Four decades ago, on May 4, 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University when National Guardsmen opened fire on hundreds of unarmed students at an on-campus antiwar rally. The killings received national media attention and are still remembered forty years later across the country. But the media has largely forgotten what happened just ten days after the Kent State shootings. On May 14, 1970, local and state police opened fire on a group of students at the predominantly black Jackson State College in Mississippi. In a twenty-eight-second barrage of gunfire, police fired hundreds of rounds into the crowd. Two were killed and a dozen injured. We speak with Gene Young, a former student at Jackson State who witnessed the shooting.
Juan Gonzalez: Four decades ago, four students were killed at Kent State University when National Guardsmen opened fire on hundreds of unarmed students on an on-campus antiwar rally. The killings received national media attention and are remembered forty years later across the country. But the media has largely forgotten what happened just ten days after the Kent State shootings. On May 14th, 1970, local police opened fire on a group of students at Jackson State College in Mississippi. In a twenty-eight-second barrage of gunfire, police fired hundreds of rounds into the crowd. Two were killed and a dozen injured. The Jackson State shootings didn’t receive close to the attention from the media that Kent State did.
Amy Goodman: Howard Zinn, the late, great historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, spoke about why the Jackson State killings were largely ignored in his very last interview we did with him on Democracy Now! just last May.
Howard Zinn: Yeah, well, it’s a very common thing in history to ignore the things that happen to black people. And, of course, the Kent State shooting was a very dramatic and terrible event and deserves to be remembered as one of those shameful things in American history. But the media tend to focus on some things and not on others, and the media did not focus on the other shooting that took place at Jackson State, where two black youngsters were gunned down. And so, yeah, I think our job as historians is to bring out things that we did not get ordinarily in our history lessons.
Juan Gonzalez: That was historian Howard Zinn speaking last year.
Well, today on this fortieth anniversary, we remember the Jackson State shootings. This is an excerpt from the documentary Fire in the Heartland that includes a section on Jackson State. It features interviews with Gene Young, who was a student at the time and who witnessed the shootings, and Gloria Green McCray. Her brother, seventeen-year-old James Green, was one of those two students killed.
Narrator: Just after midnight on May 15th, seventy officers from the city police and state troopers opened fire on protesters near the women’s dormitory, Alexander Hall.
Gene Young: They saw a male figure on the fourth floor stairwell landing. The next thing you know, you hear rapid gunfire erupting in the direction of the students and all around.
Narrator: Twelve students were wounded, and two were killed. Phillip Lafayette Gibbs was a twenty-one-year-old law student, already married and a father of an eleven-month-old son. James Earl Green was a seventeen-year-old high school track star standing on the opposite side of the street when police turned and fired.
Gloria Green McCray: They had a nickname for him: “Wing Feet.” He would run so fast, and when he’d get to a certain distance, it looked like he took wing and flew.
Narrator: Green cut across campus every night on his way home from work. He was only two weeks from his high school graduation.
Gloria Green McCray: All he talked about, “I’ll be graduating in a couple of weeks. I’ll be leaving Mississippi, going to California, going to UCLA. I’m going to run in the Olympics,” you know? He was just an innocent bystander, but they had orders to shoot anything black that moved.
Narrator: As the gunsmoke cleared, Gene Young tried to calm the traumatized students.
Gene Young: And I just grabbed the bullhorn, and out of that tragedy, I just start repeating some of the words of Dr. King to the students there on the lawn. “I have a dream that one day the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom.” And on and on I went to recite that particular speech. The students focused on my words rather than the great tragedy which had just occurred around them and which was still occurring around them.
Narrator: The second tragedy of Jackson State was that the national media paid very little attention to the murder of those two black students in Mississippi.
Unidentified: Those students were black. The students who died at Kent State were white. Very simple.
Gloria Green McCray: He had so much to live for. My brother’s life was just as important as Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Emmett Till or any other martyrs that gave up their life, that sacrificed their life for the right of the people.
Amy Goodman: An excerpt of the documentary Fire in the Heartland. That last voice was Gloria Green McCray talking about her brother James Green, who was one of the two students killed at Jackson State forty years ago today. You also heard Gene Young. He was a student at Jackson State. He witnessed the shootings.
Well, Gene Young flew up from Jackson, Mississippi to join us today on Democracy Now! on this fortieth anniversary of the Jackson State killings. Gene Young is a longtime civil rights leader. He began his activism as a preteen, getting arrested for civil disobedience at a bus station at the age of twelve. Before his thirteenth birthday, Young took his first plane ride to New York to speak to civil rights groups. He attended the 1963 March on Washington. He testified at the House of Representatives alongside civil and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. He’s continued his activism to this day and was a featured speaker last week at an event commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings in Ohio.
Gene Young, we welcome you to Democracy Now!
Gene Young: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan. Good morning.
Amy Goodman: It’s very good to have you with us. Let’s go back forty years. Talk about what was happening at Jackson State. You were a student there? What year?
Gene Young: I was a student there from 1968 to 1972, and as you noted, I had been involved in a lot of civil rights activities. And Jackson State is located right there on Lynch Street, right near the Masonic Temple where Medgar Evers had his offices. And ironically, when I got out of jail the first time I got arrested for civil rights protest, Lena Horne and Dick Gregory were at a mass meeting which Medgar Evers hosted, and I got a chance to stand up in a chair to try to encourage people to join the civil rights protest, and Lena Horne kissed me that night.
A few years later, because of Lynch Street being a major thoroughfare there in Jackson, there was always a lot of racism, white motorists making racial taunts towards the students, and things just came to a head days after the shootings of the students at Kent State University. Mississippi law enforcement officials walked onto the campus and stood in front of the students who were assembled in front of Alexander Hall dormitory, and for twenty-five seconds they fired over 200 rounds of ammunition at the students in front of Alexander Hall dormitory.
And the miracle of that particular May morning in 1970 was that only two students got killed—if you ever see the pictures of all of the bullet holes in the dormitory. Phillip Gibbs, a junior, a prelaw major from Ripley, Mississippi, and James Earl Green, a young high school student who was on his way home from a part-time job at one of the local convenience stores, were murdered that morning.
Juan Gonzalez Now, what was the original cause of the students gathering that night, because it was right after the Kent State shootings?
Gene Young: Juan, at that time, you know, we had had several nights of protests, not only because of what was going on at Kent State, but every campus in this country was in an uproar about the war in Vietnam. And black—young black males were being sent to Southeast Asia in disproportionate numbers, and we were concerned about that, in addition to the historic racism there in Jackson, Mississippi. So there were several nights of protests. And I was thinking that there would just be some taunts and jeers at the law enforcement officials present and thinking nothing would happen, but shortly after midnight, on that third night, early in the morning, May 15, actually, those students were fired upon at Jackson State.
Juan Gonzalez: And for viewers who are not—or listeners who are not familiar with the situation in Jackson, because, as you mentioned, it was always a hotbed of activity in terms of the battle for civil rights, what was the climate— for instance, the media. You had WLBT TV there. You had the Jackson Daily News, the Clarion Ledger, all of them notorious defenders of segregation at the time. What was the climate like?
Gene Young: Yeah, and, of course, that was business as usual, you know? And I shared with you a picture of me meeting with Mrs. Fannie Chaney, whose son was one of the three civil rights workers who was killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Pior to the 1970 shootings, you had the killing of a civil rights worker named Benjamin Brown right there on Lynch Street not far from it.
But you mentioned some of the TV stations and the print media. Ironically now, the Clarion Ledger is now run by Gannett publishing company, but in those days, you know, when blacks were mentioned in those papers, they were always using a derogatory term. And it was just business as usual, just more blacks being victimized by whites in Mississippi. And I think that’s one of the reasons to why Jackson State hasn’t received the notoriety that Kent State has received, because nobody’s shocked when you hear about black people being victimized by whites in Mississippi.
Juan Gonzalez: And how did you get arrested at the age of twelve?
Gene Young:That was a walkout in protest of civil rights Freedom Riders who had been arrested at a local bus station, and my brothers told me to join the walkout at 12:00 at Lanier High School that day. There’s a scene in the documentary Eyes on the Prize of us walking out of Lanier High School. And they took us all to jail.
And when I got out of jail, because I was one of the youngest ones, they said, “Why don’t you get up there and tell people what happened to you?” And somewhere there’s a picture of me standing up in a chair to get to the microphone at the Masonic Temple that evening. But ironically, Dick Gregory and Ms. Lena Horne were both present there in Jackson that evening, and I told people—I made some imitation of Ross Barnett, and the people laughed about that. The picture’s in the NAACP’s 100th anniversary pictorial book. But they said, “We want you to come to New York to talk about it.” And I got on an airplane. I was thinking about that, flying in last night. The first time I flew to New York was June 12th, 1963. When we got to New York, they said Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi.
Amy Goodman: You know, we were just observing the death of Lena Horne, who has just died at the age of ninety-two, and we were speaking with James Gavin, her biographer. And he was talking about that rally that she went to that you were at and you spoke at. There is a photograph of you, of Lena—
Gene Young:There’s a photograph of her and me. I don’t know if I—if I could see the picture. Somebody took a picture of us. I’ve never seen it, though.
Amy Goodman: And Lena Horne there with Medgar Evers. You were also there. She comes up to New York. I think it was The Today Show she was doing an interview with. And then she gets the word—it’s just two days later—that Medgar Evers has been assassinated. But such a young man—I mean, I’m holding a photograph of you at the age of thirteen. This is a picture of you getting your haircut. Why was this so memorable?
Gene Young: Because it happened right on the heels of Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 civil rights bill. And initially I had gone downstairs at the hotel at the CORE convention—the Congress of Racial Equality was having its meeting there—and the guy said they didn’t cut black people’s hair at that hotel. I went back and told some friends in the civil rights movement—
Amy Goodman: Kansas City.
Gene Young: Yeah, that this guy wasn’t going to cut my hair. And they came down and started protesting. And in the middle of the protest, somebody ran in July 2nd and said, “Hey, Johnson just signed the 1964 Civil Eights Act,” and so technically, I became the first person to test the 1964 civil rights bill.
Amy Goodman: He cut your hair?
Gene Young: Oh, he cut my hair.
Amy Goodman: We’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back. We’re speaking with a civil rights leader who was a student at Jackson State in 1970 on this day forty years ago, when the local police opened fire. They killed two students. One was a high school student. He was working at a local grocery store. He was just cutting through campus to get home. And one was a student on campus. They opened fire in front of a girl’s dorm. Many of them were injured inside. Gene Young is our guest. Stay with us.
“Fire in the Heartland”, excerpt from the new documentary ‘Fire in the Heartland: Kent State, May 4th, and Student Protest’.
Gene Young, witness to the Jackson State tragedy and longtime civil rights activist. He began his activism as a pre-teen, getting arrested for civil disobedience at a bus station at the age of twelve. Before his thirteenth birthday, Young took his first plane ride to New York to speak to civil rights groups. He attended the 1963 March on Washington and testified at the House of Representatives, alongside civil- and voting-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. He has continued his activism to this day and was a featured speaker last week at an event commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings.