On May 15, 1970, Jackson State University senior Mabel Beecham, 21, was staying with her sister-in-law at her apartment on Montgomery Street, close to Jackson State’s campus. Suddenly, she could hear a barrage of shots fire off. She took cover and stayed inside all night with no idea of the tragedy that would greet her the following day. Telephones weren’t in abundance, so she found out what happened by word of mouth.
The night of May 15, the Jackson Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrolmen opened fire on Alexander Hall, a women’s dormitory and killed Jackson State pre-law major Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, and James Earl Green, 17, a high school senior at Jim Hill High School. Twelve other students were injured. The Gibbs-Green shooting occurred 11 days after the Kent State shooting in Ohio, which gained national attention.
It took two weeks before students were able to return to campus, Beecham said.
“It was a barrage of bullets at the Alexander Hall. It was a sadness in the atmosphere because we thought about the students that were killed. I attended a class with Phillip Lafayette Gibbs,” Beecham told the Mississippi Free Press on May 20.
Beecham, who was a political science major, said she and Gibbs took a law class together and described him as being very quiet, yet knowledgeable. “I know he would have made a very good lawyer because whenever he was called upon to respond, he definitely had an answer that the instructor was looking for,” she added.
On top of the tragic loss of Gibbs and Green, the school cancelled graduation for the class of 1970. The school’s main concern was making sure that everyone was safe and that the students were home and away from more potential violence, she said.
“Putting in all the hard work, looking forward to your family to come and give you the accolades, and you end up with nothing,” Beecham said. “The sad part also is that you’re leaving your classmates. These are classmates that you’ve been around. A lot of them came from out of state, but once you leave, it’s very hard to maintain contact.”
With no graduation or degree, Beecham said her main concern was finding a job. She was worried that the stigma of the shooting would be attached to her forever. That summer, she got a job at Wilco for a few weeks, but soon realized she wouldn’t get hired full-time. Then, opportunity knocked.
“My aunt asked me if I was interested in coming to New York. Of course, my parents were hesitant, but I accepted the offer. I left here and I went to New York. When I got to New York, I got a job with Macy’s department store,” she said.
Beecham worked in the clothing department before applying for the federal service entrance exam, which she passed. She was hired with the Internal Revenue Service and stayed in New York for 10 years before moving back to Mississippi to work for the IRS here. She retired from the IRS in 2008.
‘You Were The Best’
Tragedy marred the first attempt to have a long-delayed 1970 Jackson State graduation, and the pandemic ruined the second attempt scheduled for the 50th anniversary in 2020. But, Beecham and the rest of the class of 1970 finally got their moment on May 15, 2021, for the 51st Gibbs-Green Commemoration with a graduation ceremony. It was a reclaiming of their time.
“This year, we got a letter from the president and Dr. Robert Luckett informing us that they wanted to continue the ceremony for this year,” Beecham explained.
The ceremony took place on Gibbs-Green Plaza with more than 70 students from the class of 1970 in attendance. Dressed in gold caps, gowns and masks, the class proceeded in followed by faculty and staff. It was a day of honor, accountability and apology.
Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba presented an official apology to the families of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green. It was the first time city officials had apologized to the families since the tragedy.
“The City of Jackson recognizes and offers our heartfelt and genuine apology to the families of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green for the Jackson Police Department’s role in their untimely deaths,” he told the crowd.
The mayor proclaimed that the capital city must publicly atone for the sins of their past and proclaim a new identity of dignity, equity and justice. The first step begins with confessing and acknowledging the trauma imposed on the families, west Jackson, the Jim Hill High School community and the Jackson State University campus, he said.
“I realize this long overdue apology will not restore your sons, brothers, husbands or father back to you. However, as mayor of the City of Jackson, I pray this sincere gesture demonstrates our deep regret for your loss,” Lumumba added.
State Sen. Hillman Frazier also apologized on behalf of the State of Mississippi, which has never expressed remorse. He was a student at Jackson State and was classmates with Gibbs. Frazier said he left campus that night to get something to eat with friends.
When they tried to get back on campus, the officers would not let them. The group begged to be let back on campus and eventually, the officer relented to their requests.
The senator remembered seeing police officers coming down the street, then gunshots being fired in all directions. Had he been on campus five minutes earlier, he said he would have been standing on campus with Gibbs, and the plaza would have been named after three individuals instead of two.
“They took very valuable life. If they had not taken the life of Phillip Gibbs, he probably would have been governor of the state of Mississippi because he was just that talented. Had they not taken the life of James Earl Green, he probably would have been the mayor of Jackson,” Frazier addressed the audience.
“They were talented people who had dreams. The police officer killed the dreamer, but not the dream,” the senator added.
‘I Just Thank God That Your Death Was Not in Vain’
JSU President Thomas Hudson conferred degrees of humane letters to Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green. Gibbs’ sister, Norine Gibbs-Ray, accepted his degree on behalf of the family, remembering the night she found out the news of her brother’s passing.
She drove to the home of the parents of Gibbs’ young wife, Dale, and delivered the news to her sister-in-law. Gibbs-Ray said she can still hear Dale Gibbs’ screams after she heard the news.
“Despite being a young widow, (Dale Gibbs) has done well in raising both sons to be wonderful young men. If Phillip could see how amazing they are, he would be so proud. And just like the Green family, our lives were forever changed on that day in May of 1970,” Gibbs-Ray told the audience.
Dale Gibbs couldn’t make it to the ceremony due to health issues. However, she sent in an audio message and promised she and her family would attend Gibbs-Green events in the future. “My family and I are thankful that the tragedy that happened 51 years ago has not been forgotten. My husband would be so happy for the recognition that has been bestowed on him today,” Gibbs said.
Gloria Green-McCray, Green’s sister, accepted the degree on behalf of his family. She thanked the City of Jackson and Jackson State University for this honor. She recalled when two weeks after James’ passing, Jim Hill High School invited her mother to walk in their graduation to accept his diploma.
“To my mother and even God, I can hear your voice saying this is my son for whom I am well pleased. And to James Earl Green, my brother, I just want to say I still miss you. I love you, and I just thank God that your death was not in vain. You were the best,” Green-McCray said at the ceremony.
‘I Felt At Home’
“Mabel Beecham,” Dr. Robert Luckett announced at 51st Gibbs-Green Anniversary and Commemoration. In her gold cap and gown and sunglasses, Mabel walked across the stage with her degree in hand. She stopped by Jackson State President Thomas Hudson for a photo before exiting the stage.
Hearing her name called was akin to God placing an angel on her shoulder, she said later. She felt blessed.
“Everybody was so relaxed. When we got up on the stage, I could feel the air just blowing in my face and giving me that extra push. This is it. You finally got it. It felt absolutely great,” the graduate said.
There was a bit of sadness at the ceremony over the classmates who didn’t make it to the graduation as she knows five classmates who have passed on over the years. However, in the end, the joy outweighed the sadness, she expressed. Following the ceremony, Beecham said she wants to get more involved with the Jackson State Alumni Association.
“I felt at home,” she said of the graduation. “I had been away because of that empty feeling. I had not even seen Gibbs Plaza or Alexander Hall. It was just something I did not want to do, but Saturday really gave me that feeling of really belonging to Jackson State.”
After 51 years of waiting, I asked Mabel Beecham where exactly she’d be putting her degree.
“Right now, I have it by the TV, but I’m going to buy a special stand and keep it right there in my living room for everybody to see,” she said proudly.