(JACKSON, Miss.) – On Feb. 27, the “Tragedy and Triumph: The Lives of the Gibbs-Green Survivors” exhibit opened at the Margaret Walker Center at JSU. The exhibition, which runs through May, is one of several curated events that pay homage to the lives of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green. The two young men lost their lives, and many were injured, on May 15, 1970, when Mississippi police showered bullets on unarmed students in front of Alexander Hall.
It is one of the most glazed over tragic events in U.S. history in comparison to the attention garnered by the shootings on the campus of Kent State on May 4, the same year.
“The Tragedy and Triumph: The Lives of the Gibbs-Green Survivors exhibit is meant to highlight the men and women who, for the past 50 years, have had to deal with the events of that traumatic night at Jackson State in 1970. But, it isn’t meant to look at them as victims. Instead, we want to uplift them and the lives they have led since then,” said Dr. Robert Luckett, director of the Margaret Walker Center.
Aliyah Veal, a 25-year-old native of Jackson, attended the exhibit opening and shared her thoughts on Gibbs-Green. “Last June, the Margaret Walker Center had a ceremony honoring the victims. I was unaware of what happened, so I think it’s important for students and citizens of Jackson, in general, to know the history and know what happened here and never forget it.”
There has been much debate as to why the police converged on the campus the night of May 15, 1970. While it has been challenging to pinpoint a direct source of discord, some say it was several reasons, including protests of the Vietnam War.
Nettie Stowers, retired public relations counselor, was campus sweetheart at Jackson State University in 1970. She said that the year was ripe for protests and discord. “It was a supercharged atmosphere because black men were being recruited and drafted to go fight the war in Vietnam. There was a disproportionate number of black men who died and who served in Vietnam, and a lot of them came out of the college ranks,” said Stowers. “That’s where the pedal hit the metal for me at Jackson State and many other men and ladies. The black men were being drafted right out of college and being sent straight to Vietnam.”
Others say racial tensions were high due to a blatant disregard for the safety of black students at JSU. In 1964, a JSU student was struck by a white motorist, and her leg was broken. Stowers explained that at that time, Lynch Street ran through the campus of Jackson State University and, many white motorists would not slow down for black students. “So, we were already a little perturbed and upset,” she shared.
Whatever the reason, two students lost their lives, and 12 were injured in a night that will forever be ingrained in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed it.
Later in the evening, the JSU Student Government Association hosted a memorial march that led up the Gibbs-Green pedestrian walkway and ended in front of Alexander Hall. A ceremony followed inside the Jacob L. Reddix general purpose room, which included remarks by student leaders Jordan Jefferson, SGA president; Kijana Roberts, JSU NAACP president; Amari Stewart, CAB president; and Eric Brown, president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. There were also songs by the JSU Mass Choir and Jordan Scott, and a poem by Jasmine Thomas, a graduate student.
Jefferson, who described May 15, 1970, as a night of gunshots, fear, sadness and tears, also reminded attendees of their role in society.
“It’s up to us to make sure that their deaths (Gibbs-Green) are not in vain. So we take up the charge to fight injustice in any form because we are ‘thee’ future of this institution, this city, this state and this nation. It is our responsibility to make this a better place for everyone, regardless of color and race.”