The Jackson State Massacre of 1970

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Overshadowed by the coverage of the Kent State Massacre that occurred not two weeks prior, when two people were killed and 11 injured while protesting at Jackson State College in the spring of 1970, the nation barely noticed – and today few remember.

The Protest

About 4,300 black (and only five white) students were enrolled at the historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi that spring. On May 7, 1970, about one week before the fatal attack and a few days after the Kent State massacre, students had organized a protest of the United States’ “policies in Cambodia and Vietnam.”[i]

In addition to their outrage over the war and the slaughter at Kent State, the students were fed up with unequal, de-humanizing treatment: “There was the added issue of historical racial intimidation and harassment by white motorists traveling Lynch Street, a major thoroughfare that divided the campus and linked West Jackson to downtown.”

For years, in response to the aggression of white motorists, students had been hurtling objects at cars passing through campus. On the night of May 13, 1970:

Rocks were being thrown at white motorists from a crowd of about 100 persons gathered on both sides of Lynch Street . . . Most of them were students, and more than three fourths of those present were passive onlookers. . . . Jackson City Police units established roadblocks . . . to seal off the campus. The rock-throwing stopped [but] . . . the number of persons in the street [grew to] reach an estimated 700. . . . Jackson’s Mayor Russell Davis . . . requested that the National Guard be mobilized and the Mississippi Highway Patrol placed on standby . . . .[ii]

In addition to rock throwing, windshields were shattered, fires were set and young men (not all necessarily students) had “moved toward” passing motorists. Shots were fired, but no one was reported as being injured. “Sometime after midnight, the crowd gradually began to disperse. By the early hours of the morning the disturbance was over and the campus was quiet.[iii]”

The next night, May 14, 1970, tensions remained high: “A National Guard log recorded that 647 guardsmen were on duty and stationed at an armory in Jackson.”[iv]

The students were still angry and on edge when: “A rumor spread around campus that Charles Evers – a local politician, civil rights leader and the brother of slain activist Medgar Evers – and his wife had been killed.”

Enraged, the students rioted overnight, setting fires, overturning a dump truck and throwing rocks at vehicles passing on Lynch Street. First responders at the scene: “Met a hostile crowd that harangued them as they worked to contain the fire. Fearing for their safety, the firemen requested police backup [who] blocked off the campus.”

Confusion reigned among law enforcement with National Guard, Jackson City police and Mississippi highway patrolmen all responding, and each group carried weapons:

The National Guard was armed with special riot shotguns . . . . City police carried shotguns loaded with heavy No. 1 buckshot. Most highway patrolmen were armed with shotguns loaded with double-O buckshot, others carried personally owned rifles or carbines, and two were armed with loaded submachine guns. The National Guard and city police each had men specially assigned for antisniper duty, senior sharpshooters armed with rifles.[v]

The combined Guardsmen and police were able to successfully hold off the crowd long enough for the firemen to extinguish the fires and leave the scene.

The Massacre

The combined soldiers and officers organized into a line to face down the protesters:

With few exceptions, the city police were in a line south and east of the tank [an armored vehicle operated by the Jackson police], and the highway patrolmen were in a line north and west of the tank . . . within 20 feet of the nearest member of the crowd. . . . Estimates of the size of the crowd range all the way from 40 to 400.[vi]

Next, all hell broke loose:

Several students allegedly shouted “obscene catcalls” while others chanted and tossed bricks at the officers . . . . Accounts disagree as to what happened next. Some students said the police . . . warned them, and then opened fire. Others said the police abruptly opened fire on the crowd and the dormitory [behind the students]. Other witnesses reported that the students were under the control of a campus security officer when the police opened fire. Police claimed they spotted a powder flare and opened fire in self-defense . . . only.

Regardless, mayhem resulted. Students fled for their lives: “There were screaming and cries of terror and pain mingled with the noise of sustained gunfire . . . . A few students were trampled.”

According to a later report commissioned by President Nixon, the shooting lasted only 28 seconds.

The Aftermath 

One of the dead was a junior studying pre-law and the father of an 18-month-old toddler, Phillip L. Gibbs. The other was a high school senior, James Earl Green, who had stopped to view the protest on his way home from his job at a grocery store – Green was found dead “behind the line of police and highway patrolmen.” Both men’s fatal wounds were caused by buckshot.

The injured were strewn across the grounds; however, according to some accounts: “The ambulances were not called until after the officers picked up their shell casings.”

The wounded included Willie Woodward (not a student) and students Leroy Kenter, Vernon Steve Weakley, Fonzie Coleman, Andrea Reese, Redd Wilson, Jr., Gloria Mayhorn, Patricia Ann Sanders, Stella Spinks, Tuwaine Davis, and Climmie Johnson.[vii]

The President’s report later revealed that “more than 150 rounds were fired,” but more disturbingly: “One patrolman, who fired four rounds, reloaded and fired four more, and reloaded and fired again. He told a Commission staff investigator he did not know “how many times” he reloaded and emptied his gun.[viii]”

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Expand for Further References

[i] Report p. 416 [ii] Report p. 417 [iii] Report p. 420-421 [iv] Report p. 422 [v] Report p. 428 [vi] Report p. 428 [vii] Report p. 431-432 [viii] Report p. 432
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  • GC

    According to this story there were two dead, one behind the police lines, and 11 injured. The type of buckshot taken at the autopsy could narrow down the identity of the shooter. The death of James Earl Green sounds like that shooting could not have been called anything but a murder since he was behind the police line.

  • Maxey E. Baucum

    I was there that night as part of a National Guard unit. We had been on standby duty since arriving in the early morning hours of May 13, 1970 at Raymond Armory some 5 miles from the college. About 11:30 that night were were ordered to put on our riot gear and loaded on the back of 21/2 ton army trucks. We were equiped with flak jackets our steel helmets, gas mask, an M1 Garand but no ammunition. We were never given any ammunition but each were given a tear gas grenade which we never used.
    When we arrived on the outskirts of the campus we formed up and ran up Lynch Street to the campus. We were then ordered to stop and move forward in single file keeping about a 5 meter distance between men. I myself was the second man in line and the column halted about 75 yards from the armored vehicle converted from an armored bank truck. Around the truck were several police and in front was a building that had maybe what looked like an elevator shaft with window going up about 3 stories. Many of the windows were busted out and inside I could hear what seem like females crying and people talking. Out front and between the armored vehicle was one a motionless body laying next to a cyclone fence that ran along the street. After about 5 minutes an ambulance came up but the driver and assistance were afraid to get out. After maybe a minute about 4 people came out of the building and the attendants gave them a stretcher to which they pickrf up and loaded the person next to the fence. Immediatly after this ambulance left other ambulances arrived and left one after another with injured that were in the building with the elevator shaft. After this the police left and we stayed in position out front until after daylight the next morning to where we retraced our entrance and halted at a baseball field and were given something to eat. At the field and laying on the ground were several copies of a letter from the president of the college, a Dr. Peeples asking for restraint from the students. Not long after being there two male students came up where a group of us were standing. He stated to me the main problem were non students and refered to them as street boys who caused most of the problems. Since being out front of the dorms all night and not seeing anyone I ask him where the students were. He replied they were all laying in the halls afraid we were going to fire on them. I told him no we didn’t have loaded weapons and no ammo that we were trained in riot control as a show of force never intending to do harm but to only control any unruly crowds.
    We were the only Guard unit there and were not involved in the shooting that took place. I did see and assumed the damage on the building and windows were from weapons fire. I did see a dump truck and a backhoe on the street that was still smoldering from fire. I was told this equipiment was left there while doing sewer work in the street. This equipment must have been what the fireman were called in for to extinguish a blaze. Also to the rear of where I was all night was the ROTC building where a moltov cocktail had burned on the ground. It looked like it had rolled of the roof. That’s about all I know of the event but I can assure anyone the National Guard was not there until after the shootings. We did our job as we were trained on many occations to do so.