They waited more than 50 years to put on their hats and bathrobes: this rite of passage was denied to members of the class of 1970 at present-day Jackson State University in Mississippi, after a fatal police shooting in the college historically black who spring abruptly ended their college years.
Their diploma was canceled.
But on Saturday, the group of more than 400 alumni got the chance to hear their names called and walk through a stage.
They received more than just their diplomas: City and state officials apologized for the violence that claimed two lives and injured a dozen more after local police and police officers State Highway Patrol opened fire as they responded to campus protests against racial injustice on the night of May 14, 1970.
Jackson’s Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at the ceremony that it has been a long time since the city accepts responsibility for the bloodshed.
“As James Baldwin once wrote, ‘When we can’t tell the truth about our past, we are trapped there,” “said Mr. Lumumba, referring to the Harlem-raised author. “I believe that as a city we must publicly atone for the sins of our past and proclaim a new identity of dignity, fairness and justice.”
Tensions over racial discrimination escalated at the university, then known as Jackson State College, when officers descended on campus that night. A dump truck had been set alight in a nearby street, drawing a phalanx of heavily armed officers to the campus and an armored police vehicle.
The situation worsened as it approached midnight.
In the early hours of May 15, protesters threw stones and pieces of bricks, although no serious injuries were reported to police, according to a report by the Presidential Commission on Campus Troubles released later in the year.
Claiming that a sniper fired at them from a female dormitory (a claim that has never been substantiated), officers sprayed the area with nearly 400 rounds, according to the report.
Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a 21-year-old college student, and James Earl Green, a 17-year-old high school student walking home from work, were killed in the barrage of gunfire, and 12 people were injured.
“On May 14, 1970, members of the Jackson Police Department unjustly shot and killed two innocent black youths, terrorized and traumatized a community of black college students, and committed one of the gravest sins in our city’s history,” said Mr. Lumumba, who is black.
Jackson State, which is a public university, posthumously awarded Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Green a doctorate at the graduation ceremony, which was postponed until last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. The commemorative square where the beginning took place bears their name.
No officer was charged with his death, with a Hinds County grand jury calling the shooting justified.
The violence in Jackson State was eclipsed by a massacre at Kent State University in Ohio less than two weeks earlier. Four unarmed students were killed there and nine others injured after Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on a group of people protesting the war in Vietnam.
State Senator Hillman T. Frazier, who was a student at Jackson State at the time of the shooting and whose district includes part of Jackson, said he left campus to fetch food that night of May 14, 1970, and that it might otherwise have been shot.
“If you think about it, the state of Mississippi never apologized for the tragedy that happened on this campus that night, never apologized,” said Mr. Frazier, who is black. . “So, since I represent the State of Mississippi here as a State Senator, I would like to apologize to the Jackson State family for the tragedy that occurred that night.”
Nerene Gibbs Wray, a sister of Mr. Gibbs, accepted her doctorate at the ceremony.
“Over the years a lot of people have forgotten, but Jackson State has never forgotten,” she said.