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
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
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
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
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
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,
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,”
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
“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
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
“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
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
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.”