Jackson State and Forgotten History
Why We Remember Only Sometimesby Lucy Steigerwald, May 15, 2015
Many of us have heard the song, most of those probably know its famous backstory: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in 1971. The Kent State shootings – done by National Guard soldiers with live ammo are famous. The photo of the teenager screaming over one of the bodies of the four victims is one of the photos of the 20th century. It’s all so ‘60s – even if it happened May 4, 1970.
On Friday, some 11 days after Kent State, another Vietnam war protest on a campus turned deadly. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, a junior at the college and a passing highschool senior were killed by police who were responding to out of control protests. Twelve other people were also injured when some of the 75 local and state police fired more than 400 rounds at the crowds. Nobody seemed to know why they did exactly, with the police saying they had been threatened in various ways. Nobody was ever punished for the killings at Kent State or at Jackson State.
Neither at the time, nor 45 years later did the Jackson State killings have the same effect on people that Kent state did. (Not that middle America was terribly worried about the Kent State killing either, since 58 percent of them decided the students were to blame.) Perhaps they simply were overpowered by the loudness of Kent state, and a similar incident with a smaller body count was doomed to appear as just aftershocks. Yet, it seems unjust to forget one and sing about the other.
More forgotten anniversaries dot May. Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of the Philadelphia Police Department dropping a firebomb on the home of the MOVE group. Unsurprisingly in this nation of strong legal and social protections for police, nobody was ever punished for this act which lead to the deaths of 11 people (including five children) and burned out an entire city block.
Perhaps not surprising either is how often MOVE is ignored in favor of bigger horrors such as the raid and subsequent fire at the Branch Davidians’ compound outside Waco, Texas in 1993. (Since 30 years is a nice, round journalist’s number, however, there was some mainstream remembrance of MOVE this year. Plus the whole cops are finally a story thing.)
You could suggest that the victims of both Jackson State and MOVE were black and left, and therefore the patriot movements and militia types who were the strongest advocates of not forgetting something like Waco weren’t interested in keeping their names alive in the latter case. However, it’s never quite as simple as that. We know, if we’re paying attention, that some people are more valued than others in America. And sometimes – often, in cases of police misconduct and brutality – that lack of value does fall on racial lines. Blacks “acting up” must have done something to “deserve” a reaction from the state, or its armed actors – especially if they had any kind of criminal record. Whites can be excused as mentally ill, or upset, or childish, depending on their sins. But it’s rarely just about race. After all, Kent State was a left rallying cry, and continues to be a seminal moment in the anti-Vietnam protests. Why not, then Jackson?
A little known fact about the Davidians is that about a third of the victims were black. There were also Hispanics and Asians present. It was a diverse group, not the clichéd collection of overly armed white people on edge.
This is not made clear perhaps because the faces of the victims of the siege – beyond arguable cult leader David Koresh’s lily-white one – were kept so far away from cameras, they hardly exist now in memory. Hell, I’m not militia member, but I knew about Waco years before I found out about MOVE. And my first response to hearing about MOVE was wondering why I didn’t know about it earlier. Perhaps because Timothy McVeigh didn’t mention MOVE as motivation for the Oklahoma City Bombing. Perhaps because something in the events of Waco and Ruby Ridge captured people’s cultural attention better than with MOVE.
Sometimes there’s a logic behind why some historical events are remembered more strongly than others. The wartime sinking of the Lusitania is more historically significant than that of the Titanic three years earlier in 1912. However, even before James Cameron made one of the highest grossing movies of all time about that doomed ship, Titanic stuck in our heads more. The Lusitania sunk in 15 minutes. The Titanic was virgin, luxurious, and sunk in two and a half hours – just long enough for countless instances of great human drama to play out. (Plus, that whole ham-fisted hubris thing about the damn thing being “unsinkable.”)
This is alright. You cannot control what events not just strike people, but stay in their heads and hearts for years, and what is turned into song, story, and film. It’s not some empirical thing. But danger does lie in the fact that if you remember some deaths, and not others, you are suggesting that some lives matter more than others.
In America, we know that this is true. Well, not true, but commonly accepted. I’ve often grimly joked that a good mathematician should be able to figure out how many foreign people equal one regular American, and how many Americans equal one cop, or one soldier. The victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing matter more than those of Waco for myriad reasons. One is that the Branch Davidians were kept far away from the press, while Oklahoma City left us with haunting photos like this one. Photos matter to memory. There’s a reason the news doesn’t show graphic photos from drone warfare, or from the wars America has started. Even coffins of American soldiers is taboo. It’s not that the average person is dying to look at what war really is, but that they should be made to look if they want to know about news or about history.
Another reason Oklahoma City matters more than Waco is that law enforcement causing death can be a shame, but it can’t be an outrage in the same way a terrorist attack like Timothy McVeigh’s was. Never mind if McVeigh killed fewer children, he was a terrorist. He admitted his evil ends, and law enforcement pleads good intentions, and therefore the latter is let off the hook and the former is just a monster.
So certain things are memorable, and certain folks’ deaths are rallying cries and others are lost to history. And that would be natural if it weren’t helped along so much by the biases of a warmongering state. We can barely get people to remember the some 4,000 American soldiers who died in the Iraq war. That is a tragedy, but one to ignore in preparation for the next terrible threat. The million Iraqis who died thanks to America’s war are nothing. They are certainly not a folk song, or a even a famous photograph. They are an error on a balance sheet, a pity, an aside. Two at Jackson State, a million in Iraq, hundreds of thousands in the Philippines – every death can be forgotten if it is inconvenient for the powerful to remember.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at http://www.thestagblog.com.
The Kent States you don’t know about“Is dissent a crime?” the father of one of the slain students, 19-year-old Allison Krause, asked in Newsweek. “Is this such a reason for killing her? Have we come to such a state in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees deeply with the actions of her government?”It’s a question that likely weighed heavily on the minds of another group of parents farther South — ones who’d also lost their children on college campuses in an eerily similar way.Just 11 days after the deadly shooting in Ohio, two students were killed and 12 were wounded when police fired more than 100 rounds of bullets on protesters gathered at Mississippi’s predominantly black Jackson State College.And two years earlier, in 1968, three students were killed by authorities during protests against segregation at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, another historically black institution.But there weren’t national news magazine covers, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs or popular songs memorializing these deaths, as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” did for Kent State.For those who lived through the time, the reason for the lack of coverage on the other campus shootings is pretty simple: “Kent State was four white students in Ohio,” said Gene Young, a former Jackson State professor, when asked by NPR why the tragedies at Jackson State and South Carolina State aren’t as prominent in the nation’s memory.“Jackson State and Orangeburg were black colleges in the South,” Young continued. “Two black students on a black college campus in Mississippi that had the history of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. It was just another day of business as usual, racist law enforcement officials victimizing black people in Mississippi.”In recent years, documentarians, historians and others have worked to rectify the larger public’s obliviousness to what happened at Jackson State and South Carolina State, ensuring that the students who lost their lives in protest, like those at Kent State, wouldn’t be forgotten.
‘Orangeburg Massacre’ at South Carolina StateIt started with a bowling alley.In February 1968, students from historically black South Carolina State were protesting segregation at All Star Bowling lanes, the only bowling alley in Orangeburg.On February 6, the first night of protest, students entered the bowling alley and were denied service, as one student participant recalled to USA Today. They went back a second night, and the tension began to reach a boiling point.By the third night, on February 8, the student protest against segregation had moved back to campus, where it was later met with violence, as Jack Bass and Jack Nelson chronicle in their book on the incident, “The Orangeburg Massacre.”According to Bass’s account, firemen arrived on campus to put out a bonfire erected by students, and state troopers were present to protect the firefighters.After a tossed banister rail struck one state trooper in the face, 66 armed members of law enforcement lined up around the edge of campus and opened fire.“Students fled in panic or dived for cover,” Bass writes, “many getting shot in their backs and sides and even the soles of their feet.”Eight of the nearly 70 state troopers present that night later told the FBI that they fired their weapons after hearing shots.By the end, after roughly 10 seconds of gunfire, nearly 30 students were injured and three were dead: Henry Smith, a South Carolina State sophomore; Samuel Hammond, a freshman; and Delano Middleton, a high school student whose mother worked at the school.“South Carolina State was the first time ever in the history of America that a college student had been killed on their campus for doing absolutely nothing,” remarked Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights activist who attended South Carolina State and was involved in the February protests, at a conference on the incident in 2012.But “unlike Kent State,” notes journalist Bass, “the students killed at Orangeburg were black, and the shooting occurred at night, leaving no compelling TV images.“What happened barely penetrated the nation’s consciousness.”
30 seconds of gunfire at Jackson StateFor its part, Kent State University has made an effort to remember the student lives lost at Jackson State in the wake of its own tragedy.Nevertheless, another campus shooting in May 1970 has still gone largely unnoticed.Even before the shootings, Jackson State students had been targeted with harassment and other acts of violence by whites who lived in the area. According to former JSU professor Young, “motorists would drive through the campus making racist (epithets), making (sexual) innuendos against some of the black female students on that campus.”On the night of May 14, The New York Times reported, bottles and rocks were thrown at white drivers passing through — actions Jackson State students attributed to non-students on campus. A rumor that Charles Evers, mayor of a nearby town and the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, had been killed only added to the unrest. By midnight, armed local and state police had arrived at Jackson State.“Things just came to a head when law enforcement officials marched onto the campus in front of Alexander Hall women’s dormitory,” Young recalled. “Shortly after midnight, a bottle broke on the pavement and law enforcement officials fired over 200 rounds of bullets into a women’s dormitory from the bottom floor to the top floor.”The shots lasted 30 seconds, and a 1970 report from the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest found that about 400 bullets or pieces of buckshot had been fired into the women’s dorm, where witnesses said roughly 100 students were gathered.According to The New York Times, police said they were responding to sniper fire; the federal investigation didn’t find evidence of anyone shooting from the locations police targeted with their weapons.There were reports of students shouting angrily at the officers and throwing rocks, as Evers acknowledged in a telegram to President Nixon. “I am not saying they were right for throwing rocks,” Evers said in his telegram, according to the Times. “But rocks didn’t warrant coming in and shooting. They (the police) came out to kill.”Two students died that night: 17-year-old James Earl Green, who was in high school, and 21-year-old Phillip L. Gibbs, a junior at Jackson State and the father of an 18-month-old.Today, Jackson State, now a university, has the Gibbs-Green Monument, which the school describes as “a permanent memorial to the slain students and a tangible reminder to all students that the Jackson State Tragedy must never be forgotten.”
Today in History
1820–the US Congress designates the slave trade as a form of piracy…..
1970–year of student deaths…….
We were recently reminded about the deaths among the protesting students at Kent State…..but why is that news and a couple a weeks later students were killed at a prominently black university in Mississippi, Jackson State?
Yep, another history lesson is on the way…..
In the Spring of 1970, campus communities across this country were characterized by a chorus of protests and demonstrations. The issues were the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia; the ecology; racism and repression; and the inclusion of the experiences of women and minorities in the educational system. No institution of higher education was left untouched by confrontations and continuous calls for change.
On May 14-15, 1970, Jackson State students were protesting these issues as well as the May…
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