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The persistence of white supremacy 50 years after the Jackson State tragedy

In the early morning hours of 15 May 1970, the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol and the Jackson city police marched deep into the campus of the historically black Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, leveled their weapons at students gathered outside a women’s dormitory, and let loose a 28-second barrage of bullets and buckshot killing two young people—Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green—and injuring 12 others.

On 23 February 2020, a white former policeman and his son accosted and shot dead a young African American man, Ahmaud Arbery, in the suburban neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia. Though fifty years separate these two events, the parallels between them are chilling.

In both cases African Americans were simply living their lives, not threatening anyone before they were shot and killed.  Arbery, who loved to run, was jogging when Gregory McMichaels and his son, Travis, attacked him. At Jackson State College law enforcement had been called to handle a minor disturbance on the edge of the school, but with the situation under control marched to the center of campus to confront students, uninvolved in the earlier unrest, hanging out enjoying a warm Mississippi night before graduation.

In both cases the white assailants imagined their black victims as criminals, imposing their own racist stereotypes of African Americans as inherently dangerous onto young people who were nothing of the sort. The two men who shot Arbery believed he matched the description of the suspect in recent break-ins in the neighborhood. At Jackson State, law enforcement believed when a group of young people lit a dump truck on fire on the edge of campus that students might “start burning building[s]” next, and imagined a riot where none existed.

As a result of their perceptions, warped by white supremacy, the attackers in both cases brought an inappropriate level of firepower to their encounters with the victims. The two men charged in the death of Arbery grabbed both a .357 magnum and a shotgun. At Jackson State College, law enforcement armed themselves with shotguns loaded with heavy buckshot, two sub-machine guns, two rifles with armor-piercing bullets, and an armored tank owned by the city.

The results of these combustible mixtures were, in both instances, the deaths of young black men beloved by their friends and families.  Arbery, 25, was known for his easy smile and his generous and loving personality. He had been a talented high school athlete. In 2020, he was living with his mother and working a couple of jobs, with dreams of becoming an electrician. Phillip Gibbs, 20, was a junior at Jackson State where he was studying political science and contemplated becoming a lawyer. His wife and their child, Phillip Jr., were living in their hometown of Ripley, Mississippi, to save expenses. He was outside the women’s dorm visiting with his sister and her roommate through the window. James Earl Green, 17, is still remembered by his family for his caring personality and his sense of humor. He had just gotten off a shift at the Wag-a-Bag grocery store, where he had worked since he was eleven to help out the family. His route home took him through the campus.

And in the aftermath of both attacks, the white shooters flipped the story to portray themselves as the victims. The McMichaels pursued Arbery in their truck, confronted him with a loaded shotgun, but claimed self-defense, a story the elder McMichael’s former colleagues in the police department accepted. At Jackson State, law enforcement purported they “would have been killed by the mob had they not fired,” and soon concocted a story about a sniper.  Both of those claims were disproven by the evidence and entirely false.

The shooters in the death of Ahmaud Arbery have finally been arrested, but this action has come more than two months since his death and only after significant mistakes and missteps by the state. The complete failure of the justice system in the aftermath of the Jackson State shootings suggests just how important it is that we continue to closely observe the proceedings in the Arbery case.

Though the Justice Department initiated a special federal grand jury, it was presided over by District Judge William Harold Cox, a segregationist who had thrown out the felony charges for “conspiracy to deprive the victims of their civil rights” against seventeen suspects in the murder of three civil rights workers abducted and slain in the early days of Freedom Summer. Cox brought his white supremacy with him to the Jackson State case and told jurors that his district would “not provide safe sanctuary for militants or for anarchists or for revolutionaries of any race. The processes of this court,” he declared, “shall not be used to appease and placate such lawless pressure groups.”  The federal grand jury produced neither indictments nor a written record of its findings.

Concurrent with the federal grand jury, Hinds County, Mississippi convened its own grand jury.  Things went little better there.  Judge Russel D. Moore III branded the Jackson State students as “anarchists,” and raised the specter of “government . . . by mob violence rather than by law.” Reiterating Judge Cox’s words, he told the jurors, “No person participating in a riot or civil disorder or open combat with civil authorities, or failing to immediately disassociate himself from such a group or gathering, has any civil right to expect to avoid serious injury or even death when the disorder becomes such as to require extreme measures and harsh treatment.” The grand jury returned only one indictment, scapegoating a local black man and charging him with “inciting to riot.”

Civil court remained the only legal recourse for those victimized by the shootings, and in 1972 three of the wounded joined the families of Gibbs and Green in a lawsuit. Defense lawyers employed the same white supremacist stereotypes that had produced the shootings, falsely portraying the police as defenders of law and order who had acted in self-defense, the plaintiffs not as responsible students but as senseless and even criminal troublemakers, and the circumstances that led to the shootings as a riot in which law enforcement had faced down a deadly mob. These depictions bore no relationship to the actual events that took place in the early hours of 15 May 1970. That did not matter to the all-white jury, which found for the defendants. The plaintiffs successfully appealed to a higher court, but a ruling of sovereign immunity protected the guilty.  In 1974, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, ending the Jackson State victims’ chance quest for justice in the legal system.

Half a century has passed, but the white supremacist stereotypes that framed the students at Jackson State College as dangerous criminals continue to lead to devastating murders, such as that of Ahmaud Arbery. Fifty years after the shootings at Jackson State, no police officer or highway patrolman has been charged in the deaths of Phillip Gibbs or James Earl Green. Neither the city of Jackson nor the state of Mississippi has offered an apology to the victims. It is not yet too late for justice in the case of Ahmaud Arbery.  We must ask for accountability not only from those who commit such acts of white supremacist violence, but also from our justice system.

Featured Image Credit: “Black Lives Matter window banner, Greenwich Village, New York” by Billie Grace Ward. CC BY SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. w p

    “The two men who shot Arbery believed he matched the description of the suspect in recent break-ins in the neighborhood.”

    Reporting an alleged sighting of a suspect to the police is an option.

    “The McMichaels pursued Arbery in their truck, confronted him with a shotgun, but claimed self-defense, a story the elder McMichael’s former colleagues in the police department accepted.”

    If the self-defense claim is made falsely, then the first claim of sighting a break-in suspect may be made falsely as well.

    I am wondering if there were any break-ins in the neighborhood, and if so, how the McMichaels could claim to know of a way to match Arbery to the suspect in any break-in.

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