baldwin once wrote: ‘When we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it,’" Lumumba said. "I believe, as a city, we must publicly atone for the sins of our past and proclaim a new identity of dignity, equity and justice."
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The May 15, 1970, shootings at Jackson State had largely been overshadowed by violence from days earlier, when Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State University students amid a Vietnam War protest.
Lumumba and Frazier are both Black, and both represent a city now more than 80% Black. Jackson was majority-white in 1970, and the Jackson Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who went on campus were white.
Lumumba said the Jackson Police Department officers "unjustly gunned down two innocent young Black men, terrorized and traumatized a community of Black students and committed one of the gravest sins in our city’s history."
Frazier was a Jackson State student in 1970. He said he had gone to dinner that night and was delayed in returning to campus. But he believes he might have been standing near his friend Gibbs during the gunfire, if not for that delay.
"The state of Mississippi never apologized for the tragedy that occurred on this campus that night — never apologized," Frazier said. "So, since I’m here representing the state of Mississippi in my role as state senator, I’d like to issue an apology to the families, the Jackson State family, for the tragedy that occurred that night because they took very valuable lives."
Officers marched onto Jackson State the night of May 14, 1970, to quell protests against racial injustice. According to a report by President Richard Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest, Jackson State students had been throwing rocks at white motorists. James "Lap" Baker, a member of the Class of 1970, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that students were fed up with white people driving through campus shouting racial slurs, throwing bottles and endangering Black pedestrians.
Students had gathered outside the Alexander Hall women’s dormitory and B.F. Roberts dining hall across the street — some protesting, others simply enjoying each other’s company as women returned to the dorm before curfew.
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After midnight that May 15, a Highway Patrol officer used a bullhorn to address students, Baker said. Someone in the crowd threw a bottle, and officers started shooting indiscriminately, later falsely claiming they had seen a sniper in a dorm window.
A Jackson TV reporter recorded 28 seconds of gunfire. When it had ended, Gibbs and Green were dead and 12 other people were bleeding. Windows of Alexander Hall shattered and its walls were left with pockmarks still visible today.
John A. Peoples Jr., who was Jackson State president from 1967 to 1984, said during Saturday’s ceremony that he remembers "the sickening smell of blood" streaming down the stairway of Alexander Hall after the shootings.
"We sat on that lawn the rest of the night singing freedom songs," Peoples said.
Baker crawled through grass after the shootings to return unharmed to his off-campus apartment after what he calls a planned "massacre." No officer ever faced criminal charges, and an all-white jury awarded no money to the Black victims’ families in a civil lawsuit.
Jackson State on Saturday awarded posthumous honorary doctorate degrees to Gibbs and Green, and their sisters accepted those. The graduation took place on the site of the once-busy street that was closed years ago and turned into a pedestrian zone named the Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza.