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May 14 marks the 43rd anniversary of the bloody massacre at Jackson State University. On this day in 1970, Mississippi cops fired a deadly barrage of over 450 bullets at unarmed black students in a women’s dormitory. Two were left dead and at least 12 wounded.
The murdered Jackson students were Phillip Gibbs, the son of a sharecropper with a wife and infant son, and James Earl Green, a 17-year-old high school senior.
Just three days earlier, Charles Oatman, a 16-year-old retarded black youth had been burned and tortured by white jail guards in Augusta Georgia. His ordeal sparked a rebellion in that city that left six black men dead, all shot in the back.
I learned of these atrocities while helping to organize the national student strike sparked by the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio. Ten days earlier, on May 4, 1970, I was an eyewitness to the National Guard assault at Kent State that left four dead – Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer and Jeffrey Miller. Nine were wounded.
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Behind the protests and rebellions were a deep hatred of the war in Vietnam and the realities of racism here at home. So when Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, the simmering anger of the American people began to boil over.
The massacre at Kent, orchestrated by Nixon and Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, was meant to quell the spreading protests. But Nixon had misjudged the depth of anger and the bloodshed had the opposite of it’s intended effect – leading to a massive national student strike that began to parallel the events that had taken place two years earlier in May-June of 1968 in France.
Virtually every college and university in the US, as well as thousands of high schools, was swept up in the student revolt. Over 450 campuses were occupied. For the first time in their lives, hundreds of thousands of students became involved in a genuine democratic process and the exercise of rudimentary decision-making over the institutions of higher education.
As one of the activists who were part of the broad leadership of this movement, I was able to travel to a number of universities and witness firsthand this amazing process. Campuses became the site of mass meetings of thousands of students, discussing and deciding what to study, how to learn, and how to make the University a relevant institution for the advancement of social and economic justice.
In France, the students had called this process the Red University. We called it the Antiwar University, but the idea was the same – to use the University to reach out to the communities and the workplaces from which we had been isolated – to use the campus as an organizing center to end the war and transform society.
And we succeeded. Using the campuses as a base we were able to reach out to the G.I. antiwar movement and give them the solidarity they would need to act against the war, eventually forcing Nixon to withdraw his unreliable troops from Southeast Asia. Students played a crucial role in reaching out to unionists, to Latino and African-American and other minority communities. It was from the ranks of this broad anti-war mobilization that the Women’s Liberation movement emerged. Other social movements followed suit, including the Gay and environmental movements.
North American culture and education was transformed – that is the legacy of the martyrs of Kent and Jackson and the millions of participants in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
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Since that time, all of the various administrations – from Nixon to Obama – have tried to cover up the truth about the massacres at Kent and Jackson. They have papered over the events with a history of lies and fabrications. They’ve obscured the role of the armed FBI provocateur at Kent. They’ve lied about the history of racism in Jackson and Augusta.
But you cannot erase the collective consciousness of working people. For the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in these events, and were forever transformed by the sense of collective power, it would take far more than the glibness of the various Wall Street tools that have occupied the White House.
Today, once again, a deep anger is growing among students.
Too often, they see bloated university administrations of bean-counting bureaucrats without vision, and faculties that have been cowed into submission. More and more funding to schools is cut and the quality of the university education has declined. New generations of young people are being sacrificed to finance capital – becoming tuition cash cows to feed an insatiable banking system.
Assaults on collective bargaining masquerade as education reform. Public education itself, a historic conquest of working people, is being systematically dismantled in a national campaign coordinated by the very politicians put into power with the backing of our union officials.
Unemployment or under-employment awaits young people upon graduation, and they are being consigned to a lifetime of debt servitude working at low-wage jobs – or they become the victims of an economic draft that forces them into the military.
Students see a world threatened with destruction from nuclear and carbon-based poisons. They see endless war, government sanctioned torture and increasing attacks on democratic rights. It is only a matter of time before the simmering anger boils over once again. And this time, the stakes will be higher.
As educators, we need to remember and educate about these events. Just as happened in the 1960s and 1970s, the next waves of social unrest will lead to the creation of new visions and methods of struggle. We, as members of the University community, have a historic responsibility to help fan the flames of that discontent.
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Mike Alewitz was the Chairmen of the Kent Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam. He was an eyewitness to the massacre and a leader of the national student strike that followed.
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