By Janice K. Neal-Vincent
The 47th Annual Memorial Ceremony and Wreath-Laying in honor of Phillip Gibbs and James Green was held on Gibbs Green Pedestrian Plaza on the campus of Jackson State University Monday, April 10. This was the site that changed the face of what is referred to as the ‘yard,’ jargon among the JSU family.
Present was a small crowd of students, faculty, and Gibbs’ peers from the classes of 1970-72. Student unrest at JSU paralleled with national student unrest due to protests against a number of ills that stirred emotions and gave rise to an outspoken platform, became the order of the day.
During his campaign President Richard Nixon vowed to end the Viet Nam War but he called to draft 150,000 more soldiers to fight in that war. Students, families and teachers were affected by the cry. Other issues such as women’s rights, poverty and racism brought forth numerous voices of the young. Hence, May 14 and 15, 1970 were days that then known as Jackson State College and the community were impacted as never before.
On the 14th students were confronted by city and state police. On the 15th two tragic deaths occurred. Gibbs, a 21-year-old student majoring in political science and Green, a 17-year-old Jim Hill High School senior who was headed home after leaving his job, were shot and killed by police.
The social upheaval resulted in pandemonium, hospitalization of 12 who were wounded, distrust of police officers, President John A. Peoples, Jr. closing JSU for the end of the school academic year, cancellation of commencement for the class of 1970 and conflicting messages regarding the tragedy.
Later during a forum, the Student Government Association president of Kent State University, Frank Fresina, addressed the JSU family in the historical Dansby Hall Auditorium regarding his school’s tragedy in which four students were killed by national guardsmen due to protests. He reached out in identification establishment due to commonalities between the two campus’ incidents.
Today many remember that JSU, as opposed to Kent State, received little national attention that links to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Those present at the memorial ceremony echoed the slogan in their own words.
Alexis Moore, SGA president-elect 2017-2018, asserted that similar acts of violence exist today. Additionally, others gave a charge that neither the school nor the public at large should forget the tragedy.
Referencing racial slurs and attacks, James “Lap” Baker (JSU Class of 1970) said, “It is important that the students, faculty, and everyone never forget. It was the students who closed this street (Lynch Street) down, who said, ‘No more!’” Baker continued, charging for all to examine themselves. “I taught out here 24 years. I asked 45 students what happened May 14th and 15th. Not one hand went up. It’s been 47 years and we still forget. Four hundred sixty rounds of shots were fired. They got away with it. We weren’t killing each other in the 50s and 60s, but we’re doing that now.”
Technical director – sound technician at JSU – Doug Stringfellow, noted: “It’s very good to continue this because history is important in all aspects. In my program I investigate daily how things come into being. It’s good that students are reminded. It is the responsibility of faculty to inform the students about this significant event that has impacted so much of Jackson State’s legacy.”
Robert Luckett, Ph.D., who directs the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center, noted that he was approached by Baker three years ago to commemorate the event that continues to date. “I desire that more students would attend and that JSU’s SGA steer students to communicate with Kent State for the 50th anniversary event. My goal is to have people who are part of this meet with the future president of JSU to make sure this is priority,” he projected.
Archivist Angela Stewart mentioned, “I think it is important for me as a historian this event is held. We need to honor the emotion and the trauma because oftentimes we try to get around the trauma. A young man lost a dad that he never knew. Phillip Gibbs lost a son. Mrs. McCray lost her brother.”
During a telephone interview Mattie Hull, James Green’s sister, commented that she does scrap books. She constructed a scrap book on the JSU tragedy. “During those tragic times my kids didn’t seem to show an interest in what was going on. I shared one of the scrap books with my daughter in California. When my son saw the scrap book, he was drawn to the pictures,” she recollected. She continued that the pictures caused her son to venture.
Participating in the wreath-laying ceremony were McCray and class representatives for 1970-1973: Eddie Jean Carr, Miss JSU 1970-1971; Vernon Weakley, 1970; Peggy Hobson Calhoun, 1970; Quilly Turner, 1970; Hillman Frazier, 1971; and Lee Bernard, 1972.
Other members on the dais included Evelyn J. Leggette, JSU’s provost and senior vice president for Academic and Student Affairs; Comelia Walker, Miss JSU-Elect 2017-2018; DeAngelo Riddle, Mister JSU-Elect 2017-2018; Alexis Moore, SGA president-Elect 2017-2018; Destiney Lawrence, Miss JSU 2016-2017; and James “Lap” Baker, JSU 1970.