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Racial Reverberations - The Jackson State Riots of 1970

Jan 30, 2008
Jackson State University is a historically black university located just west of downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson State, like many other colleges and universities around the country, was seething with protests in the spring of 1970, centered around the Vietnam War and racial relations.

On May 4th, 1970, four students at Kent State University in Ohio were shot dead by National Guardsmen, further increasing the tension on campus. White motorists traveling along Lynch Street, which runs through the campus and connects western Jackson to downtown, were a constant source of racial hatred.

On the evening of May 14th, the rumor started to spread that the mayor of Jackson, Charles Evers (brother of the murdered civil rights icon Medgar Evers) had been assassinated. At this, a small group of students left their dormitories to protest at about 9:30 pm that evening, and several motorists on Lynch Street had rocks thrown at their cars. These students overturned a dump truck and set several fires around the campus. The Jackson firefighters were called out in response to the fires and demanded polce backup. The Mississippi National Guard had already been called out the previous evening to deal with other riots in Jackson.

The National Guard massed west of campus while the city police and highway patrolmen blocked off a 30-block area around the te school. Their combined show of force allowed the firefighters to extinguish the fires around the campus. For whatever reason, the National Guard, patrolmen, and police did not stand down but instead marched toward Alexander Hall, a women's dormitory. A crowd of 75 to 100 students gathered in front of Alexander Hall, throwing bricks and chanting. Just after midnight, it appears that someone hit an officer with a piece of debris, causing the officer to fall down. Some local reporters claim to have seen someone point a pistol from within the dormitory.

The police responded with a hail of gunfire, which may or may not have been preceded with a warning. The gunfire continued for over half a minute, with a total of almost 500 rounds hitting the dormitory. (Many of the bullet holes are still visible today.) At that point, two students, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, lay down, shot dead. Twelve more students, including several from within the building, were wounded by gunfire; many more had to be hospitalized due to flying glass and shock. Every window in the building facing the street had been shattered. Ambulances were not called until the police picked up their shell casings and left. Jackson claimed that the city police had not fired during the final fusillade, but did not contest that the highway patrolmen did.

The Jackson State shooting, along with Kent State and others were studied by the Committee on Campus Unrest established by President Nixon in June 1970. A plaza has been bult to commemorate this fell incident on the Jackson State campus.
About the Author
Ian Spellfield explores the most frequently used African American names through the lens of history in his blog, Black Ghetto Baby Names.
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