State Violence and the Problem of Race: The Shootings at Kent State and Jackson State 50 Years After
Nancy Bristow, University of Puget Sound
The walls and windows of Alexander Hall on the Jackson State campus showed the evidence of the barrage left when officers opened fire on unarmed students with weapons including a submachine gun, carbines loaded with military ammunition, and a pair of 30.06 rifles firing armor-piercing bullets, striking the dorm almost 400 times. President’s Commission on Campus Unrest.
This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.
Bringing together scholars and eyewitnesses, this session challenges popular mythologies surrounding two moments of state violence—the May 4 shootings at Kent State University and the May 15 assault at Jackson State College. At Kent State, the Ohio National Guard opened fire killing four students and wounding nine. At Jackson State the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol and Jackson police killed two young people and wounded twelve. In the days immediately following, many saw the shootings as similar. As one journalist suggested, the shootings at Jackson State were simply “Kent State II.” Such a conflation contributed to the flattening of the distinctive histories that led to the violence, and to the popular erasure of the Jackson State shootings. This session returns to those moments and their aftermaths, putting in conversation the voices of those who experienced them and scholars who have studied them, offering a unique opportunity for attendees to understand more deeply the causes of the shootings, the experiences of the individuals and institutions who suffered through them, the injustice that followed, and the processes of misremembering and forgetting that has plagued their history.
The Kent State University shootings stand as an iconic moment in American culture, used as a kind of shorthand to represent the generational and political chasms that had emerged in the United States by 1970. From Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the horror, cultural remnants from the era have kept the violence alive in American memory. Such remembering, though, too often fails to situate the shootings in the longer arc of activism on the campus, where a radical and sometimes biracial movement had been gaining momentum throughout the 1960s. Protests at the beginning of the 1960s focused on supporting southern civil rights sit-ins, integrating local public accommodations and eliminating racial segregation in off-campus student housing. A few students went south, including one who joined the Freedom Riders in 1961, to form a student chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality became the subject of bitter campus debate in 1964, as did the first protests against the Vietnam War. Alongside of antiwar activity, biracial activism moved to the forefront in 1968 when students, in solidarity with the Black Panther Party, impeded Oakland Police representatives from recruiting on the campus.
If the shootings at Kent State have been simplified and misrepresented, the violence at Jackson State has been all but forgotten outside the African American community. As the son of one of the Jackson State fatalities lamented, “If I try to tell people about the shootings at Jackson State, they don't know about it. They don't know until I say 'Kent State.' For us to even be acknowledged, it had to happen at Kent State first." But the shootings at Jackson State were not Kent State II, but another chapter in the ongoing story of state violence against African Americans. Controlled by the state of Mississippi, Jackson State’s administration had long repressed student activism, expelling protestors and silencing student voices. By 1970, though, the institution began to reflect the impacts of civil rights and Black Power activism. It was this campus the state attacked when, motivated by racial animus and a sense of white impunity, state troopers and local police opened fire on a crowd that was neither protesting nor “rioting.”
Fifty years after these wrongdoings, the ongoing crisis of state violence against people of color and the resurgent dominance of the rhetorics of law and order and white supremacy lend urgency to the understandings this session opens up—of the forces that made it possible for law enforcement to open fire on unarmed students, of the disparate impact of race in the causes and consequences of the shootings, of the failure of the criminal justice system to recognize the actions of state actors as illegal, and of the long-term consequences of such injustice in the lives of those who suffered through it.