The NBC Learn series, "Finishing the Dream" continues in Jackson, Mississippi, where panelists and students discuss the 1970 shootings at Jackson State University.
Finishing the Dream: Learning from the Civil Rights Era – Jackson Town Hall (part 5)
Did the nation ignore the Jackson State shootings?
HOWARD BALLOU, Anchor: Well, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the shootings at this historically black campus of Jackson State University. Controversy still surrounds the incident where two were killed and a dozen more injured by members of the Jackson Police Department and the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
Now, authorities claimed they were responding to sniper fire, but students and administrators-- administrators it is, still say there was never any shooter other than the ones wearing badges.
BERT CASE, WLBT NEWS: [IN CLIP] Officers fired at Alexander Hall, a girls’ dormitory, continuously for just over 29 seconds. One died at the door of the dorm, another across the street. Some of the twelve injured came back to JSU for the memorial observance. There’s still a controversy about whether there was actually a sniper that night that touched off the shooting. Former Jackson State University president Dr. John Peoples says there was no sniper.
Dr. JOHN PEOPLES, FORMER JSU PRESIDENT: [IN CLIP] Absolutely not. It was a women’s dormitory. There was no sniper there at all.
CASE: [IN CLIP] James Lap Baker, a student at JSU at the time who now works for Hines County, was also an eyewitness and argues there was no sniper.
JAMES LAP BAKER: [IN CLIP] There wasn’t a sniper on the fifth floor. If there were a sniper, then they were trained officers; they should have been shooting at the fifth floor. They shot on both sides of the campus.
LEROY KETTER: [IN CLIP] I was shot right here.
CASE: [IN CLIP] Leroy Ketter, a 20-year-old student in 1970, was shot in the leg. He is now a Greenwood businessman, who operates Spooney’s Barbeque Restaurant.
KETTER: [IN CLIP] I got shot with a 30-30 – what you shoot deers and elephants with. If there was a sniper on the fifth floor, why was James Earl Green dead in the back.
CASE: [IN CLIP] You can still see the bullet holes in Alexander Hall on the campus of Jackson State University, where 460 shots were fired at that girls’ dormitory the morning of May 15, 1970. It’s the 40th anniversary coming up. Bert Case, WLBT News, Jackson State.
BALLOU: Panelist, I’ll start with Reverend Dean.
Reverend KENNETH DEAN, Former Director, Mississippi Human Relations Council: Well, I-- I was here not only for that shooting and was out here at the campus, but also just, you know, a year or two before that when Ben Brown had been shot. And-- and both of these situations were basically a student protest kind of atmosphere was going on. And you had police who were trained to shoot. And in the Ben Brown case they told them to shoot up in the air, and everybody did except one man. He took his rifle like that and shot, killed Ben, and it happened right in front of me, okay.
Now, this case here what they did is instead of having blockades like they did in the Brown case, the military and police, they swept through the campus down Lynch Street and strafed the buildings, it’s that simple.
And, I don’t know of anybody that was able to substantiate that there was a sniper. I think the first shots that were heard were the strafing of the buildings. And that’s what happened at Jackson State, and I would like to piggyback on that and say that one of the great changes that we ought to be able to clap our hands and be thankful for happened by that man that you saw in there, John People’s, because Jackson State was really a suppressed institution. Until Dr. People’s came on board and he began turning this thing around to where it became a more free, a more responsive, a more committed institution in terms of race relations.
This institution today, is another tool that’s been placed in our hands, and people have a great opportunity to come here and get an education. And I agree-- I agree with Mr. Meredith that the primary education of individual happens at home around the supper table. But, the other formal education is-- is another matter. So, the two of them should go together.
MAGGIE WADE, Anchor: Well right now, we’re going to hear from James Lap Baker, who was a student at the Jackson State during the shootings.
JAMES LAP BAKER: What happened at Jackson State was not just something that happened. First of all, I was there, ten yards away, and in my opinion, what happened on May 15th was intentional. It was planned. More students were to be-- to have been killed that night.
Now, generally, most people know about Kent State University and what happened on May 4th. I taught out here as an adjunct instructor for 25 years. My students, each class, never knew anything about May 15, 1970.
Now, I have a question here. What impact do you think that the May 15, 1970 shooting and killing, and in most cases I always called it a massacre, should have -- or have had -- on young blacks right now?
BALLOU: There you have it. Panelists?
ALBERT SYKES, Lead Organizer, The Young People’s Project: I think, uh, I think that what happened was once the blood from those young people spilled on the ground, that made this school hallowed ground. So that made it a-- a very, very iconic and historic place in, not just Mississippi but in America’s history. And so that incident-- that happened here should drive and motivate the people and the community that surrounds this school and the-- the-- the larger Mississippi community to-- to place more value into institutions like Jackson State.
We have a responsibility within our community to utilize and to-- to maximize the way that we build character in our communities and things that we’ve placed value on. And the opportunity to become the producers rather than the consumer.
So, one of the things that I can say for myself is that when I saw Medgar Evers’s picture, like, there’s one of the people in my life that I definitely know I owe. I grew up on Ridgeway Street, one block over from where Medgar Evers lived and died. And, so for me, it was less than a 3 minute journey to go around there and really be able to feel the place where this man died and the place where his kids layed on the floor and waited to see was daddy okay. And where his wife ran out to the yard and screamed.
And so when I look at that community, where I come from, I know we owe Medgar Evers more. We owe it to him to pick up the trash. We owe it to him to value the community. We owe to him to support Brinkley Middle School, Smith Elementary, Johnson Elementary, Lanier High School, all of these places that surround-- like that’s a area of greatness. That’s hallowed ground. And people from that area should understand what happened in that area. So monumental change came from Medgar Evers living one street over from my mom, and it resonated out across this whole this city and across the United Sates.
And so we definitely have to understand that in events like this not only go down in history but they-- they make places like this immortal, and we have to build the culture of supporting it and making Jackson Sate a successful institution based on the things and the sacrifices that have happened here.
BALLOU: All right. Mister Sykes, thank you so much. Thank you. Very good.
WADE: Straight ahead, an all-white Jackson, Mississippi television station becomes the first in the nation to lose its operating license. We’ll talk about it next.
Warning their futures are being stolen from them, tens of thousands of young people across the United States walked out of school to demand action on gun violence Wednesday in one of the biggest student protests since the Vietnam era.