Kent State & Jackson State: 40 years later

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(NNPA) – A couple of weeks after the May 4, 1970 killings of four students at Kent State by National Guards troops during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, word spread throughout my high school regarding the killings of two Black students at Jackson State College (now University).  These students had been protesting the murders at Kent State, the Vietnam War and the racist harassment that Black students had been receiving in and around the campus.  The police responded to the protest with bullets, an act that was broadly condemned.

In contrast to the dramatic outpouring of anger and sadness that followed from the Kent State killings—including but not limited to student strikes across the country—there was no such outpouring in connection with Jackson State; there were no massive student strikes.  At my high school several Black student activists, most of us allied with the Black Panther Party, went throughout the school agitating for a walkout or, at least, a protest.  Our cries met with little response.  In my mind’s eye I can see one of our leaders addressing students in the cafeteria calling upon them to respond to these murders, only to be largely ignored.

The lack of response to Jackson State was not isolated to my high school. While it was certainly the case that there were responses, none of it came close to mirroring the response to the Kent State killings.  Much was made of this at the time, and then, as weeks became months, and months became years, Jackson State was largely forgotten.

The contrasting responses to Kent State and Jackson State said so much about race in the USA, and it will be interesting to see to what extent any attention is actually focused on Jackson State this month.  As too often happens, Black, Brown, Yellow and Red death at the hands of the forces of law and order may be viewed as unfortunate, if not tragic, but to a great extent not a source of outrage by white America.

The killings and woundings at Kent State were, simply put, not supposed to happen to good White students.  That the shootings could never be properly explained by the authorities compounded the problem for the entire country.  The murders at Jackson State, just as with the murders two years earlier at Orangeburg, South Carolina and two years later at Southern University in New Orleans, were the killings of faceless individuals who, in the minds of far too many White Americans, simply should not have placed themselves in harm’s way.

What White America could largely not accept was that Kent State happened because the Orangeburg Massacre had been permitted to take place.  The relative silence in the face of such a profound police injustice as was the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968 provided the grounding that made other such police atrocities possible.  Inevitably that would spill over into White America.  Yet, to the extent to which White America saw Kent State in isolation, it ignored it as part of a larger problem of police violence and state repression.

To put it another way, the outrage against the killings at Kent State was quite sincere, but it was outrage within a bottle that saw in such an atrocity an aberration from a system that was largely fair and just. Thus, Jackson State was not seen by White America as a continuation of state repression and police violence but more an example of the particular and peculiar forms of interaction that exist between Black America and the police in the USA, at least from the standpoint of too many white Americans, including otherwise liberal and progressive Whites.

We should use the month of May in order to commemorate the Kent State and Jackson State killings.  We should use this as a moment to discuss political repression in the USA, and the particular form that it takes when targeted at the activities of people of color.  The frustration and dismay that I saw on the face of the Black student leader who appealed—in vain—to his fellow students in our high school cafeteria to walk out in protest over Jackson State goes to the split that exists in a broad progressive movement in the USA.  This is a split where repression is often advanced differently and unevenly so that we all miss the fact, so eloquently articulated by Dr. King, that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.”  He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

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