Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi apologizes for 1970 police killings amid student protest | Mississippi
The mayor of the Mississippi state capital and a state senator apologized on Saturday for shootings 51 years ago by police officers that killed two people and injured 12 on the campus of a historically Black college.
The mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and Hillman Frazier, a state senator representing the city, spoke at a graduation ceremony for the class of 1970 of what was then Jackson State College and is now Jackson State University.
Lumumba apologized on behalf of the city to the families of the two men who were killed in a violent police response to a protest against racial injustice.
Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a Jackson State student, was 21. James Earl Green, a high school student on campus while walking home from work, was 17.
The 1970 commencement was canceled because of the bloodshed. Graduates received diplomas in the mail if at all. On Saturday, 74 of more than 400 1970 grads donned caps and gowns to receive recognition denied 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.”
The shootings of 15 May 1970 were largely been overshadowed by violence from days earlier, when Ohio national guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State University students amid a protest against the Vietnam war.
Lumumba and Frazier are both Black and represent a city now more than 80% Black. Jackson was majority white in 1970, and the Jackson police and Mississippi highway patrol officers on campus were white.
Lumumba said the 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 went to dinner that night and was delayed in returning to campus. He believes he might otherwise have been standing near his friend Gibbs.
“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 on the night of 14 May 1970. According to a report by President Richard Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest, students had been throwing rocks at white motorists.
James “Lap” Baker, a member of the class of 1970, said students were fed up with white people driving through campus shouting racial slurs, throwing bottles and endangering Black pedestrians.
Students gathered outside the Alexander Hall women’s dormitory and BF Roberts dining hall, some protesting. After midnight, 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.
A Jackson TV reporter recorded 28 seconds of gunfire. When it ended, Gibbs and Green were dead and 12 people were wounded. Windows of Alexander Hall shattered and its walls were left with pockmarks visible today.
John A Peoples Jr, Jackson State president from 1967 to 1984, said during Saturday’s ceremony he remembered “the sickening smell of blood” streaming down the stairway of Alexander Hall.
“We sat on that lawn the rest of the night singing freedom songs,” Peoples said.
Baker crawled through grass to return 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 victims’ families in a civil lawsuit.
Jackson State awarded posthumous honorary doctorates to Gibbs and Green, whose sisters accepted them. The graduation took place on the site of a once-busy street that is now the Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza.