An overshadowed anniversary

SUN JOURNAL

Killings: Two people were killed by police gunfire at Jackson State College in Mississippi 30 years ago, but few besides those directly affected remember.

May 15, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

JACKSON, Miss. - Eleven days ago, it was hard to miss the 30th anniversary of Kent State, a memorial blitz including a reunion of victims and survivors, a two-day symposium, the usual candlelight vigil and a host of media stories about the four students killed at the Ohio university by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.

Today's 30-year memorial in Mississippi's capital won't be nearly so elaborate. Two African-Americans, a 17-year-old high school student on the way home from his grocery-store job and a 21-year-old prelaw student, were killed when white Mississippi state troopers and Jackson police opened fire on a group of taunting protesters outside a Jackson State College women's dormitory.

But Jackson State's commencement was Saturday, and most students and faculty are dispersing for the summer vacation. The anniversary was observed on campus at the end of last month with some poetry reading and a march to the dormitory, where some of the 275 bullet holes counted by FBI investigators are visible.

Kent State and Jackson State, the twin campus tragedies of the Vietnam/civil rights era, have been forever separate and unequal, in the estimation of many in Jackson, though the circumstances surrounding them were quite similar.

Both involved untrained, disorganized and apparently frightened militia. Both involved what investigators later described as excessive force. Both involved claims by officials that they fired into rioting protesters after hearing gunfire. In both cases, public officials regarded the protesters with utter contempt. In Ohio, Gov. James Rhodes said the students were "worse than the [Nazi] Brownshirts and the Communist element and all the nightriders."

No one has spent a day in jail for any of the six deaths. And there were apparent cover-ups in both cases by public officials and grand juries.

But Jackson State's two deaths have never commanded a Kent State-size share of media attention, according to GeneYoung, a researcher at Jackson State who was there that night when 75 officers released a 30-second fusillade at Alexander Hall. "I don't blame Kent State," says Young, 49. "They've always embraced us in their memorials. It's you guys in the print and electronic media who've always been more enamored by the white guys at Kent State."

The shootings at Jackson occurred just after midnight May 15, 1970, and there was no John Filo to capture the image of a young woman crying in anguish over a fallen student.

Young, then a sophomore at Jackson State, had just finished a class in physical science and had walked around the corner of the dormitory. Then he heard the firing, 30 seconds of continuous gunfire that he says he still hears in his nightmares. "I rushed back around, thinking hundreds must have been killed. The gun smoke was thick. People were crying and screaming. Someone had a bullhorn. I grabbed it and started reciting Martin Luther King's `I Have a Dream' speech. It seemed to calm folks."

Young was surprised that only two had died in the fusillade: Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, a prelaw student and father of an 18-month-old son, and James Earl Green, 17, a senior at nearby Jim Hill High School who was walking home from work at a local grocery store when he stopped to watch the action. Twelve Jackson State students were wounded.

Green is buried in a cemetery near his high school. Gibbs was laid to rest in a cemetery in the small town of Ripley in northeast Mississippi. Young and an Atlanta Constitution reporter visited the grave on the 20th anniversary of the Jackson shootings and found black and white grave sites still segregated by a fence.

Most of today's Jackson State students weren't alive in 1970. As they pack belongings for the summer vacation, some say they have never heard of the shootings.

Jeffrey Robinson, a 19-year-old freshman, says he stopped by last month's memorial ceremony "to see what it was all about. What happened was a real shame."

Candle wax at the base of the memorial monument at the site of the shootings is the only physical evidence that the deaths are remembered three decades later.

Ironically, a part of the motive of the Jackson protesters was the shooting deaths at Kent State 11 days earlier. But race was a factor, too - the fact that the police force was all white and all the protesters were black, the fact that poor blacks were disproportionately represented in the infantry - and in the deaths - of the Vietnam War. (Green's older brother, Samuel, had recently returned from a four-year military tour.) Gloria Green McCray, now 46, was a year younger than her brother. When James didn't return that night, her brothers went searching. She heard about his death on the radio. "My brother was not a political activist," she says. "He was just a high school student who got in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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