SINCE 1759

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Philip Gibbs
James Earl Green

“Law of the Jungle”
Remember the Jackson State Killings, Too

In response to the piece on Kent State I received this emailed note: “please do not forget the two students killed at jackson state university around this [time]. they were also killed protesting the war and racism.” How easy to forget, or not even know, that the Kent State killings weren’t the only ones by police and National Guard that month. I had no idea. I doubt most people who remember Kent State remember Jackson State.

Beginning on May 12, 1970, a week after the Kent State killings, students at Jackson State College in Mississippi (it became Jackson State University in 1974) began to demonstrate for the same reason students in Ohio and elsewhere were demonstrating—against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Most of the students demonstrating at Jackson State were black.  It was an affront to police, but also to residents, who took to riding by the demonstrators and launching racist insults. In return, students began launching stones at the passing cars. The night of May 14, students set a dumpster on fire. Firefighters responded, so did the Mississippi Highway Patrol — in riot gear, supposedly to protect the firefighters. The fire was put out. The troopers didn’t leave. They roamed.

They came about a group of 100 students outside a women’s dormitory, or 400, according to the patrol. It was midnight. The same excuse was heard: a “sniper” fired at the Highway Patrol from the dormitory. The patrol responded by letting loose with shotguns, firing 275 rounds into the dormitory. Of course, no evidence of a sniper was found. The dormitory’s every window was blown out. Nine black students were wounded. Two were killed: Philip Gibbs, a junior in a prelaw program, married, father of one child, who was about to turn 11 months, wife expecting another, and James Earl Green a 17-year-old high school student who had just finished his shift at a grocery store and was just walking through campus. Green worked six hours a day for $12 a week to help his widowed mother, three younger brothers and a sister. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana visited the scene days later with Walter Mondale, then a senator from Minnesota. “What we have seen,” Bayh said, “is enough to make a grown man cry, that this can go on in the United States of America.” And Mondale: “An assault on the dignity of this country was made here in an utterly disgraceful fashion.”

On May 16, 1970, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Law of the Jungle,” almost certainly written by the great John Oakes, the editorial page editor who would be fired within a few years for being too liberal: “The uncontrolled use of firearms by police and National Guardsmen has become a menace to internal security. The deaths at Kent State have now been followed by killings in Augusta’s ghetto and at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Within hours of the Kent State tragedy, Kentucky Guard unites were ordered to the state university campus with loaded rifles, and in Ohio itself authorities continue to sanction the use of live ammunition for campus policing.” (The Augusta killings involved clashes between police and black rioters. Six blacks were killed, all shot in the back.)

A federal commission would eventually call the patrol’s action at Jackson State “clearly unwarranted.” But those were just words. The commission also found that the officers did what they did because they thought they’d never be disciplined. And they never were. Not a single person was prosecuted. A $13.8 million civil suit by the victim’s families was dismissed. To this day of course, the Jackson State killings continue to be virtually ignored (as I had ignored them), although there seems to be a continuing moral in there if one were to take that line—“The uncontrolled use of firearms by police and National Guardsmen has become a menace to internal security”—and apply it to Americans wielding arms in Iraq. Northing much has changed except the rioters' color and identity. Not even the ease with which American “authorities” from Nixon to the current crop of commanders call their opponents thugs or terrorists has changed. Those students back in 1970 weren't called any less. The bullets are only demonization's climactic crown jewels.

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