On Saturday (May 15), the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi and a state senator offered a formal apology on behalf of the city for deadly shootings on the campus of an HBCU 51 years ago.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and state Sen. Hillman Frazier gave remarks during a graduation ceremony for Jackson State University for the 1970 police-involved shooting at what was then Jackson State College.
“As James Baldwin once wrote: ‘When we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it,’” Lumumba said. “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.”
In his remarks, Lumumba apologized to the families of the two men who were killed during an on-campus protest against racial injustice. On May 15, 1970, police killed 21-year-old Jackson State student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old high school student James Earl Green who was on campus while walking home from his job.
Following the shooting, the 1970 commencement ceremony was cancelled and the graduates didn’t get their diplomas until the next year by mail, if at all.
In 1970, Jackson was majority white, now the state’s capital city is over 80 percent Black. Lumumba and Sen. Frazier who both represent the city are Black. The white officers of the Jackson Police Department who came onto the school’s campus, Lumumba said, “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.”
Sen. Frazier was a student at Jackson State in 1970 and believes he might’ve been standing with his friend Gibbs during the shootings if he hadn’t been at dinner that night.
“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… 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.”
Seventy-four of the more than 400 graduates from the class of 1970 attended Saturday’s ceremony, wearing caps and gowns, to receive the recognition they didn’t get 51 years ago. Sisters of Gibbs and Green accepted posthumous honorary doctorates during the ceremony which took place on the street where their loved ones were gunned down, now named Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza.
Photo: Getty Images