By Cody Bloomfield
May 14, 2021
On May 15, 1970, police fired over 400 bullets and pieces of deershot into a student dorm at the predominantly Black Jackson State University. Police originally mobilized on campus in response to student protests; for unclear reasons, they then proceeded up the street and fired on students who were just hanging out at a dorm. Over-policing of Black-led protests and police perception of Black people as inherently threatening led to the death of Black students at the hands of law enforcement. In the 1960’s, the white backlash to rising Black power took the form of law and order rhetoric. We see the same rhetoric invoked today in response to Black Lives Matter protests. The events of Jackson State are depressingly resonant today.
Throughout the 1960’s, white people would frequently drive through the Jackson State campus, calling students racial slurs and threatening them. In 1964, a white driver rammed Jackson State student Mamie Ballard, sending her to the hospital. For years, students protested the abuse, calling on the city to close the street so that Black students would not be harassed on their own campus. On the night before the Jackson State massacre, students were throwing rocks at motorists. Jackson City Police, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, and campus police descended en masse into campus, and the National Guard was put on alert. They brought an armored tank designed for riot control, and over 75 police units arrived at the scene.
Student protests continued into the next day, culminating in overturning a dump truck and setting it on fire. The National Guard deployed troops, purportedly to protect the firefighters charged with extinguishing the burning dump truck. Then, police and National Guard troops moved into the center of campus, apparently against orders. There, they encountered not protestors but students mingling outside and socializing ahead of their upcoming graduation. Upon seeing mass numbers of heavily armed police officers, the festive atmosphere became fearful. The students (most of whom had nothing to do with earlier protests) retreated behind a chain link fence.
After the fact, heads of law enforcement offered conflicting stories about why police went to the dorm and murdered students. Some officials put the size of the crowd at 40 people while others reported 400. As justification for murdering students, law enforcement claimed there had been a sniper in the dorm. The FBI found no evidence of a sniper. No official had good answers for why officers fired into a crowd that was sequestered behind a chain link fence, or why police murdered a high school student on the other side of the street, which was the opposite side of the street from the supposed sniper. Law enforcement did not offer aid to the wounded and dead. The police never faced any legal consequences for the murders.
The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest found that “racial antagonisms” were central to the events of Jackson State. The editor of Jackson State’s student newspaper Elijah McClendon put it more bluntly: “This is pure slaughter.”
Following ten days on the heels of the Kent State massacre, many parallels were drawn between the two tragedies. Both were cases where United States law enforcement killed students. Kent State was unconscionable slaughter of students exercising their constitutional rights. But at Jackson State, the students killed were bystanders. Law enforcement conflated being Black with being a threat. Some Jackson State students protested white supremacy in the streets; others did not. All faced pervasive surveillance and over-policing as they worked towards their degrees. But in the eyes of law enforcement, being Black was synonymous with being radical. The night of May 15 Black college students hanging out on a warm night were perceived by law enforcement to be a threat.
Especially as DHS ramps up anti-extremism programming, the events of Jackson State should be taken as a caution that Black people are often perceived as extremist or radical when they are simply living their lives or exercising their First Amendment rights. Surveillance and incarceration will continue to disproportionately impact the same people these white supremacist systems have always harmed.