On Saturday (May 15), Jackson State University held a special commencement ceremony for the Class of 1970.
The originally scheduled commencement for HBCU class was cancelled 51 years ago due to shootings by city and state police officers that resulted in the deaths of two Black male students — 21-year-old JSU student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old high school student James Earl Green. The shootings also injured 12 others. The deaths happened during racial justice protests on the school’s campus.
Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and state Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson both apologized on Saturday for the shootings.
“As James Baldwin once wrote: ‘When we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it,’” Lumumba said, according to WJTV12. “I believe, as a city, we must publicly atone for the sins of our past and proclaim a new identity of dignity, equity and justice.”
Graduates that year received their diplomas by mail. On Saturday, 74 of the 400-plus donned caps and gowns and stood in the spotlight to receive the recognition denied to them over half-a-century ago.
The May 15, 1970, shootings at JSU were largely overshadowed by elsewhere violence involving law enforcement during which Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State University students amid a Vietnam War protest just days prior.
Lumumba said the Jackson Police Department officers “unjustly gunned down two innocent young Black men, terrorized and traumatized a community of Black students and committed one of the gravest sins in our city’s history.”
Jackson is currently 80 percent Black, but in 1970 it was a majority white city and police department.
Frazier, who was a Jackson State student in 1970, said he had gone to dinner that night and was delayed in returning to campus. He believes he might have been harmed or killed along with his friend Gibbs during the gunfire, if not for the delay.
“The state of Mississippi never apologized for the tragedy that occurred on this campus that night — never apologized,” Frazier said. “So, since I’m here representing the state of Mississippi in my role as state senator, I’d like to issue an apology to the families, the Jackson State family, for the tragedy that occurred that night because they took very valuable lives.”
Gibbs and Green were awarded posthumous honorary doctorate degrees, which were accepted by their sisters. The graduation took place on a street that was turned into a pedestrian zone named the Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza.