Black Lives Matter protest, 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Black Lives Matter protest, 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

50 years on from the massacre of black students at Jackson State College, systemic racism and police brutality remain prevalent in the United States, writes Alyssa Cassata

May 15 marks 50 years since the Jackson State massacre in which two young men were killed in a racially motivated attack by Jackson’s Police Department. The killings were not an exception, but an example of the systemic racism and police brutality endemic in the United States. A feature that remains prevalent today, not least highlighted by the recent barbaric murder of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23rd. His murderers were only just arrested after the video of his shooting went viral and caused public outcry.

Though the memory of the Jackson State massacre has been repressed and neglected, it represents a reality of the racist violence that black people in the US have been inflicted with at the hands of the police and the state that continues to this day and the ongoing struggles of the anti-racist movement from the 1970s to Black Lives Matter.

A night of horror

Throughout the 1960s, white motorists driving on Lynch Street that passed through Jackson State College would abuse students using racist slurs, throwing objects and threatening them with violence. In 1964, on February 3rd, a white driver hit Mamie Ballard, a Jackson State Student, sending her to hospital. The attack triggered a long-term campaign to close Lynch Street to traffic and included student protests that demanded justice for Mamie Ballard, the movement was seen as the foundation of a broader effort to achieve justice and equality in Mississippi.

Around midnight on May 15, 1970, officers from the Jackson Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol (along with the “Thompson Tank” that was used to intimidate protestors in Jackson throughout the civil rights movement in the 1960s) stormed onto the College’s campus. They later cited a fire set in a dump truck on Lynch Street to justify the use of force but there was no evidence the students were involved and, regardless, the act of vandalism would not have vindicated the police attack.

Upon their arrival at the campus, police found students going about their day, the shooters made the unsubstantiated claim that a sniper had shot at them from a window at Alexander Hall, but investigators found insufficient evidence to support the claim. More than 400 rounds of ammunition were fired over a period of 28 seconds in every direction by the police and killed 2 students, wounding 12 more.

Phillip L Gibbs who was a junior political science major at Jackson State College, and married with a son and a second child on the way, was just 21 when he was murdered in the assault and James E Green, aged 17 at the time, was a senior at a nearby school and on his way home from his after-school job on the opposite side of the street from Alexander Hall when he was shot, demonstrating that the police had fired in the opposite direction from the supposed sniper.

A pattern of violence

Just 4 days before the killings in Jackson, white police officers supressed a protest in Augusta over the death of Charles Oatman, a black 16-year-old that was brutally beaten to death in a county jail in Georgia. In their violent suppression of the protest, the police killed 6 people and injured at least 80 more. The officers responsible for the assault were acquitted by an all-white jury. At the time, the New York Times reported that “The white community was relieved but not surprised by the verdict.”

These killings started connecting a pattern in the mainstream of institutional, state-driven racist violence linking with the assassinations of members of the Black Panther Party and civil rights activists in the years prior. This coverage in the white liberal media came after the police murders of white students at Kent State less than two weeks earlier.

On May 4th, troops opened fire on unarmed, anti-war protestors at Kent State University, killing 4 and wounding  9. The Kent State massacre was a watershed moment that brought light to the state repression being levelled against anti-war activists. It provoked national outrage that led to a temporary closure of universities nationwide and marked a pivotal moment in turning public opinion against the Vietnam War and damaged Nixon’s reputation.

The killings in Georgia and Jackson that followed now bore a higher resonance in public consciousness and saw a fusing of the anti-war and anti-racist movements that reflected internationally.

The struggle continues

Despite the unjustifiable use of force that resulted in the death of 4 students at Kent State, no criminal convictions were obtained against any of the Ohio National Guardsmen. The families of the Jackson State victims Gibbs and Green sued the City and State, represented by the Civil Rights attorney Constance Slaughter, but they lost the case and no one was charged for the murders.

The absence of justice for the families further highlights the systemic nature of the racism displayed by the police in the massacre itself and their inadequate attempt at justification for it afterwards. The killings and failure to prosecute warranted far more retribution than the overdue closing of Lynch street that did little to alleviate the trauma of those affected.

The Jackson State Massacre has been mostly ignored and the circumstances that allowed it to happen remain largely unaddressed. However, the broader struggle for civil rights and anti-war movements that were prominent throughout the 1960s and 70s laid the foundation for the anti-war movement that mobilised against Iraq and since, and the current anti-racist movements such as Black Lives Matter.

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Alyssa Cassata

Alyssa Cassata is a socialist, activist and history student