Socialist Worker

Vietnam War student massacre—50 years on

In May 1970 cops opened fire at black students resisting US imperialism. Socialist Worker looks at the forgotten killings at Jackson State

Issue No. 2704

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Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green


Mississippi was known to the world as America’s capital of racism.

During the high points of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s, it had been a key battleground in the fight against segregation.

But in May 1970 its infamy was to grow still further.

As Richard Nixon expanded the war in Vietnam into the neighbouring state of Cambodia, a mood of rage swept college campuses across the country.

Within a few days of the announcement some four million students at 1,300 colleges were in revolt. Occupations and barricades were erected at many, and conflict with the police was common.

At Jackson State College, which was known as an African-American institution, a dumper truck had been set alight.

Police and fire trucks were preparing to put it out, however, it was no “normal” operation.

The all white Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol, joined with the mostly white local police to conduct a military operation of their own.

Enraged at the confidence and militancy of the black students, they wanted to smash them so hard no one would want to rebel again.

The cops armed themselves with double-barrelled shotguns, an assortment of “personal weapons”, two machine guns and an armoured personnel carrier.

The campus fire was dealt with quickly, and then the police forced demonstrating students into the centre of the campus. 

The stones the students threw would be no match for the police arsenal

Calming

When cops cornered the rebellion most students sat down, and the situation appeared to be calming.

At that moment the police opened fire and eleven students were shot in 28 seconds.

Student Vernon Steve Weakly was shot in the leg. He remembers, “The sky lit up as if it was day. I could hear the loud blasts of shotguns and automatic weapons.

“While I lay motionless I could feel a rain of shotgun pellets on my legs and backside. Then all noise ceased and for a few seconds there was an eerie silence.

“As abruptly as the noise stopped, it began again—but this time the air was filled with the screams and cries of the students, many of whom had been wounded by the gunfire or injured by flying glass and the mad crush of bodies pushing at the doorway. Blood was everywhere.”

James Earl Green, a high school student who lived nearby, lay dead on the ground, not far from Jackson State College student Phillip Gibbs.

Inspector Lloyd “Goon” Jones was the police commander. At gunpoint he ordered the young people to check on those who lay bleeding. Contacting his headquarters Jones reported “several injured” but explained that they were just “nigger students”.

The killings at Jackson State College were a parallel event to those at Kent State University in Ohio which took place ten days before.

But the fact that Jackson was seen as a “black college” meant that the police felt they could act with impunity.

Kent was immortalised in a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and became a part of the anti-Vietnam War movement’s legacy, a common touchstone in the 50 years that have passed.

Jackson became lost in the mist of time.

Socialists and anti-racists today must undo that wrong. 

Part of that is putting the history of black struggle back into our remembering of the fight against imperialism and war.


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