Philip Gibbs (left) and James Earl Green, slain at Jackson State, May 15, 1970

‘I Lost Something At Jackson State Which Could Never Be Returned’

Less than two weeks following the killings at Kent State, Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) students were set off not only by the escalating war in Vietnam and our country's incursion into Cambodia, but also the deeply entrenched, institutional racism in Mississippi the young students encountered on a daily basis. The breaking point came when a rumor, unfounded and untrue as it turned out, spread that Fayette, Mississippi mayor Charles Evers (brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers) and his wife had been shot and killed. On May 14, as word quickly circulated across campus of the Evers's deaths, a small group of students rioted, setting several fires, overturning a dump truck parked on campus, and throwing rocks (although the rock throwing was later attributed to non-students). Fearful of the crowd, firefighters battling the blazes requested police backup. Police later claimed they had received reports of gunfire near the campus (never substantiated), which spurred them to block off the city's main thoroughfare, Lynch Street and to cordon off a 30-block area around the campus.

The next night, May 15, 75 city policemen and Mississippi State Police offers armed with submachine guns, shotguns, carbines, service revolvers and some personal weapons, gathered on the Lynch Street side of a men's dorm, Stewart Hall, and kept the student protesters at bay while the firemen did their work and left. When the firemen were gone, the police and state troopers marched along Lynch Street towards Alexander Center, a women's residence. Some 75 to 100 students had congregated in front of the dorm.

Forty years later, what happened next remains in dispute. Police say there being fired at by multiple snipers. The JSU Heritage and Historical Site summarizes the final, fateful moments succinctly: "Some students said the police advanced in a line, warned them, then opened fire. Others said the police abruptly opened fire on the crowd and the dormitory. Other witnesses reported that the students were under the control of a campus security officer when the police opened fire. Police claimed they spotted a powder flare in the Alexander West Hall third floor stairwell window and opened fire in self-defense on the dormitory only. Two local television news reporters present at the shooting agreed that a shot was fired, but were uncertain of the direction. A radio reporter claimed to have seen an arm and a pistol extending from a dormitory window."

Despite claims of them being fired upon from multiple directions, the police reported only two city cops and one state patrolman receiving minor injuries from flying glass.


What is undisputed is that at approximately 12:05 a.m. on May 15, the police opened fire and continued firing for more than 30 seconds. Forty state highway patrolmen armed with shotguns discharged some 140 shots from 30 to 50 feet away from the students, who en masse tried to charge through glass double doors at the dorm. When the shooting stopped, every window on the side of the building facing Lynch Street was blown out, 12 students were wounded, an unreported number injured by trampling. Laying dead 50 feet east of the west wing door of Alexander Hall was 21-year-old Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a junior pre-law major and father of an 18-month-old son, with two Double-O buckshot pellets in his head, a third pellet just beneath his left eye and a fourth under his left armpit.

Across the street and behind the police line lay another casualty. Seventee-year-old James Earl Green, a senior at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, was walking home from his job at a local grocery store when he stopped to watch what was going on. He was standing in front of B.F. Roberts Hall when a single buckshot blast penetrated the right side of his chest.

Emergency calls to ambulances to remove the injured students for treatment were nt made until after police officers picked up their shell casings, according to a U.S. Senate probe of the incident conducted by Senators Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh. Jackson city authorities denied that city police took part in the shootings.

FBI investigators later estimated that more than 460 rounds struck the Alexander West Hall dormitory, shattering every window facing the street on each floor. Some 160 bullet holes in the outer walls of the Alexander Hall stairwell remain visible today.

On June 13, 1970, President Richard Nixon established the Commission on Campus Unrest, which held its first meeting June 25, 1970. Subsequently, it conducted thirteen days of public hearings in Jackson, Mississippi; Kent State, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, California. At the Jackson hearings, the administration, faculty, staff and students testified. To this date, there have been no arrests, no convictions.


The University has memorialized the tragedy of May 1970 by naming the area of the shootings Gibbs-Green Plaza. The Plaza is a large, multi-level brick and concrete patio and mall on the eastern side of the JSU campus that blocks off J. R. Lynch Street and links Alexander Hall to the University Green. A large stone monument in front of Alexander Hall near the plaza also pays tribute to the two victims and "The Martyrs of May 14, 1970."

During the 1995 Spring Commencement Exercises, Demetrius D. Gibbs, the son of Phillip Gibbs, received his bachelor's degree from Jackson State University. Demetrius was 18 months old when his father was killed.

In 1999, James Earl Green's younger sister, Gloria Green McCray earned a degree at Jackson State. She said vivid memories of distant gunfire, chaos and waiting in vain for her brother still haunt her. "I always felt I lost something at Jackson State which could never be returned," she said. "But I gained something which can never be taken away."

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