The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Jackson State shootings are often overlooked. But Rich Caster still remembers.

Two people were killed in the shooting at Jackson State in May 1970. (Associated Press)
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Rich Caster was whiling away the last days of his celebrated college football career, preparing for life as a pro. He had been drafted by the New York Jets in the second round. Commencement was a few days away. He had just gotten married. And he and his bride relocated to a small house just a block off the north end of Lynch Street, the unfortunately named main drag — no matter that it honors an emancipated slave who became a Reconstruction Era congressman — that cuts through Jackson State, the historically black college where Caster starred.

But the house in Jackson, Miss., still was close enough to campus that Caster heard what sounded like an explosion of fireworks on a May night in 1970.

“You could hear a barrage; it was like 10 or 15 seconds,” Caster said Monday from Long Island, where he made a home after a 13-season NFL career that ended in Washington, with this city’s first Super Bowl championship team. “My wife and I were content to stay at home.”

Because moments after that, he said, “You heard nothing but sirens.”

News crackled over the radio that a riot broke out on campus. At the time, 50 years ago this month, the nation was still reeling from a deadly shooting, which occurred just days earlier at Kent State University. As some on campus protested the Vietnam War, four students were killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire. But by sunrise that morning at Jackson State, Caster learned that what he thought may have been pyrotechnics was a hail of gunfire unleashed by city and state police at a crowd of students who were lashing out amid mounting tensions.

It happened around midnight, in front of the women’s dormitory on Lynch Street. A Jackson State student, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, was dead, as was a local high school student, James Earl Green, 17. A dozen other students were wounded.

It became a tragedy at Jackson State that didn’t receive the attention that the Kent State shooting did then — or now.

“We looked for a rationale, and the more progressive guys would say, ‘They talked more about Kent State because of the number of kids up there and that they were white,’ ” Caster recalled.

The Jackson State dead were black and in the South; the Kent State dead were white and in the North. Black lives didn’t matter then, of course, and half a century later there is evidence — in Brunswick, Ga., or coronavirus hospital wards in big cities — they don’t still.

Caster grew up in Mobile, Ala. He was a star athlete at L.B. Williamson High, one of the city’s schools segregated for black teenagers. It sits in the shadow of Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where the Senior Bowl was held the past 70 seasons for the NFL to showcase its freshest crop. As a black son of the South, Caster knew well the slights and slings and arrows suffered because of the hue of his skin.

“Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant was not going to [offer me a scholarship] in 1966 coming out of high school to come play for Alabama, even though I was a great Alabama fan,” Caster said in a soft, measured tone. “I didn’t have an opportunity to go there because that just wasn’t the way it was. That was part of the Jim Crow attitude. Three or four years afterward, a kid who grew up right across the street from me, John Mitchell, became the first black guy to get a scholarship to play at Alabama.”

So Caster made the near 200-mile drive northwest from Alabama’s Gulf Coast to Mississippi’s capital to play for Jackson State.

“Between Jackson and Mobile, there was a lot of highway,” Caster explained. “And I used to drive home a couple, three times a year, and we knew there were places where we weren’t going to be able to stop and eat or anything. Forget McDonald’s and all that kind of stuff. You stopped at a service station, and by and large the service stations were owned by some white owner who [would] serve black kids, but they had to go around to the back, and there was a little window you could get your food. And you couldn’t eat there. You had to get back in your car and start rolling. That was … separate but equal.

“My folks taught me to respect everyone … and I didn’t let that get in my way. I could take care of myself,” Caster said. “I respect and expect people to accept me for what I’m worth. But attitudes were what they were. It looked like we were going to rid them out for a while, but every now and then it shows its ugly head, just like with [Ahmaud Arbery] down in [Georgia] the other day.”

The Jackson State campus was not unlike other campuses across the country. It was, at that time, a cauldron of beefs. Against authority. Against racism. Against the war. Tim Spofford detailed it in his book “Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College.”

By the time Caster began playing football and majoring in mathematics there, the campus protests were in full swing — particularly against white residents of Jackson, noted by Spofford as heavily segregationists, who regularly crisscrossed the city on Lynch Street, igniting the ire of students, who often lobbed rocks their way.

That was what was said to bring out the army of police as May 14 darkened into May 15 in 1970.

“We hadn’t seen any military or state troopers on campus that I can remember prior to that,” Caster said. “All of a sudden, something probably emanating from Kent State, students started getting testy with cops and the establishment, to where they were looking for a reason to start something. The police and white motorists who had passed through campus were complaining they were being thrown at.

“I remember driving by the campus down Lynch Street,” Caster said of the morning after the shooting. “They shot up the girls’ dormitory. You just had to go back to the scene of the crime and look at the building, the bullet holes, the destruction of windows.”

President Richard Nixon convened a commission to investigate what happened at Kent State and Jackson State. It cited false rumors of the murder of a civil rights movement leader, Charles Evers, for riling up Jackson State students but blamed the deadly mayhem that ensued on systemic racism in the police departments that responded. The police fired 150 rounds in less than 30 seconds into the girls’ dorm where they claimed a sniper nested. No such assailant was found. No arrests of police were made.

“That period,” Caster sighed deeply, “was a period that would make you angry but also want to make things better.”

The school eventually constructed a memorial to the slain students. The moment will be remembered at Jackson State, at least, in perpetuity.

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