The shootings on the campus of Jackson State College on 14 May 1970 began with the throwing of rocks at passing cars on Lynch Street, a sporadic occurrence in preceding years. Lynch Street, a four-lane thoroughfare that bisected the campus and that was named for John Roy Lynch, the state’s first African American member of Congress, connected West Jackson’s white suburbs to the city’s business district. Businesses serving the black neighborhoods just east of the campus on Lynch Street included a few bars and pool halls that attracted students and a group of nonstudents known as cornerboys. Fear and resentment between the two groups sometimes boiled over into physical confrontations, including a May 1969 rock-throwing fight.
Yet racial tension provoked most of the conflict on Lynch Street. In February 1964 a white motorist hit a black student in front of her dormitory, breaking her leg. After police let the driver continue, students blocked traffic and later that night threw bottles and rocks at a barricade of city policemen. Claiming to see a sniper, the police fired their shotguns into the air and then into the crowd, wounding three. The incident provoked further distrust of white policemen and white motorists, many of whom taunted students as they passed through campus. On 10 May 1967 students again blocked traffic on Lynch Street, this time to thwart the capture of a black student whom the police had accused of speeding. Groups of students and cornerboys threw projectiles at the police, set small fires, and looted a few businesses. The next night, officers and a large contingent of black youth confronted each other once again: this time a bottle thrown from the crowd seriously cut a police officer’s neck. The injured officer discharged his shotgun in the air, and as the crowd moved toward the barricade, policemen opened fire. Ben Brown, a twenty-two-year-old nonstudent, was hit with buckshot on Lynch Street and later died. In addition, two students were wounded by birdshot. Another confrontation arose eleven months later when a crowd of demonstrators and rock throwers gathered to express outrage over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but police seemed more restrained, using tear gas instead of bullets to disperse the protest.
On the night of 13 May 1970 a crowd in front of Alexander Hall, the women’s dorm, again began throwing rocks and bottles at white motorists on Lynch Street, eventually hitting a passing patrol car. No one is certain what provoked this latest volley of projectiles, but many students had come to regard throwing rocks as an annual springtime ritual to express dissatisfaction with the white establishment. Just nine days earlier, National Guardsmen had opened fire on antiwar demonstrators at Ohio’s Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine. Yet neither antiwar nor civil rights activism was prevalent among the student body at Jackson State.
Hundreds of students began to gather on Lynch Street between Alexander Hall and Stewart Hall, the men’s dorm. Many ignored a 10:30 p.m. curfew set by college president John Peoples, and students and nonstudents struck campus security cars and set fire to two trash trailers. Some attempted to burn down the ROTC building, but members of the Jackson police and the highway patrol arrived to secure the area, and the students began to disperse. The next day, Peoples chastised his students for “the annual riot,” while Jackson mayor Russell Davis downplayed the incident, assuring residents that officers “did a good job” and that the situation could have been much worse. Neither expected a repeat of the violence.
But at about 9:30 the following night, a small group in front of Stewart Hall began tossing stones at white drivers as police and highway patrolmen arrived to close off the street. False rumors began spreading that civil rights leader Charles Evers and his wife had been murdered. Evers was the mayor of Fayette, the brother of the slain Medgar Evers, and the father of a Jackson State student. Some nonstudents commandeered a nearby dump truck, intending to dump its load of dirt in the middle of Lynch Street. When it stalled near Stewart Hall, a young man pulled out his revolver and shot at the engine and the gas tank, setting the truck ablaze. Crowds continued to build in front of Stewart and Alexander Halls, throwing rocks and other objects and shouting insults. Patrolmen fired shotguns, and National Guardsmen began leaving their posts to come to the aid of the police officers. Accompanied by a tank, Guardsmen moved into positions along the fence in front of Alexander Hall, flanked by city police and highway patrolmen.
As bottles began crashing on either side of the officers, members of the highway patrol and city police opened fire, mostly in the direction of Alexander Hall. Officers claimed to see a sniper in an upper window of the dormitory and fired shotguns, rifles, and submachine guns at the building for approximately twenty-eight seconds, unleashing more than four hundred rounds. Students sought cover, but a buckshot slug killed James Earl Green, a senior at Jim Hill High School who had stopped across the street from Alexander Hall on his way home after work at a nearby grocery store. Three buckshot pellets killed Phillip Gibbs, a junior at Jackson State. Twelve others were wounded, most of them students and all of them either inside or in the vicinity of Alexander Hall.
For weeks thereafter, black and white students gathered at the Governor’s Mansion to protest the tragedy. After reading a report from the highway patrol, Gov. John Bell Williams announced on television that “the responsibility must rest with the protesters.” Mayor Davis tried to quell the tension by appointing a biracial committee to investigate the incident. US attorney general John Mitchell arrived in Jackson and requested a federal grand jury because the highway patrolmen refused to cooperate with an FBI investigation. The federal grand jury, presided over by Judge Harold Cox, declined to indict any of the officers.
In September 1970 the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest released its report on the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. While the commission did not intend to assign guilt, its findings disputed many of the central claims of the highway patrol and the grand jury. The commission ultimately found fault with the officers’ actions that night, concluding that the indiscriminate twenty-eight-second fusillade “was an unreasonable, unjustified overreaction.”
Following the violence in 1970, the city closed Lynch Street between Barrett Drive and Dalton, a move the college had long urged. The university later converted the space into the Gibbs-Green Plaza, a popular outdoor area where students congregate. The city later modified the street’s name to J. R. Lynch Street. The Jackson State Class of 1971, to which Gibbs had belonged, erected a memorial to the “Martyrs of May 14, 1970,” in front of Stewart Hall. Every May, the Jackson State community gathers for Gibbs-Green Memorial activities.
- John A. Peoples Jr., To Survive and Thrive: The Quest for a True University (1995)
- The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest (1970)
- Lelia Gaston Rhodes, Jackson State University: The First Hundred Years, 1877–1977 (1979)
- Tim Spofford, Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College (1988)