Interview: Historian and Professor Nancy K. Bristow on the Forgotten Police Shooting of Black Students at Jackson State College
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of visual imagery, medicine, law, human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email: email@example.com.
Just after midnight on May 15, 1970, officers of the Jackson Police Department and the Mississippi Highway Patrol attacked unarmed students at Jackson State College, a historically black college in Mississippi. The law enforcement officers unleashed a murderous fusillade of hundreds of gunshots into a group of African American students who were simply standing in front of a women’s dormitory. After just half a minute of intense gunfire, two young men were left dead and a dozen young men and women were wounded, including several women in the dorm.
This tragic moment of brutal racial violence was soon largely forgotten in history. And, in subsequent accounts, the incident seems eclipsed in memory by the massacre at Kent State University ten days earlier, on May 4, 1970, when National Guard troops confronted antiwar protesters and wildly fired live ammunition into the throng of students, killing four white students and wounding nine others.
In her groundbreaking new book Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College (Oxford), distinguished historian and Professor Nancy K. Bristow unravels this complex story of this tragic and overlooked racial incident at Jackson State. The book is based on her meticulous examination of the history of racism in Jackson, the role of the college in the community, the horrific shooting, and the subsequent investigations and unsuccessful attempts of surviving victims and relatives to find justice. She also considers the role of memory, deeply ingrained racism, and the cultural response, in understanding this act of state violence against African Americans.
Steeped in the Blood of Racism presents the results of Professor Bristow’s painstaking investigation of the bloody eruption of violence at Jackson State and its historical context. In addition to wide-ranging archival research of official records, photographs, news reports, and other material, she interviewed dozens of witnesses and others. As with her previous work, her powerful and deeply humane book offers a moving and sensitive account of an episode of overlooked history with consequences that still resonate today.
Professor Bristow teaches American history with an emphasis on race and social change at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and she is a founding member of the university’s African American Studies Program. She also serves on the Race and Pedagogy Institute’s leadership team. She is a past Washington State Professor of the Year. Her other books include the critically acclaimed American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War.
Professor Bristow graciously responded to a series of questions by email.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your groundbreaking and heartbreaking new book Professor Bristow. In Steeped in the Blood of Racism, you have done an extensive investigation into the police shootings of students 50 years ago at Jackson State College in Mississippi.
Your new book seems a departure from your previous books: American Pandemic on the 1918 influenza epidemic in America, and Making Men Moral on social engineering during the First World War, although those books also explore issues of memory, race and class, among other matters. What inspired your meticulous exploration of the horrific events at Jackson State?
Professor Nancy K. Bristow: I have been teaching African American history for thirty years, and running throughout this history is a central theme of the brutality of white supremacy.
I learned about the Jackson State shootings through a student’s research paper, and recognized both its importance in illuminating the consequences of the “law and order” perspective championed by Richard Nixon and its resonances with the ongoing crisis of state-sanctioned violence against people of color today.
As I began researching what happened at Jackson State, I realized how effectively this one story illustrates so many of the themes that emerge in the history of state violence against African Americans—how easily law enforcement fires on African Americans, the racism that makes this action such a quick response, the reality that officers rarely face consequences for their actions, the ongoing trauma that results from this brutality, and the resistance of so many in the white community to seeing this violence for the ongoing crisis it represents.
The story of what happened at Jackson State in May 1970 is one that every American should know if they want to make sense of the world they live in today.
What happened at Jackson State College on May 15, 1970, when police unleashed a tremendous fusillade of gunshots on a group of African American students, fatally wounding two young men and injuring many other students?
The night of May 14-15, 1970 was the second night of conflict between students and law enforcement. The night before, some young people—students or local youths—had thrown rocks at white motorists on Lynch Street. This thoroughfare bisected the campus, and was a longstanding source of harassment for students. White commuters often endangered them by racing through the campus, and were also known to abuse student with racial epithets and insults. In 1964 a student was struck and hospitalized, and in the aftermath, and on many occasions in subsequent years, the young people protested the mistreatment and laid claim to the street.
On the night of May 13, police were called to close the street to motorists. A few trash bins were set on fire, and there was even a hapless attempt to attack the ROTC building. But law enforcement did not enter the campus, and things soon quieted.
The next night, though the president of the university, John A. Peoples, asked the city to close the street to forestall any additional problems, the city refused. Late that evening, rock throwing resumed, and the street was again closed. A crowd gathered in front of a men’s dormitory, Stewart Hall, on the western edge of campus. Someone drove a dump truck up Lynch Street from a nearby construction site and it stalled in front of Stewart Hall, and someone ignited it. A city fire truck, called to put out the blaze, brought with it both city policemen and the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol (MHSP). Their mission was to protect the fire truck. But with the fire out, these forces did not retreat to the periphery of the campus as they were charged to do, but instead marched up Lynch Street through the center of campus. They took with them the city’s armored tank, shotguns loaded with heavy buckshot, two submachine guns, and two rifles with armor-piercing bullets.
The forces halted in front of the women’s dormitory, Alexander Hall, where young people were enjoying the warm Mississippi night, and turned to face them, weapons leveled. Women’s curfew was at 11:30, and a little after midnight plenty of men were still hanging out, talking with the women through the windows. They were shocked by the arrival of the troops, because they knew they were on their own campus, and had done nothing wrong. Even so, they retreated behind the chain link fence between the dorm and the street when an officer commanded them to. And then a bottle crashed on the pavement and law enforcement opened fire. For 28 seconds. They fired more than 150 rounds, leaving over 400 bullet and shot marks on the exterior of Alexander Hall. Two young men—James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs—were killed, and twelve other young people were injured in the barrage.
When the firing finally stopped, the officers turned to picking up their spent shells, leaving the students to tend to one another. They offered no aid to the injured. The on-site commander of the MHSP, Lloyd Jones, bullied the students, ordering one to check on the bodies of Green and Gibbs, lacing his words with racial epithets. One reporter noted a mood of “levity” among the officers. Finally, the National Guard, who was to have replaced the city police and MHSP on campus, arrived and began helping the students.
You detail the history of Jackson State—a historically black college—and its place in the Jackson community and the state of Mississippi, a notorious site of racial violence through history. The shootings occurred early in the days of desegregation and in the time of a growing Black Power movement, but wasn’t Jackson State a quiet, conservative school that was tightly controlled by a white board of directors?
Though some of this is true—certainly the repression faced by African Americans in Mississippi—the situation at the college was more complex than the traditional narrative has suggested.
Yes, Jackson State College was controlled by an all-white Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning in Mississippi, and the board attempted to keep a tight rein on students across the state. For the black colleges, this meant students faced particularly harsh repercussions if they engaged in activism of any sort, and especially civil rights actions.
Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s the college’s president, Jacob Reddix, conceded to the board’s demands in hopes of building a school that could serve its students well. In 1957 Reddix withdrew the school’s basketball team from the NCAA playoffs to avoid facing a white team in the next round of the tournament. In 1961, when students from Tougaloo College north of Jackson attempted to desegregate the city’s downtown library and were arrested, some 800 students at Jackson State rallied in support, and even attempted a march to downtown. Law enforcement cracked down on the march, and the president expelled two students believed to be leaders in the actions. He also suspended the student government. Students learned early the consequences of activism on the Jackson State campus.
But by 1970 Jackson State was a changing institution. A new president, alumnus John A. Peoples, saw himself as part of “the new breed of college presidents,” people who were “proud to be black and who would speak up for the freedom of black people.” He wanted to create a “true university,” and this included expanding student rights and allowing greater opportunities for student expression and racial consciousness. The school newspaper increasingly carried stories about contemporary issues, from the war in Vietnam to issues of black identity. Students brought local activist and Fayetteville Mayor Charles Evers and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael to campus. The institution opened its Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black People, with noted writer and faculty member Margaret Walker as its director. And some students became advocates of Black Power. It was this changing campus that law enforcement assaulted in May 1970.
The horrific shootings at Jackson State happened just 10 days after National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio killed four white students and wounded others during a protest against the US invasion of Cambodia. What should readers know about the historical context of these two college campus shootings?
On April 30, President Richard Nixon informed the American public that US troops had invaded Cambodia. People were shocked, and antiwar activists were outraged. Nixon had run on the promise of ending the war, had recently announced troop withdrawals, and was now expanding the war. Protests erupted around the country. On the fourth day of protests at Kent State University, National guardsmen opened fire on students there, killing four young people and injuring nine more. In the aftermath, students at campuses nationwide organized memorial services and letter writing campaigns, vigils and mock funerals. The largest student strike in US history took hold.
Though there were no established antiwar groups on the Jackson State campus, activists there nevertheless mobilized to protest both the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State shootings. Some 200 to 300 students boycotted classes, and still more participated in a protest rally, and conversations about “KSU/Cambodia/Viet Nam/Draft/etc.” continued on the campus in the days to come. It was in the midst of this nationwide unrest that law enforcement opened fire on students at Jackson State.
The story of the Kent State killings has overshadowed the deadly Jackson State police assault since both incidents occurred. You stress that both incidents were conflated as two shootings of student protestors, but you found that the incidents were very different. What did you learn about how the shootings at Jackson State were seen and why they were so readily forgotten by most, and then virtually disappeared from history?
The important distinction between the two shootings is the white supremacy that caused the shootings at Jackson State and accounted for the amnesia that surrounds them.
The students at Jackson State College were assaulted because they were black students attending an HBCU in one of the most viciously racist states in the country. As the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest concluded, “racial antagonisms” were essential to understanding law enforcement’s behavior, as was their awareness that if they fired, they would face neither disciplinary action nor criminal charges.
Though many of the students at Kent State understood this distinction, the broader American public conflated the two events. TIME headlined its piece on the Jackson State shootings “Jackson: Kent State II.” This quick linkage unfortunately hid the essential role of racism in the events at Jackson State College. In the years to come, as anniversaries passed, the media increasingly ignored the Jackson State shootings, using the violence at Kent State to serve as the iconic example of all of the campus conflicts of the era. If they were all the same, it seemed, one could stand for the whole. The victims at Jackson State became, as the Chronicle of Higher Education listed them, simply “others who died.”
What was the historical problem you began with for your book and how did your book evolve during the course of your research?
I initially imagined a book exploring the ways the law and order narrative was used to justify state violence in the latter part of the civil rights era. I wanted to understand how, as the nation professed to be moving into a more just future in the wake of major civil rights legislation, new mechanisms were employed to continue to repress African Americans. I planned to write a book looking at how white representatives of the state used violence to control various elements of the black community in the late 1960s and early 1970s—not only college students but also black power advocates, people engaging in civil disturbances, the incarcerated.
I began my research with the shootings at Jackson State College, and stumbled into the opportunity to write this more focused book for Oxford University Press. I jumped at the opportunity, because my initial trip to Jackson State convinced me how important it was that more people learned this story.
What was your research process? For me, the book reads in part like a gripping, scrupulously detailed account of a complex crime.
I began with the archival sources, I think because that felt easiest. But once I was situated with the essentials of what took place, I realized the book would be hollow, would lack the humanity it demanded, if I did not talk directly with people who had been affected by the shootings—those who knew James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs, those who were injured, those who were witnesses, those who fought to keep the memory of that night alive, and those who continue the work of commemoration and remembering.
Talking to people, having so many people entrust their story to me, was the most humbling experience I have had as a historian. I will never forget this gift, and the responsibility it carries.
I have felt my duty as a historian in an entirely new way with this work. With any project one needs the research to be comprehensive and careful, the story that is told complex and correct. With this charged story of violence and loss, and with issues of white supremacy at its center, the responsibilities seemed dramatically heightened.
Two young African American men were killed in the shooting: James Earl Green and Philip Gibbs. What would you like readers to know about these men?
People need to understand, most importantly, that they did not deserve what happened to them, that they were murdered by white supremacist members of law enforcement. And people need to know that these young men were full of life, with talents they did not get to develop in full. And people need to know how beloved they were, how costly their deaths were for their friends, families, communities, and honestly their nation.
More specifically, people should know that Phillip Gibbs was a junior at Jackson State, where he was studying politics and considering a career in law. He and his wife Dale had a son, Phillip Jr., and she was, unknown to them at the time, pregnant with their second son, Demetrius. His friends remembered him as a “caring, sharing person,” someone who would “help anyone.” Gibbs was visiting with his sister and her roommate through the window of Alexander Hall just before he was shot.
James Green was just 17 years old, and was close to his high school graduation. He was the middle of nine children, and had a wonderful sense of humor. His sisters remember his loving personality, and how he could lift a person’s spirits no matter how down they were. And, they told me, “he could make a joke out of anything.” He was on his way home from work at the Wag-a-Bag grocery where he had worked since he was eleven when he was killed.
The students at Jackson State were shot by notoriously racist officers of the Jackson police and the Mississippi Highway Patrol. In this instance, it seems the National Guard urged restraint. What are some things you learned about deep-seated white supremacist views of the police officers and their record of relationships with the African Americans in Jackson and Mississippi?
The Jackson city police had a long history of racism and of mistreatment toward African Americans, and were a constant source of harassment for the students at Jackson State. They had brutalized civil rights activists throughout the decade. Though the force had added a few African Americans by 1970, none of them were officers, and black and white policemen still did not partner or ride together. It had been the chasing of a student onto the campus that provoked two nights of unrest in 1967, ending in the shooting of four young people and the death of local activist Benjamin Brown. Brown had not been involved in the trouble, and was shot from behind as he ran away from law enforcement.
The Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol (MHSP) remained an all-white force in 1970, and was well known not only in Mississippi but also nationwide for its brutal white supremacy. Lloyd “Goon” Jones, the on-site commander at Jackson State on the night of May 14-15, might help illustrate this. On the force since 1956, he had been a part of several moments of abuse during the civil rights struggle. He had arrested Freedom Riders in 1961, he had been among those who failed to intervene in the riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962, he had ordered the tear-gassing of one of the March Against Fear campsites in 1966, and in 1967 had fired his weapon the night law enforcement shot and killed Benjamin Brown. The tapes of his transmissions both before and after the shootings offer a visceral understanding of the utter disregard he felt for African Americans as he used derogatory language, and dismissed the importance of the slain and injured. Interviews with eyewitnesses and victims, both those by investigators in 1970 and those I conducted, only confirm the absolute absence of humanity of this man, who commanded the MHSP that night.
As you detail, no police perpetrators of the attack were criminally charged or disciplined for their actions. Indeed, they won praise from the white Southern establishment for advancing “Law and Order.” You explore the “Law and Order” narrative and how it came to define responses to African Americans in the Jim Crow era and the recently desegregated South. What should we know about the racially-coded appeal of “Law and Order” to many Americans in 1970?
Perhaps most importantly, the appeal of this racism, cloaked in the language of “law and order,” reached well beyond Mississippi or the South.
Linked to longstanding historical stereotypes that framed African Americans as inherently dangerous, misrepresentations first used to justify slavery, this revised rhetoric of law and order emerged on the American political landscape in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for the presidency. Though his candidacy failed, others recognized that some voters were attracted to his criticism of federal intervention on behalf of civil rights, and to his calls for law and order. The success in the 1968 primaries of George Wallace, reconstructed to evade the use of derogatory language even as he continued to appeal to white supremacy through the language of “states’ rights,” reinforced the idea that there were many white Americans who would welcome the opportunity to cloak their racism in the guise of a concern for law and order.
Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy was based in part on the idea that this kind of racist appeal could bring white southern voters, once solidly Democratic, into the Republican party. He was right. Part of the tragedy is that these appeals did not go down with the Nixon presidency, but became standard practice across the political spectrum, but especially among Republicans, facilitating not only the ongoing crisis of state violence against people of color but also helping to build the carceral state.
What happened with official investigations of the Jackson State police shootings?
There were multiple investigations of the shootings. The first was a local one, conducted by a bi-racial committee appointed by the mayor. It concluded that there was “no evidence that the crowd in front of Alexander Hall threatened the officers prior to firing.” A more fulsome investigation was carried out by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. Supported by a team of investigators, as well as the materials gathered by both the FBI and the mayoral committee, this politically and racially balanced body released a special report on the Jackson State shootings that emphasized the role of racism in producing the shootings. It concluded, “The 28-second fusillade from police officers was an unreasonable, unjustified over-reaction” and “clearly unwarranted.” Neither of these bodies, though, carried any ability to indict or prosecute.
The justice system proved anything but. Though US Attorney General John Mitchell assured the campus that he would order a full investigation, the appointment of Judge Harold Cox to oversee the federal grand jury undercut that promise. Cox was a well-known racist and segregationist who used racial epithets regularly. He had established his white supremacist credentials when he threw out the felony charge of “conspiracy to deprive the victims of their civil rights” against seventeen men in the murder of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman during Freedom Summer.
The federal grand jury produced neither a report nor any indictments. The Hinds County grand jury modeled itself on the federal one, with the judge borrowing from the words of Cox. Suggesting jurors should see their work as a “bulwark against those who seek . . . to oppress,” the court concluded that no one who engaged in civil unrest or did not extricate themselves from it “has any right to expect to avoid serious injury or even death” if “extreme measures or harsh treatment” proved necessary. This grand jury, too, would return no indictments for the shootings.
It may surprise and upset some readers that wounded survivors of the shootings and families of the fatally-wounded men sued for some compensation, yet they never found justice or restitution. Why was it so difficult for these worthy plaintiffs to find some degree of sort of recompense in the post-segregation South of the early seventies?
In 1972, three of the injured students and the families of James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs brought a civil suit. Led by the gifted Constance Slaughter, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi Law School, the case was a very strong one. But it was not strong enough to succeed against the white supremacy of the defense, which relied on the rhetoric of law and order to depict the students as criminals, or of the all-white jury, which ruled for the defendants.
A victory on appeal proved hollow when the court also ruled that the city, state, and their representatives, were covered by sovereign immunity. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1974, the doors to justice were closed.
You are a distinguished historian and an expert on historical memory. How would you like to see the Jackson State shootings in our history?
This event needs to be part of the way we think about the black power era, the late 1960s and early 1970s. We need to understand that in the aftermath of the civil rights successes of the mid-1960s, old-fashioned racist violence by law enforcement continued, even as it was dressed up in new rhetoric.
By 1970 police in Mississippi and elsewhere could not, at least theoretically, gun down unarmed innocents, even if they were black. The reality is that they could, so long as they could justify themselves as acting in the interests of law and order against a purportedly criminal element. Being black in the United States was all it took to be cast as such. This reality is laid bare in the horrors of the Jackson State shootings and their aftermath.
Thank you Professor Bristow for your illuminating comments and for your original research on this overlooked history. Is there anything you’d like to add on your book or your work as a historian?
Mostly I want to thank you for your willingness to share this story with your readers, and to ask readers to hold the stories of those who were hurt—physically, psychologically, emotionally, and in other ways—in their minds and in their hearts.
Also, I want to urge readers to recognize the direct linkages between this past and our present. The crisis of state-sanctioned violence against people of color is ongoing. We must demand accountability when those who represent us as officers of the state--law enforcement officers--act on white supremacy and commit this kind of violence.
Fifty years is too long for these crimes to continue to happen, and to go unpunished by our justice system.
It’s an honor for me to share your thoughtful words Professor Bristow. I admire your humane and creative approach to history that breathes life into the past and inspires hope for a more tolerant and just world. Thanks again for your generosity and your pioneering history of the Jackson State shootings in 1970, a timely and provocative history. Congratulations on this important new book.
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