An Inside View of Jackson State’s May 1970 Shooting and Its Aftermath

Aliyah C. Tipton, MA ’20, serves as assistant director of communications in Kent State's Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement. An alumna of both Jackson State University and Kent State University, she was invited to join University College’s Community Engaged Learning (CEL) division as a trip leader for an Alternative Winter Break, “May 1970, Student-Led Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement,” in Jackson, Mississippi, from Dec. 19-22, 2022. We asked her to share her experiences.

Aliyah Tipton

In May 1970, both Kent State University and Jackson State University experienced a campus shooting that killed students. These tragedies happened within days of each other. While the Kent State shooting was shared widely on news outlets across the nation, the story of the Jackson State shooting was pushed to the media background.

As an alumna of both Jackson State and Kent State, this alternative winter break was a mind-altering and enlightening, yet heavy experience. Even after spending four years as an undergraduate at Jackson State, this trip made me realize how much more I had to learn about the city of Jackson — including its rich history and culture, and the legacy of those who fought and continue to fight for the community and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Dr. Robby Luckett, an associate professor in Jackson State’s Department of History and the director of the Margaret Walker Center, served as our guide. When he saw me, he greeted me with a hug and a hearty “Welcome home!” That is exactly how I felt.

Each experience on this trip was powerful, from visiting the Mississippi Civil Rights and the Smith Robertson Museums, to the walking tours of historical sites like the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Jackson where 27 Freedom Riders were arrested for protesting segregated bus stations. We met Hezekiah Watkins, the youngest Freedom Rider, who was arrested and put on death row at age 13 because his friend jokingly pushed him into this bus station’s ‘Whites Only’ entrance. We visited the home of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist and the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, where he was eventually murdered in 1963.

But some experiences were exceptionally moving. On the first day, we visited the historic Council of Federated Organizations Civil Rights Education Center on the campus of Jackson State. I’d spent four years as a student at this historically Black university, and though I had heard of this building, I’m embarrassed to admit I had never visited it. It turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip for me — to be in the same room where Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable civil rights leaders had planned, strategized and organized for the basic civil and human rights of all Black people.

Just up the road sits Alexander Hall, a women’s dorm and the site of a tragic shooting that occurred around midnight on May 15, 1970, a week and a half after the Kent State shooting. Two unarmed Black men — Phillip Gibbs, a Jackson State student, and James Green, a high school student who was walking home from work — were killed, and 12 others were wounded. I’d visited friends and had walked by this dorm almost every day during my time at Jackson State. All freshmen were required to take a University Success course, where we learned about the history of Jackson State as an institution, including details about the shooting. But the knowledge I had gained from taking that course almost 10 years ago can’t compare to what I learned on this trip. We met two of the survivors, Galia Porter and Lap Baker, who vividly described what had taken place that night on the campus of Jackson State, known then as Jackson College.

What Happened at Jackson State

Similar to May 4, 1970, on the Kent Campus, Jackson State students were exercising their First Amendment Right to assemble. Kent State students were gathered to protest the Vietnam War when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into the crowd of demonstrators, killing four students and wounding nine others. Porter and Baker explained that, unlike Kent State, the shooting at Jackson State had very little to do with the Vietnam War protests of the 1970s and more to do with the growing tension between the white citizens of Jackson, Mississippi, and the Black students attending Jackson State. Almost two weeks after the Kent State shooting, highway patrol and city police officers in Jackson fired into a crowd of students who were doing what they normally did in the evening — standing outside, talking with friends.

Before part of John R. Lynch Street was made into the Gibbs-Green Plaza and Walkway, it was a road that ran through the middle of the campus into downtown Jackson. In 1970, many white citizens had to drive down Lynch Street and pass Jackson State to get to their jobs downtown. Some of them would intentionally try to hit or run over students who were on their way to class or walking back to their dorm in Alexander Hall. Sometimes, when white drivers stopped at the traffic light outside Alexander, they would yell racial slurs or throw glass bottles at the students who were outside.

The night of the shooting, verbal exchanges escalated to physical violence. Down the street, off campus, a dumpster had been mysteriously set ablaze. It could be seen burning from Alexander Hall, where Porter, who was 20 years old at the time, was with her good friend, “having fun and having girl time.”

“Someone in the dorm yelled, ‘Hey! The officers are coming up the street on campus, and there’s a dumpster burning down the street!’” Porter recounted. “So we decided to go see what’s going on and see what’s burning.”

When Porter and her friend made it outside, she remembered seeing roughly 25 students standing around talking and laughing outside of Alexander Hall. Men were not allowed in the dorm because it was a women’s-only dormitory at that time. So many of the men would often gather right outside the dorm or across the street, like Lap Baker and his basketball teammates were doing at the time. Unbeknownst to them, the mayor had called the highway patrol and city police officers to campus because he felt the students “were rioting.”

“Nobody was doing anything, except standing there,” Baker said.

Once the officers made it to the intersection in front of Alexander Hall, they turned away from the dormitory and faced the side of the street where Baker and his teammates stood. One of the officers grabbed a bullhorn and asked everyone for their attention. Most of the students continued to talk amongst themselves, while others tried to see what was happening down the street. Baker recalled someone nearby hurling a glass bottle into the street.

“When that bottle hit the concrete, all hell broke loose!” Baker said.

The patrol and city officers quickly turned to face the dorm and fired into the crowd of students, riddling the building with bullets. The bullet holes can still be seen in Alexander Hall today. Baker and his teammates immediately dropped to the ground, crawling along the grass to make it back to his apartment. James Green, one of the students who was murdered, was about 10 yards behind him.

Across the street, Porter was too shocked to move. “I was standing there, frozen. I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do,” she told us. “A good friend of mine from my hometown acted as my human shield by tackling me and pushing me through the glass of the dormitory. He landed on top of me, and I could feel the debris and concrete hitting me. It felt like stinging bees and ant bites all over my skin.”

Once the gunfire ceased and Porter was helped to her feet, she reached for her friend only to realize she was not there. Her friend had tried to run back into the dorm when the officers opened fire but was shot in the back. Thankfully, she survived. Porter had surgery to remove shards of glass from her body, but the damage left scars that went much deeper than the skin.

“My thinking was, ‘I don’t ever wanna go back to Jackson State.’ But my father said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going back to school!’”

Word quickly began to spread about the murders at Jackson State. In Louisiana, Porter’s brother and his team were in the middle of winning a baseball game at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). She recalled him saying that he heard someone yell, “They’re killing you N–s at Jackson State, and if you win this game, we’re gonna kill you!”

Though the news spread across the South, it never made it to mainstream media like the murders that had happened at Kent State only days prior. Those who knew about the shooting began to question why officers fired so many rounds into a women’s dorm. The officers said they thought they saw a sniper on the fifth floor.

Baker, like many others, was not buying it. He told us, sternly, “They should not have been shooting on the campus. I said earlier that a male couldn’t go inside the rooms or elevators of Alexander. But even if they thought they saw a sniper on the fifth floor, what were you doing shooting at us on the other side of the street, if you were shooting at the sniper?”

Porter shared the same sentiment. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just standing there talking. And to open fire on me, and I didn’t know what I had done? It was just shocking, horrendous and awful.”

Not long after the shooting, the then-president of Jackson State, Dr. John A. Peoples, shut the campus down. There was no graduation for the class of 1970 (until 2021), and campus did not reopen until the fall of 1970. When it did, both Baker and Porter returned to Jackson State to focus on their studies.

Like many of the students on the trip, I was moved by Porter and Baker's grit and determination.

Bringing the Lessons Home

Isaiah Allen, an 18-year-old Kent State freshman and health services administration major, was the youngest person on the trip. “It was just amazing to see that despite what they went through, they still had a smile on their face and are still very positive and open to share what happened that day,” Allen said.

“You might be frustrated and angry about different things that you experienced, but always use that frustration and anger to make change and make movement forward,” said Anaya Spencer, a junior public health major with a concentration in community outreach and development and a minor in Africana studies.

The same can be said about all citizens of Jackson as a whole, especially now as they are experiencing a water crisis. As a native of Flint, Michigan, I’ve lived through a water crisis, so this hits home for me. Jackson, like Flint, is a predominantly Black city, with inadequate and unhealthy water. On our second day there, we had an open discussion with three panelists to help us better understand the water crisis from a political perspective.

Arekia S. Bennett-Scott, executive director of Mississippi Votes and fellow Jackson State alumna, spoke with me about Jackson’s water distribution. Facilities are heavily outdated and in need of better management, which takes training. Yet, the state refuses to fund these projects.

“You would think that the state would fund its state capitol, but because its residents are predominantly Black, go figure,” Bennett-Scott said.

We also talked about the state legislature’s pursuit to disinvest, or withdraw funding, from the city of Jackson. Panelists, who included Zakiya Summers, a Mississippi State Representative for House District 68, and Maisie Brown, a Jackson State student activist who’s become the spokesperson for the Jackson water crisis, also offered advice for those who may want to demonstrate their activism behind the scenes.

“Activism doesn’t look the same for everyone, you don’t always have to be on the front lines to be a part of change,” said Jade Swan, a Kent State senior neuroscience major on the trip. “They talked about how we can all be activists in our own communities through education, politics or medicine. If we want change, we can be the change.”

One word that has echoed in my mind during and after this trip is ‘resilience.’ It’s a word that has been used to describe Black people for centuries, and it is truly reflected in the citizens of Jackson and similar cities across the nation.

“This trip really brought the past to the present,” Swan said. “It made me realize that there isn't a time frame for change to occur. It could take a year or a decade. You might not even live to see it but your effort will never be forgotten. You're helping people who you'll never meet, but your effort will help for generations.”

Anaya Spencer echoed similar sentiments. “You’re experiencing different things that might possibly be life-changing,” she said. Somebody could say something, or you could see something, and it can change your whole perspective, like your career goals or what you want to say or do when you get back to campus.”

Even before the official programming began, participants on the trip were already learning. Jackson State, like most HBCUs, is located in an urban, underdeveloped community with rundown buildings and streets that are not maintained. While this was the norm for me, it was an unexpected discovery for some of the other trip attendees in comparison to Kent State’s developed campus and downtown attractions. Such observations, compounded with personal life experiences, prove why these trips are so important and needed at Kent State — and not only for Black students and staff.

As human beings who have different experiences, we all need to open ourselves to different perspectives and ways of thinking. Some alternative break trips are more focused on community service, some are historical — but all are educational opportunities to learn and retain as much knowledge as we can.

POSTED: Tuesday, May 2, 2023 03:45 PM
Updated: Wednesday, June 7, 2023 12:40 AM
Aliyah C. Tipton