Activist state

Remembering the 1970 Jackson State shooting

On the first day of Black History Month, more than a dozen historically black colleges and universities across the country received bomb threatsinserting a wave of hate into a time meant for reflection and celebration.

“It’s not really surprising to me just because how many events have we seen happen in places where black people come to congregate and share camaraderie,” Aria Brent, a journalism student who works as a resident assistant at Alexander Room at Jackson State Universitynoted.

In 1970, this residence was the scene of a violent and deadly attack by law enforcement that left two young men dead, many others injured and the campus changed forever.

The recent bomb threats in the state of Jackson and at least seven other HBCUs in the Gulf States regionbrought back memories of this event, known as the Gibbs-Green tragedy.

Since the start of 2022, the total number of bomb threats directed at HBCUs in the United States has exceeded 50 and FBI continues wave as hate crime investigation.

What led to the Gibbs-Green tragedy

On May 14, 1970, Jackson State students were hanging out outside Alexander Hall, then an all-girls dormitory, when the Mississippi Highway Patrol and Jackson Police Department marched onto campus just before midnight.

With the rise of the Black Power movement and anti-war activism, tensions have been building between black students, white city residents, and police officers for years. Alexander Hall stood just off John R. Lynch Street, which ran through the center of campus. The busy thoroughfare connected the outskirts of Jackson to the city’s downtown, and to get there, motorists had to drive through the HBCU campus.

“In the 1950s and 1960s and during the era of the modern civil rights movement, these white motorists were often hostile to young black people who drove around our campus,” Robert Lucette, a history professor at Jackson State, said. “They were shouting racist epithets. They were throwing things out of their windows.

In 1964, a driver struck and injured a female student as she walked on campus, and Jackson State students began protesting to have Lynch Street closed on campus. Luckett said students regularly staged protests from 1964 until it all came to a head in 1970, when students began to take more direct action. On the night of the shooting, someone stole a dump truck, parked it in the middle of Lynch Street and set it on fire, Luckett said.

“It’s a pretty effective way to close off the street across campus,” Luckett said. “The firefighters arrived, put out the fire. It was the end.

And that was the end – until police showed up on campus later that night.

Officers were armed and fully dressed in riot gear. Someone threw a glass bottle at the officers, and that’s when it all broke.

The bottle broke at the feet of the officers, Luckett said, prompting police to open fire on Alexander Hall. Hundreds of rounds were fired in seconds, completely wiping out half of Alexander Hall, destroying windows, shattering the brick building and sending people panicking. The gunfire injured dozens of students and killed two students: Phillip Gibbs, 21, a student from Jackson State, and James Green, 17, a local high school student.

This file photo shows footage of James Green, left, and Phillip Gibbs, right, that appeared in reports of the police shooting at Jackson State University in 1970.

Testimony of a State Senator

Mississippi State Senator Hillman Frazier was a sophomore at Jackson State in 1970 and took political science classes with classmate Gibbs, he said. On the night of the shooting, Frazier said he was on his way to campus to drop off a friend at Alexander Hall, as police headed for campus. Then the police stopped his vehicle and prevented him from entering.

“That’s when filming started,” Frazier said. “So we turned around and left campus just to protect the young lady and our safety. It was just a scary night because I’m waiting for the report on what happened, what happened and I listen to the victims.

After the shooting, police said they received reports of a sniper in the dormitory, but this was proven to be false following an investigation. No police officer has ever faced criminal charges.

“It was unreal because I said why they were shooting because the kids were unarmed,” Frazier said. “They were hanging out as college students like they do on a typical night out.”

Mississippi State Senator Hillman Frazier shows a photo on his wall that shows him protesting while a student at Jackson State University.
Mississippi State Senator Hillman Frazier was a student at Jackson State in 1970 and joined protests following the shooting. Here he shows a photo of himself and other students on campus after the Gibbs-Green tragedy.

Today, Sen. Frazier represents the Jackson area and has been a state legislator since the 1980s, a path that was paved the night his schoolmates were targets of police brutality. His office at the Mississippi Capitol is a few blocks from his alma mater.

When he was a student, he originally planned to become a professor of political science, but the police shooting in 1970 left him, like much of the greater Jackson community, forever changed. Soon after, he decided to go to law school to try to make a difference in his home country.

A lasting legacy

More than 50 years after the police shooting, Lynch Street no longer runs through downtown Jackson State. Instead, it’s an enclosed plaza that meanders through the heart of campus. Every day you will see students hanging out or walking to class along the brick walkway. The square is lined with academic and administrative buildings, Greek Divine Nine plots and dormitories.

The area is now called Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza, in honor of the two students who were killed by police.

Alexander Hall remains in the same location and still houses students. Today, it’s a co-ed dorm, and you can’t tell its dark and violent history just by looking inside. But as you get closer, you’ll notice a few things that seem out of place if you didn’t know the history of the building.

“They say you can [still] see the bullet holes in the wall of Alexander Hall,” Luckett said.

Right at the entrance to the dormitory, a granite structure is erected, resembling a tomb and a headstone. It reads: “Philip Gibbs. James Earl Green. Martyrs of May 14, 1970.” In front of the building also stands a Mississippi Freedom Trail signmarking the historical importance of space in the civil rights movement and the long struggle for black freedom.

Today, countless students pass by and observe these emblems as they enter and exit the dormitory, and the legacy of 1970 is present and tangible at Jackson State. The students discover the decades-old incident in a freshman class. This memory is the result of collective work by historians, like Luckett, and the Jackson State community.

A Jackson State University student walks past the May 14, 1970 Martyrs' Memorial near Alexander Hall.
Phillip Gibbs, 21, and James Green, 17, were killed on the Jackson State campus in 1970. The Class of 1971 erected this monument in their honor.

“Looking back, they would be proud of us”

Many residents of Alexander Hall said they weren’t shocked to learn what happened on their campus in 1970 – the same way they weren’t shocked when their university and Other HBCUs across the country have been the target of bomb threats this year.

Until there, the FBI has identified six persons of interest in this investigationbut no charges were filed.

“It will take a lot more to break us, scare us, shut us down and prevent HBCUs from thriving than a few bomb threats,” Brent said. “We have experienced bombings, tornadoes, fires, shootings and whatever else throughout our history. Here we are still standing.

Brent is from Ohio, the birthplace of the infamous Kent State University shooting, which took place just 10 days before the Gibbs-Green tragedy on May 4, 1970.

A photocopy of an archival article covering the Gibbs-Green tragedy at Jackson State University on May 14, 1970.
An article covering the 1970 Jackson State Police shooting highlights comparisons made there and a similar shooting at Kent State University in Ohio that occurred days earlier.

She first heard about the Gibbs-Green tragedy as a high school student while researching Jackson State online once she made the decision to come to Mississippi for college.

“Whenever you search for Jackson State or something related to it, it [history] always comes back,” Brent said.

She, like many other Jackson State students, remains resolute in their HBCU, in its tumultuous history, and in its resilient presence today. Dorian Coleman, a sophomore in criminal justice, said she was also proud of Jackson State’s past.

“Looking back, they would be proud of us,” Coleman said. “They would be proud to see [what] is Jackson State now. You just have to make them proud.

Jackson State University senior Aria Brent stands next to a marker commemorating the Jackson State tragedy
Aria Brent is a Jackson State journalism student and resident assistant at Alexander Hall. A Mississippi Freedom Trail marker sits in front of the building to note its historical significance.

Frazier is also proud of what Jackson State is like today, in the wake of hate-fueled police shootings and bomb threats. He said the present charge of young people is to remember the sacrifices and lives lost in the process of realizing the dreams of today – and possible futures. More importantly, he encourages young black people today to stay ready to keep that dream alive.

“It’s incumbent on black students to prepare for these pressures because we have to prepare,” he said. “We are the ones who can save this country and move it forward.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.