‘Steeped in the Blood of Racism’

Author discusses new book on the Jackson State shootings, which happened 50 years ago this week.

May 12, 2020

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired on Kent State University students during an antiwar protest, killing four students and wounding nine others. But Kent State was not the only tragedy of the era. Eleven days later, (white) employees of the Jackson, Miss., police and the Mississippi Highway Patrol opened fire on a protest outside a women's dormitory at historically black Jackson State College (now University). Two were killed, and 12 were injured.

The Jackson State incident received far less attention than the Kent State shootings. No one was punished for the shootings. And most people have never heard of them.

Nancy K. Bristow, a professor of history at the University of Puget Sound, hopes to change that with her new book, Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 at Jackson State College (Oxford University Press). She responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: What drew you to Jackson State? Why did the case speak to you?

A: This story unfortunately reflects so many themes in the history of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans -- the impunity with which law enforcement opens fire against black people, the white supremacy at the core of those actions, the immunity to prosecution the officers responsible generally find, the trauma such violence means for the victims, their families and their communities, and the unwillingness of too many in the white community to acknowledge or remember violence.

Like so many white Americans, I knew very little about the shootings. When one of my students wrote a paper on the topic, my interest was sparked. I initially approached the shootings from the wrong angle, imagining it as a story focused on antiwar activism. My first visit to Jackson State quickly corrected my error. These students were shot because they were black students attending school in what was, at the time, the most racially repressive state in the nation. Given the white amnesia about this story, and the way that forgetting facilitates the ongoing crisis of police violence against people of color, it seemed vital to share this story with a broad audience.

Q: What was Jackson State College like at the time of the shootings?

A: It was a changing campus in many ways. By 1960 Jackson State College had grown into the largest black college in Mississippi, and its infrastructure had grown exponentially. Unfortunately, it still remained inadequately funded, even as the number of students doubled between 1967 and 1970 to something approximating 4,300. In 1967 alumnus John A. Peoples took over the presidency of the college. Describing himself as part of a “new breed” of college presidents, he promised a “revolution in our books.” For students this meant a new openness to their views and their voices, and over the next three years growing expressions of political awareness and racial consciousness emerged on the campus. In turn, veterans returning from the war in Vietnam brought both maturity and a heightened political consciousness with them.

At the same time, the campus was still a public institution in Mississippi, ruled over by the all-white Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning. As a result, students remained under significant pressure to avoid activism. Even so, some were concerned about the war in Vietnam, some experienced the pressure of the draft intensely, and many felt strongly about the issues of racial inequity they experienced on a daily basis.

Q: What was the student protest movement like at Jackson State? How did it differ from that of Kent State?

A: Jackson State had been able to survive in the state of Mississippi because its administrators had long understood that in order to be allowed to provide an education to black students, they needed to keep a tight rein on their students’ behavior. Jacob Reddix, who preceded Dr. Peoples in the presidency, had maintained this balancing act, for instance agreeing in 1957 to withdraw the school’s basketball team from the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament to avoid playing a white team in the next round.

With the eruption of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Reddix maintained his tight control. In the spring of 1961, when students from Tougaloo College were arrested for attempting to desegregate the Jackson library, as many as 800 Jackson State students held a rally on campus, and many students followed up with a boycott of classes and an attempt to march downtown that was viciously halted by the police. In the aftermath, Reddix expelled two students known to have been active in the protests and later disbanded the student government.

As a state school, too, Jackson State was covered by a law prohibiting student chapters of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP on the campus. In turn, students at Jackson State had been children during the early years of the civil rights movement and were aware of the countless African Americans slain in Mississippi in recent years, if sometimes for their activism, in other cases for an unwillingness to accept “their place” in the economic, political or social spheres. Put simply, students at Jackson State knew well the serious consequences they might pay for activism. In the spring of 1970, there were no formally organized activist groups on campus.

That said, students did assert themselves, if not as broadly or visibly as the protest movements that had grown among both black and white students over the course of decades at Kent State University, a history well documented in Thomas M. Grace’s splendid book, Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties. The 1961 protests are just one example. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the body coordinating civil rights organizations in the state during the 1960s, was headquartered just a few blocks from campus, as was the Masonic Temple that frequently housed gatherings of the state NAACP.

Throughout the decade, Lynch Street, a four-lane thoroughfare named for the first African American to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Congress, was a source of tension for students. Running through the center of campus, the street carried white motorists between work downtown and their homes in the suburbs. Those drivers frequently imperiled students or harassed them with racial epithets. When a student was hit by a car and hospitalized in 1964, students took to the street to protest. There would be other moments of conflict between students and law enforcement over the course of the decade, frequently centered on Lynch Street. In 1967, police opened fire on students and other young people during a night of unrest, injuring four and killing a local civil rights activist, Benjamin Brown. Brown was not involved in the trouble and was actually fleeing the scene when he was shot from behind. In May 1970, in response to both the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State University, activists on campus organized both a protest rally and a boycott of classes involving hundreds of students.

Finally, the shootings at Jackson State took place on a second night of unrest. Though both nights began with rock throwing at white motorists, some students maintained the unrest was related to concerns about the war, Cambodia, Kent State and students' rights. Others suggested the trouble began with rumors that local activist and mayor of Lafayette, Miss., Charles Evers and his wife had been killed. Most, though, were not sure what had prompted the initial trouble but were provoked by the presence of law enforcement on their campus.

Q: Why was no one ever punished for what happened at Jackson State?

A: This is particularly startling given the findings of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, which concluded that “the 28-second fusillade from police officers was an unreasonable, unjustified over-reaction” and “clearly unwarranted.” The U.S. attorney general, John Mitchell, actually visited Jackson State a few days after the shootings and promised that the Justice Department would make a full investigation. His sincerity was quickly questioned, though, when he followed his visit with attendance the next day at a meeting of the all-white segregationist Delta Council in nearby Cleveland, Miss. These suspicions proved prescient. Though a federal grand jury took up the case, it was presided over by District Judge William Harold Cox, an avowed segregationist and white supremacist.

In his charges to the jury, he told them that “this district will not provide safe sanctuary for militants or for anarchists or for revolutionaries of any race.” Though the disturbance at Jackson State had been mild in the context of May 1970 and had not endangered anyone, and though the students who were shot were removed from the trouble by a couple of blocks and had not participated in the earlier unrest, the grand jury produced neither indictments nor a written record of its findings.

The Hinds Country Grand Jury did little better, with Judge Russel D. Moore borrowing text from Judge Cox’s instructions, and adding, “No person participating in a riot or civil disorder or open combat with civil authorities, or failing to immediately dissociate himself from such a group or gathering, has any civil right to expect to avoid serious injury or even death when the disorder becomes such as to require extreme measures and harsh treatment.” No one was indicted for the shootings.

With the failure of the criminal justice system, victims were left to sue in civil court, which three of the injured and the families of James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs did. Over the course of the trial, the defense for the state and city portrayed the officers who had done the shooting as heroes, men who had risked their lives to defend law and order in their community. The victims, alternatively, were painted as criminals. The all-white jury found for the defendants. How could such a miscarriage of justice happen? Local lawyers for the shooting victims had expected to be unsuccessful in the lower court, where they knew white supremacy would carry the day. They hoped to win on appeal, which they did in 1974 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, as the court also ruled that the state and city governments, their officials, and their law enforcement officers were covered by “sovereign immunity.” The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Q: Why do we know so much less about Jackson State than about Kent State?

A: This is such an important question. The information about the Jackson State shootings has always been readily available. Though they did not garner the same front-page coverage granted to the shootings at Kent State, the shootings and the investigatory and legal aftermaths were covered by the major television news networks and newspapers nationwide. People at the time had the opportunity to be well informed, and surely many Americans were aware of the case, at least in its rough outline.

And yet while the Kent State shootings became the iconic representation of the divisions in the nation in that era, the story of the violence at Jackson State has largely disappeared from the nation’s public consciousness. How could this happen? The obvious answer, and the right one, is that we have forgotten these victims for the same reason they were victimized in the first place -- because they were black.

This operates in a number of ways. For more conservative white Americans, the shootings were dismissed as a chapter in the struggle to assert “law and order,” often with the underlying assumption that the victims must have done something to deserve it. For more liberal white Americans, the story was too often conflated with the shootings at Kent State, seen as one more in a long list of campus disturbances that pitted antiwar students against a repressive state. In such an account, the one can seemingly speak for the whole.

But Jackson State was not another Kent State. This shooting was caused by white supremacy, and white Americans have resisted acknowledging our white supremacist past as a means to justifying our institutionalized racism in the present. The Jackson State story fell victim to this much broader problem of white American memory. To look at the realities of the assault at Jackson State demands that we also recognize the ongoing crisis of state violence against people of color today, something too many white Americans refuse to do.


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