JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The mayor of Mississippi
's capital city and a state senator both apologized Saturday for shootings on the campus of a historically Black college by city and state police
officers 51 years ago.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba
and Jackson State Senator Hillman Frazier spoke at the Class of 1970 graduation ceremony for what was then Jackson State College
, now Jackson State University.
Lumumba apologized on behalf of the city to the families of two men whose lives were cut short by the violent police response to the racial injustice protest. Killed were 21-year-old Jackson State student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old James Earl Green, a high school student who was on campus while walking home from work.
Because of the bloodshed, Jackson State's 1970 commencement was canceled, and graduates received their diplomas in the mail, if at all. On Saturday, 74 of the 400-plus 1970 graduates donned caps and gowns and stood in the sun to receive the recognition denied to them a lifetime ago.
“As James Baldwin once said, ‘When we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it,’” Lumumba said. “I believe that as a city, we must publicly atone for our sins and proclaim a new identity of dignity, equity, and justice.”
The shootings at Jackson State University on May 15, 1970, had been overshadowed by violence from a few days earlier, when Ohio
National Guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State University students during a Vietnam War protest.
Lumumba and Frazier are both Black, and they represent a city that is now more than 80% Black, whereas Jackson was majority-white in 1970, and the Jackson police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who went on campus were white.
Lumumba claimed that officers from the Jackson police Department “unjustly gunned down two innocent young Black men, terrorized and traumatized a community of Black students, and committed one of the gravest sins in our city’s history.”
Frazier was a Jackson State student in 1970, and he claims he had gone to dinner that night and was delayed in returning to campus, but he believes he would have been standing near his friend Gibbs during the gunfire if the delay had not occurred.
“The state of Mississippi never apologized for the tragedy that occurred on this campus that night — never apologized,” Frazier said, adding, “So, since I'm here representing the state of Mississippi in my role as state senator, I'd like to issue an apology to the families, the Jackson State family, for the tragedy that occurred that night because they took very valuable lives.”
Officers marched onto Jackson State University the night of May 14, 1970, to quell racial injustice protests. According to a report by President Richard Nixon's Commission
on Campus Unrest, Jackson State students had been throwing rocks at white motorists. James "Lap" Baker, a member of the Class of 1970, told The Associated Press
on Wednesday that students were fed up with white people
driving through the campus.
Students gathered outside the Alexander Hall women's dormitory and the B.F. Roberts dining hall across the street, some protesting, others simply enjoying each other's company as women returned to their dorms before curfew.
After midnight on May 15, a Highway Patrol officer used a bullhorn to address students, Baker said, and someone in the crowd threw a bottle, prompting officers to open fire indiscriminately, falsely claiming they had seen a sniper in a dorm window.
A Jackson TV reporter captured 28 seconds of gunfire, at the end of which Gibbs and Green were dead and 12 others were bleeding. The windows of Alexander Hall were shattered, and its walls were left with pockmarks that can still be seen today.
During Saturday's ceremony, John A. peoples Jr.
, president of Jackson State from 1967 to 1984, said he remembers "the sickening smell of blood" streaming down Alexander Hall's stairwell after the shootings.
“We sat on that lawn for the rest of the night, singing freedom songs,” peoples explained.
Baker crawled through the grass after the shootings to return unharmed to his off-campus apartment following what he calls a planned "massacre." No officer was ever charged criminally, and an all-white jury awarded no money
to the families of the Black victims in a civil lawsuit
On Saturday, Jackson State University awarded posthumous honorary doctorate degrees to Gibbs and Green, and their sisters accepted them. The ceremony took place on the site of the once-busy street, which was closed years ago and turned into a pedestrian zone known as the Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza.