May 032004
 
Authors: Taylour Nelson

Editor’s note

Today is the 34th anniversary of the Kent State University

shootings. On May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine

wounded when national guardsmen opened fire on an anti-Vietnam war

demonstration on campus. Ten days later two students lay dead on

the asphalt at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., shot by

armed policemen. Only they weren’t demonstrating against the war,

and their story is often forgotten.

A look at the times

April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced the war in

Vietnam would be entering a new phase. Troops would begin bombing

the northern Vietnamese border near Cambodia. College campuses all

over the United States erupted in protest. Already fed up with

America’s involvement in the war, students clashed with police as

they violently demonstrated against the Vietnam conflict.

May 4, 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio protested

the war. The protest quickly turned into a bloody conflict when

National Guardsmen killed four students while trying to calm the

crowd.

At Jackson State University, in Jackson, Miss., some students

were still adamantly opposed to the war, and racial conflicts over

the past decade along with recent murders of civil rights activists

mounted in frustration.

Lynch Street, named after the first black congressman in

Mississippi, was a street that passed through campus and was often

the setting for Caucasian motorists hurling racial slurs and

epithets at passing students.

Students were increasingly upset with the way their town was

treating them. The memory of civil rights worker Medgar Evers’

murder was still fresh in their minds, and the recent killing of

four students at Kent State added fuel to the fire.

On May 14, 1970, students at Jackson State University were

sprayed by bullets when policemen opened fire on a group of

them.

After the Jackson State shootings and numerous other riots on

college campuses, President Nixon established the Commission on

Campus Unrest. It conducted public hearings in Jackson, where

students and faculty testified as witnesses. However, there were no

convictions and no arrests.

A student’s perspective

Although she still doesn’t understand the events that occurred

that night, Venda Hawkins, then Venda Beverly, can recall the

memory like it was yesterday.

It was May 14, 1970. She was 18, her first year of college was

almost over and Hawkins had two more weeks as a freshman at Jackson

State University.

Her parents attended the historically black college and

university, and she was proud to carry on the tradition.

Ten days after the Kent State University shootings, JSU students

held a peaceful rally, showing support for the efforts against the

war. They had speakers and a memorial for the students who died at

Kent State.

Later that night, a riot ensued when students heard a rumor,

later proved untrue, that Fayette, Miss., Mayor Charles Evers and

his wife were murdered. A small number of students set fires and

overturned a dump truck on campus.

Firemen responded and requested police backup. The rioters were

controlled along with the fires, and most students left the

scene.

Armed policemen lined up and faced Alexander Hall, a women’s

dormitory. To this day, no one is certain why the policemen decided

to march down Lynch Street toward the dormitory.

Hawkins remembers it being like most spring nights on the JSU

campus. She was living in Alexander Hall, and in 1970 the school

had a curfew for students living on campus. Men had to leave the

woman’s dormitory and return to their rooms by 11 p.m.

At five minutes to 11, the lights flickered in the dormitory,

signaling curfew.

Young men were escorting their dates back to their rooms and

saying good-bye to friends.

“It was just at this particular moment, because they all had to

leave the lobby, that they were all standing in the courtyard,”

Hawkins said.

She estimated 75 to 100 young men were standing in the courtyard

when the police began to march toward them. Hawkins said she

thought it was to intimidate the crowd, to make the students

disperse.

“They told us the National Guard was coming and they had tear

gas,” she said.

Hawkins and the other women at Alexander Hall were instructed to

wet towels and place them around windows and doors to block the

tear gas from entering their rooms.

As the armed troops marched toward their friends and boyfriends,

the women in Alexander Hall watched from their windows above the

courtyard.

A glass bottle shattered on the ground, and although accounts

are still uncertain as to what happened next, some say police heard

gunshots. Others said they saw a sniper from one of the rooms. What

Hawkins remembers was the policemen coming to a halt and shooting

at the students.

“I can’t explain it, we were just frozen in time. We didn’t know

what was happening,” she said.

Thirty seconds went by, with a constant spray of bullets hitting

the windows, the walls, the doors and the students. The FBI

estimated 460 bullets were fired in those 30 seconds.

When the smoke cleared, Hawkins saw a woman run out of the

dormitory toward her boyfriend, who was sprawled out on the

asphalt.

“She screamed, it was a scream that will stay with me for the

rest of my life. And when she turned him over, her white shorts and

white top were covered in blood,” she said. “After that it was just

chaos.”

Hawkins said the events are unclear in her memory; men were

jumping behind trees and into the dormitory’s lobby, and injured

students were strewn across the courtyard.

“Two (young men) were killed,” she said. “I’m still stunned even

as I tell you that.”

James Earl Green, a high school senior who was taking the

shortcut home through campus, and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a junior

studying pre-law, were killed. Twelve other students were injured

by the wave of bullets and many were treated for hysteria and

injuries from shattered glass.

Investigations by Sens. Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh later

revealed that ambulances were not called until the police picked up

their shell casings.

The area had become a crime scene, and students were instructed

to call their parents. But for reasons even the FBI couldn’t

explain to Hawkins, all the phone lines on the JSU campus were down

and no one could make a phone call.

“We had to walk five or six blocks to find a pay phone to call

our parents,” Hawkins said.

The school was closed, and the graduation ceremony was

cancelled. Diplomas were mailed and students returned to their

homes for the summer.

That summer, Hawkins didn’t discuss the shootings with her

friends or family.

“It was really unspoken,” she said. “I don’t think we knew what

to say.”

Hawkins graduated from JSU with a degree in accounting. She now

lives in Los Angeles and works as a special-education teacher.

As she talked about the shootings from her home in L.A., she

admitted this was the first time she has sat down and relayed the

events that occurred that night.

“It’s something I haven’t really dealt with,” she said. “But I

can’t go forward until I’ve dealt with my past.”

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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