In the shadows of May 4

Jackie Valley

Gailya Porter remembers being outside of her dorm with friends on a warm Thursday evening at Jackson State College. She remembers the echo of the footsteps as city police officers and state highway patrolmen marched toward Alexander Hall.

She remembers the officers started firing, showering the cluster of students and the dormitory wall with bullets. She remembers the bullets whizzing by her face. She remembers a close friend picking her up and bringing her to Alexander Hall’s door.

She remembers leaving campus and never wanting to return. It was May of 1970, and more students’ blood had been shed at a college campus just 10 days after the National Guard opened fire on protesting students at Kent State, killing four and wounding nine. This time the two dead and 12 wounded students lay 930 miles south at what’s now called Jackson State University, a historically black campus prone to acts of discrimination by white motorists passing on Lynch Street, a main thoroughfare named after Mississippi’s first black congressman, John Roy Lynch.

The street cut through campus on the way downtown.

But the national legacy of the dead at Jackson State University and another black college, South Carolina State University, in 1968 never paralleled that of their sister tragedy at Kent State. Mired in state politics, racism and ignorance, the black students’ legacy remains in the shadows of the four white students killed at Kent State. And yet, these young adults — regardless of their skin color — share a common bond, one of great sacrifice during social movements that helped shape the future of the United States.

Unlike in Kent, students weren’t protesting when the shootings occurred at Jackson State. They weren’t holding signs or shouting anti-war messages.

But like previous springs at Jackson State, racial tensions were boiling over. Tensions had escalated the night before, after students threw rocks at white motorists driving on Lynch Street. A small fire that was set on the ROTC building’s porch roof made matters worse. Jackson’s Mayor Russell Davis put the National Guard and the Mississippi Highway Patrol on alert.

The next day, however, campus seemed quiet and relatively normal. By night, more rock-throwing and a false report about the murder of a Mississippi civil rights leader sparked tensions again. Consequently, law enforcement increased its presence around campus.

But other than the racial unrest plaguing Jackson State in Mississippi’s capital, no major incidents led up to the shootings around midnight May 14, 1970. Two young black men died — Phillip Gibbs, 21, a Jackson State student, and James Earl Green, 17, a local high school student heading home from work. According to the commission’s report, the shootings left about 12 other students wounded, including Porter’s friend, Gloria Mayhorn, who was shot in the arm.

Like Kent State, the cause of the shootings remains unclear. Some say the officers saw a sniper in Alexander Hall, the girls’ dormitory. The rumored sniper was never found.

Jackie Valley is a senior newspaper journalism major

and editor.