The Murders at Jackson State, Mississippi During the May 1970 Student Rebellion

by on May 6, 2020 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, History, Peace Movement

The killings at Jackson State occurred 5 minutes after midnight, May 15, 1970

Besides the Kent State Four, there were two other murders during the May 1970 student rebellion fifty years ago. Police opened fire on a Black girls’ dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi on May 15, killing two young, African-American men, and wounding another dozen people.

The Jackson State killings, however, never received the media and protesters’ attention as those at Kent State did. There were demonstrations in response, of course, but not as wide-spread as those following the deaths of the 4 white students. From an ingrained media racism, to the privileges of white, middle-class young, to the fatigue and exhaustion of a protest movement nearly spun out – there are a number of factors for this difference.

But – as in the Kent State incident – no one was ever held accountable for the killings. There were no arrests in connection with the deaths at Jackson State, although the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest concluded “that the 28-second fusillade from police officers was an unreasonable, unjustified overreaction…A broad barrage of gunfire in response to reported and unconfirmed sniper fire is never warranted.”

The best book on the what happened is Lynch Street – The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College by Tim Spofford.

Here, then is an accounting of what came down at Jackson State over the course of the week leading up to the shootings at about 5 minutes past midnight on May 14 – which made the incident occur on May 15.


May 7, Thursday

A crowd of 500 assembled at the all-Black college in front of the dining hall. The rally began with a rock group performing. Then 7 student leaders spoke to the crowd from the steps; they spoke of the draft, the Vietnam war, the war against Black people in this country. Also talked about was the disproportionate numbers of Black servicemen killed in Vietnam and of the white draft boards who had made this possible. Student leaders also called for a one-day class boycott.

May 9, Saturday

A dozen Jackson State students joined over a hundred students from Millsaps College at a downtown peace rally, sponsored by the Jackson Peace Coordinating Committee at the War Memorial. In their flyer for the rally, the peace group stated they wanted to find common cause with Blacks. Two state patrolmen approached the group and told them it was illegal to hold a protest on state property, so they either had to leave or be arrested. The group marched 2 blocks to city property and held their rally.

Wednesday, May 13

Roughly 300 students and some “cornerboys” congregated outside a women’s dormitory late at night along Lynch Street, the main street that ran through the middle of campus. Many of them began throwing rocks and bottles at passing white motorists. For them the discontent was fueled by frustrations over Vietnam, Cambodia, how Blacks were treated by the racist city police and power structure. On a hot Spring night, the frustrations were easily expressed. One student told a local reporter about the causes of the disruption. “It’s a lot of things. The war, Cambodia, the draft, the governor, Mississippi. It’s not just one thing.” Mississippi’s governor, John Bell Williams, was a well-known race-baiter.

Not all victims of the rock barrages were white, however, and at least two Black motorists were also slightly injured by flying window shield glass.

Around 10:30 pm a large group of about 150 began chanting against the Vietnam war and ROTC on campus. They surged across Lynch Street towards the two ROTC buildings. “Get the ROTC building!” and “Let’s burn down Rotsy!” were yelled as some in the crowd pelted the buildings with rocks and bottles, smashing windows and denting a ROTC officer’s car. Two campus security officers guarding the buildings, pulled their guns – and the students would scatter, only to return and repeat the game. Eventually, the students tired of the back and forth, and withdrew back to Lynch Street and the dorms. Later that evening, two Molotov cocktails hit the ROTC buildings; one lit the roof of a porch temporarily until it was easily put out by a police officer.

Meanwhile, students pulled benches and wooden wagons into the middle of Lynch Street and set them on fire. Police from Jackson had already arrived and had set up barricades and roadblocks on streets that run into the campus. City police had showed up with an armored van, called “Thompson’s Tank” and partnered with state patrolmen. Columns of police then moved to protect the ROTC buildings. As the police officers marched by the dorms, crowds of students emerged and yelled at them. “Pigs! Pigs!” and “You white sons-of-bitches!” A few rocks were thrown but the police moved into formation close to the ROTC buildings. At some point, some of the students threatened to march downtown, and squads of police formed a skirmish line across Lynch Street to prevent their movement off the campus.

Eventually things quieted down; the crowds dwindled, the fire in the street went out and by 2:30 am, all was calm on the campus and on Lynch Street. The state lawmen departed while the city cops stayed up all night. City sanitation workers moved in and cleaned up all the glass, bottles, pieces of concrete and all the charred rubble.

Thursday, May 14

Thursday morning, with very little evidence on the campus of the previous night’s “mini-riot”, the president of Jackson State, John Peoples, was informed by the commanding general of the Mississippi National Guard that 600 troops had been mobilized and would be stationed nearby at an armory.

At 3 pm, Peoples met with student leaders to find out what caused the firebomb attempts at the ROTC buildings so he could prevent another occurrence. For two hours they had a conciliatory discussion, The students told Peoples there wasn’t one cause, no single issue; but there was Kent State, Cambodia and a host of local campus issues, such as strict curfews for women, complaints about the dining hall food, insufficient administration actions on other issues. Once that meeting had completed, Peoples went to address the faculty and described the mini-riot of the night before. Then he wrote up a 2-page letter addressed to the campus community. In it, he blamed a “faceless, mindless mob of students and non-students bent on doing violence.” He also informed the community that 600 Guardsmen had been mobilized in Jackson. “My understanding,” he said in the letter, “is that the guardsmen will be reluctant to use force, but if it is necessary to use force,” he said, “ to protect life and property, it will be used decisively.”

Fearing a repeat of the night before, Peoples called up the Jackson police chief and requested that Lynch Street be closed down after dark. Chief Pierce declined. White Jackson was not about to give up its right-of-way through the Black college.

Among the students on this typical Spring hot and muggy night, it was business as usual on the campus; people were going to a campus concert, some had gone to local bars for beers, the Choir was meeting, a big party for the school’s basketball team was being held, fraternity pledges were walking about; students were studying for finals, and typing papers.

Over at the ROTC buildings, however, it wasn’t typical as military police and campus security were stationed inside; there had been rumors about attempts of burning the buildings. Around 9:30 pm a small group of rock-throwers had formed on a darkened knoll next to a dorm along Lynch Street, and cheered on by another hundred students, had begun hitting white motorists with barrages of rocks. This was a repeat performance of the night before. A city cop saw the rock throwers and radioed dispatch, and ordered, “Call that security guard out there at Jackson State, and see if they can’t scatter them niggers!”

Meanwhile a few locals and maybe a student or two had found an old dump truck near the football field, left by its driver after a day of sewer line work. One local cornerboy drove the truck over to Lynch Street, where it stalled. After several efforts to set the old truck on fire, its cab finally burst into flame.

By 11 pm, Jackson police were mobilizing and soon paddy wagons and Thompson’s Tank – which held 8 to 10 men with rifles – were on their way to the college. Chief Pierce called the highway patrol for help. Upon their arrival at the school, the 25 police officers set up barricades and waited for the highway patrolmen to arrive. When they did show up, they added another 35 white men to the ranks of law enforcement on the scene, with the patrolmen led by an officer who was so notorious, his nickname was “Goon”.

Policemen lined up behind the armored van and moved in closer to the dorms. As they approached, they were met with howls and curses. Police set up a skirmish line by the burning truck in the middle of Lynch Street and faced the dorms. Directly in front of the officers was a 5-story dormitory with students yelling at them from windows in all five stories. “Pigs!” people shouted. On one side of the skirmish line, students began throwing rocks, and on the other side, it was jeers thrown at them. One police commander heard a report of shots being fired. But without any collaboration and no sightings of anyone with a weapon, this could have been a baseless report. A fire truck was requested, and a lower-ranking officer asked a superior if the officers should shoot off tear gas.

Around midnight, the burning truck fire was out and at one end of the skirmish line, students had retreated to their dorms. The police assembled for a sweep up Lynch Street and they moved in, following the Tank. By this time perhaps two hundred students had congregated in front of the west wing of Alexander Hall, a girl’s dormitory, When the police reached Alexander Hall, a 5-story women’s dorm, they stopped and faced it. Inside were nearly a thousand young women, many in their pajamas and nightgowns, reading, taking showers, listening to their radios, doing their hair, asleep already, on phones in the dorm’s booths. But downstairs, outside was a crowd of shouting students with a chain-link fence between them and the street. And in the street were dozens of police officers with shotguns. Due to the jeering crowd, the noise was so loud that people next to each other had to yell to be heard.

Roughly 12:05 am

An officer with a bullhorn approached and tried to address the students. Just then a bottle flew through the air and dropped on Lynch Street with an explosion. Startled by what may have sounded like a gunshot, the roar of gunfire followed as one whole line of patrolmen began shooting their weapons; they shot at the students in front of them, up in the windows, over at the stairwell door. The officers in the street kept firing; they knelt and fired, they stood and fired, they fired from the hip, from the shoulder – they kept shooting until their guns had emptied.

There had been no verbal warning; there had been no tear gas – and it was unclear whether tear gas had been ordered to be used. Police had opened fire with rifles, automatic weapons, a machine gun (in the Tank truck) and riot shotguns.

A sergeant radioed for ambulances amidst the screams. “How many do you need?” the dispatcher asked. The sergeant replied, “You better send all that you can get.” Before anyone moved to assist the wounded, police officers stood in the street and picked up their empty shells, pocketing them. Then police finally began to go about the wounded, pointing them out to students so they could retrieve their bleeding friends. The white cops were saying, “You niggers over there, go check behind those bushes. There’s a nigger over in them bushes – check him out.”

They found two bodies that weren’t moving. One young man was found near a magnolia tree in front of one of the dorms and another body of a young man was found across the street near the dining hall. The dispatcher asked who the deceased were, and “Goons”, the officer at the other end answered, “They’re nigger students.”  Nine others were wounded, all but one were students.

Immediately police were saying there were snipers, that they had been in a crossfire from snipers. Yet, no snipers were ever found; no weapons were ever found; no witnesses who saw or heard snipers were found; no police officers had been wounded. Law enforcement had used the exact excuse at Kent State, ‘oh, there were snipers, that’s why we had to shoot back.’

James Green and Phil Gibbs died that night at Jackson State. Gribs was 21, a young father and an active student. He had helped try to integrate several businesses in Jackson over the last few years. But he was no militant. He was in the vicinity of the dorms that night as he had dropped off his date for the evening – she had to be back due to the curfew by midnight. Gibbs had been shot twice.

Green was 17 and a high school student. He worked at a local market not too far away and walking through the campus was his usual route home from work. That’s why he was in the vicinity. Green had been shot in the chest.

When campus security guards searched the dorm for snipers, they found women students emerging from under their beds, screaming, crying. They had to step over pools of blood and trek up the bullet-ridden stairwell, walk down upstairs halls with blood splattered floors, saw students using towels to wipe blood off the arms and legs of their dorm mates – but they found no sniper. The lobby’s huge glass windows had been blown out and blood streaks marred the floor. Women students screamed as the wounded were carried out on stretchers. Out on Lynch in front of the dorm, male students cursed at the arriving white ambulance responders, grabbed their stretchers and said no whites would carry their wounded.

About 10 minutes to 1 am, National Guard medics and a doctor arrived to assist some of the wounded or distressed students. Near 1 am, a troop of National Guard soldiers with bayonets on their rifles marched to the dorm area and relieved the city and state police.

When the first ambulance that rushed from the campus reached Baptist Hospital, staff declined to take the wounded Black students, so it and all the others had to go an extra mile to the Medical Center. Two students were in critical condition, and ten others were treated that night. To literally add insult to injury, several of the wounded students later reported being treated rudely and nonchalantly by hospital staff.

Back at Jackson State, most of the students who lived on campus gathered in front of one of the dormitories anticipating an address by President Peoples. Emotions were overflowing in the crowd that assembled that night; people looking to ensure friends were all right, people were weeping; others so angry they wanted to march downtown to show they would never submit to the “white pigs,” and then they had to be reminded that National Guardsmen held the roads. Nobody wanted more bloodshed.

When Peoples arrived, he was shocked and didn’t really know what to do or say. He led them in a prayer and then asked them all to return to their dorms. But they refused – and some went to go fetch blankets – and they stayed all night on the lawn. Some prayed. Others sang freedom songs. “Ain’ gonna let nobody turn me ‘round …turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round.”

Friday, May 15

When students awoke Friday, they were able to view really for the first time the amount of damage inflicted on their dorm – and on their fellow students. The dorm’s walls were riddled by buckshot, the building looked like it had been used for infantry target practice; two six-foot windows were gone, the shredded drapes flapped in the breeze, and bullet holes in the concrete walls were the size of silver dollars. Students found bullet holes in other halls – including in one hall two blocks away. They found splats of blood everywhere. They began collecting the spent shells, took photos of the bullet holes and found other spent material out in the street. They wanted to gather the evidence as they feared a cover-up. Many of them had witnessed patrolmen stuffing their pockets with their spent shells immediately after the fusillade even while they ignored the wounded.

That morning, President Peoples got together with many of the students to discuss the shootings and killings. He told them the school was closing and everyone must go home. There would be no finals, he said. He also told them that the shootings would not go unavenged.

Two miles north of Jackson State stood Millsaps College, a predominantly white school. Just before noon about 150 students gathered to protest the killings the night before at Jackson State. Wearing armbands and joined by a dozen faculty members, they solemnly and silently marched the mile to the Governor’s Mansion in downtown. Two students led the procession, each one carrying a wooden cross, one had “Phillip Gibbs” labeled on it and the other “James E. Green.” As they marched, they passed the Baptist Hospital that had denied the wounded students the night before, and as they approached the Governor’s Mansion, they were joined by some Black students from Tougaloo College. 50 highway patrolmen with clubs and shotguns stood nearby and stared at the students filing by.

At 4 pm at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, students from Jackson State and leaders of Mississippi NAACP held a press conference to refute reports of snipers and to call for an impartial investigation. The field secretary of the NAACP, Alex Waites, spoke first to the reporters, firmly but angrily, and told them: “The actions of the highway patrol, and other officers if so involved, constitutes murder. The bullet holes in the girls’ dormitory show a deliberate pattern to the violence. All floors of the building were fired upon, with a concentration upon a ground-floor doorway where fleeing students were trying to enter. Students were shot both inside and outside the building. We cannot find justification for the shooting of fleeing students, regardless of the supposed provocation.”

The discharge of guns showed, Waites said, “the highway patrol’s hatred against black people.” He noted that no tear gas was used and there was no evidence of a sniper. He had no faith, he poignantly added, in any investigation by “the white power structure” and called for a special biracial committee to investigate the shootings. One of the other panel members was Mayor Charles Evers of Fayette, the brother of well-known slain civil rights activist, Medgar Evers. He told reporters:

“Police shot my folks down – it was simple as that. We don’t have to explain nothin’. It is obvious that they shot the building up. It is obvious that there are two dead blacks.” If the campus had been a white campus, he charged, “no bullets would have been fired.”

“Therefore,” Evers continued, “we say we have racism and hatred here. And we’re sick and tired of it. If the mayor and the governor can’t control their own policemen, they ought to be tried for malfeasance. They can’t run their offices.” Then Evers singled out the state patrol leader “Goon” Jones; he wanted him arrested and held for murder or conspiring to murder. “He’s the one who called us ‘niggers.’”

Saturday, May 16

The first of several investigations into the shootings began Saturday morning with the first meeting of Mayor Davis’ biracial committee he had appointed. On the committee, two Black civil rights attorneys had been named. This was an unprecedented act for Jackson, not used to police being scrutinized by its African American citizens. Immediately, five Jackson police officers refused to speak to the committee, although the mayor ended up persuading several to testify. Five Jackson city officers were interviewed, including the three top officers in command. None of the officers in charge had seen sniper fire and the only two officers who had claimed snipers were inside the Thompson’s Tank at the time.

The FBI had also begun to conduct their own investigation. But the state highway patrol refused to cooperate with the FBI.

Sunday, May 17

Well-known civil-rights activist, Julian Bond, spoke at a memorial service held in Jackson.

Monday, May 18

500 Black school children walked out of their classes Monday morning across the city, and marched to the Governor’s Mansion where they began picketing. Also picketing were dozens of Jackson State students, but they were in front of stores in an effort to enforce a boycott of white businesses – all in response to the shootings. Since the shootings, three white-owned storefronts in Black neighborhoods had been engulfed in fires.

Black youth and Jackson State students were seething with rage and were threatening to burn downtown. Community leaders feared they were going to get themselves killed so they organized the boycott and held church rallies at night. … Charles Evers, black mayor of Jackson and brother of the late Medgar Evers, called for boycott until May 24 of all white- owned businesses in the state. He also asked that all colleges close until the 24th in solidarity with the slain students. Some “moderate” Black leaders spoke of forming a paramilitary defense group with the Mississippi Untied Front, a civil-rights organization to arm and protect the Black community.

President Nixon met with 15 black university and college presidents  including the president of Jackson State. Whitney Young, Jr. said that “Southern law officials are almost given license” to kill protesting Blacks as a result of speeches by Nixon and Agnew.

Tuesday, May 19

Twice within a 24-hour period, white repair workers and state investigators had tried to enter Alexander Hall and twice they were turned away by a hundred Jackson State students. The students posted a sign that read, “No Evidence Is to be Removed.”

Many Jackson students stayed on the scene both to protest the “massacre” and make sure that the facade of the women’s dorm, which was pocked with bullet holes and broken windows, was kept intact and used as evidence in investigating the tragedy.

There were a couple of defiant rallies that day, involving from 300 to 700 students, rallying outside the battered dorm, meeting with President Peoples in the college football stadium, marching back to Alexander Hall where they stood their ground. They chanted. They held signs, some of which said, “Shoot Me, My Back Is Turned,” “Pigs Watch out!”, “Deliver Me From [governor] John Bell Williams.” They continued to have a real fear that anything turned over to state investigators would end up as part of the cover-up, afterall, state police were refusing to cooperate with the FBI.

After over a week of hearings and testimonies from witnesses, Jackson mayor’s biracial committee wrote up a majority report for Mayor Davis. It concluded that students at the women’s dorm, Alexander Hall, had posed no threat to the police, despite some objects thrown; that police  had made no real effort to protect themselves from snipers; there was no credible evidence of any sniper; and that city police had not participated in the fusillade. Yet the FBI – unbeknownst to the mayor’s committee – had found a type of buckshot at the shooting scene that only Jackson city police were using.

Even US Attorney General John Mitchell flew to Jackson to view the damage at Alexander Hall. He appeared to be genuinely shocked at the sight of 250 bullet holes in the steel and concrete of the building.

Over the rest of the month, Jackson would remain tense, gun shops were doing a brisk business, more white storefronts were burned, and hundreds of students were camped out in front of the dorm. A court order was engineered to force the students to give ground, but hundreds rallied in front of TV cameras and told the order up. National Guardsmen patrolled the streets and bivouacked in local parks. Finally Peoples and student leaders made agreements with investigators and convinced those guarding the dorms that anything collected as evidence would be given to the FBI and not to state police.

The national reaction to the Jackson State killings was widespread . There were peaceful rallies, memorial services on campuses in Chicago, Utah, North Carolina, New York, and California. Some protests were not peaceful. A thousand Black students fought police in Baltimore; 3 dozen students from the University of Alabama were arrested for failing to disperse after a candlelight march. Some predominately Black colleges closed down and some predominately white colleges cancelled classes. Yet, the national response was definitely not as widespread or intense as the reaction to the Kent State shootings.

A general strike was held for two days this week at the University of Southern Mississippi in reaction to the murders at Jackson State

Senators Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh came to Jackson to attend James Green’s funeral and to view the blown apart dormitory. A reporter asked Senator Bayh if he thought the police over-reacted even if there was a sniper. Bayh responded, “I’ve heard no evidence of a sniper.” Also, he said, “…if you do have a sniper, you don’t just shoot everything in sight.” Senator Mondale added, “It’s a new national syndrome – the unfound sniper. Every time there’s an overreaction, that unfound sniper always gets blamed.”


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