Jackson State Shootings, 35 Years Later
ED GORDON, host:
On May 4th, 1970, National Guardsmen shot into a crowd of anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The incident set off years of soul-searching over the government's response to dissent, but history has overlooked another campus protest that ended in tragedy, which took place just days after Kent State. On May 14th, non-violent protests erupted at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, over the war and in response to racial taunts from white motorists driving past the downtown campus. That evening, as the protest spread, fueled by rumors that two civil rights activists had been murdered, Mississippi State Police opened fire, killing a student and a young bystander.
Mr. JOHN PEOPLES (President, Jackson State College): When I got there, there was utter chaos, screaming. Some of the kids were cursing. The girls were crying. You could smell the gunpowder. When I got into that stairway, there was blood running all the way down.
GORDON: John Peoples was president of then named Jackson State College at the time. We're joined now by Jackson State University president, Ronald Mason Jr. He joins us to comment on the largely overlooked history of 35 years ago. Mr. President, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.
Mr. RONALD MASON Jr. (President, Jackson State University): Hello, Ed. Thank you.
GORDON: How did the shooting change the school?
Mr. MASON: Physically, believe it or not, we still have the bullet holes in the dormitory. The main walkway through the middle of campus is called Gibbs-Green Plaza, which is the name of the two young men who were killed back in 1970, and it's a constant reminder of what our purpose is.
GORDON: What of the current day student there, Mr. President? How hard is it to really make them understand the times?
Mr. MASON: Well, it's difficult, candidly. This generation is not what I would call the history conscious generation. Although we do have some students who are very sensitive to the past and understand its implications to the future. When we have the memorial on campus, there can be upwards of a couple of hundred students who are involved in the walk and in the candlelight commemoration, but, you know, that's part of our task as educators, candidly, to connect what's happened in the past with what needs to happen and will happen in the future.
GORDON: What of the idea of cultivating a relationship between students and police? Obviously, it's a different day, different tone, different tenor, and relationships across the board in this country are better usually with the university police and students. But is there a conscious effort to make sure that that relationship is fostered with a friendly atmosphere?
Mr. MASON: Well, you know, it's a different time and a different circumstance. We don't have any issues now between city police and our students. Campus police serve a different type of role. You know, they're as much educators and learners as anyone else on campus, and we expect them to play that role.
I thought you were going to ask another question, so let me go ahead and answer it anyway. You know, we do have relationships with the Kent State folks that have come out of this. And they commemorate Jackson State, as well as Kent State, each and every year, you know, to remember what happened, and we do the same thing.
GORDON: What would you like to see come out of this as we look back at those times?
Mr. MASON: Certainly a lesson about, you know, what can happen if there is a lack of understanding on any level. You know, most of what happened in the '70s happened at least at Jackson State because there was a street that ran through campus that white citizens drove through in order to get to work and racial epithets went back and forth between the students and the residents of Jackson. It was a little thing like that that ended up in two deaths, and I guess the lesson to be learned is that little things can end up in very bad ways if we're not conscious each and every moment of what we do and why and how we do it.
GORDON: Ronald Mason Jr., president of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Thanks for joining us today.
Mr. MASON: Thank you, Ed. Appreciate it.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
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