They waited more than 50 years to put on their caps and gowns: That rite of passage had been denied to the members of the Class of 1970 at what is now Jackson State University in Mississippi, after a deadly police shooting at the historically Black college that spring brought their college years to an abrupt end.
Their graduation was canceled.
But on Saturday, the group of more than 400 former students had the chance to hear their names called and to walk across a stage.
They received more than their diplomas: City and state officials apologized for the violence that had claimed the lives of two people and wounded a dozen others after local police and state highway patrol officers opened fire while responding to campus protests over racial injustice on the night of May 14, 1970.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson said during the ceremony that it was long overdue for the city to accept responsibility for the bloodshed.
“As James Baldwin once wrote, ‘When we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it,’” Mr. Lumumba said, referring to the Harlem-raised author. “I believe as a city we must publicly atone for the sins of our past and proclaim a new identity of dignity, equity and justice.”
Tensions over racial discrimination had been escalating at the university, which was called Jackson State College at the time, when officers descended on the campus on that night. A dump truck had been set ablaze on a nearby street, drawing a phalanx of heavily armed officers to the campus and an armored police vehicle.
The situation grew worse as it got closer to midnight.
In the early hours of May 15, protesters threw rocks and pieces of bricks, though no serious injuries to the police were reported, according to a report by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest issued later that year.
Claiming that a sniper had fired at them from a women’s dormitory (a claim that was never substantiated), the officers sprayed the area with nearly 400 rounds, the report said.
Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a 21-year-old student at the college, and James Earl Green, a 17-year-old high school student who had been walking home from his job, were killed in the barrage of gunfire, and 12 people were wounded.
“On May 14, 1970, members of the Jackson Police Department unjustly gunned down two innocent, young Black men, terrorized and traumatized a community of Black 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, awarded doctorate degrees posthumously to Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Green during the graduation ceremony, which was postponed last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. The memorial plaza where the commencement took place is named after them.
No officers were charged in their deaths, with a Hinds County grand jury calling the shootings justified.
The violence at Jackson State was overshadowed by a massacre at Kent State University in Ohio less than two weeks earlier. Four unarmed students there were killed and nine others were 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 there and whose district includes part of Jackson, said he had left the campus to get food on the night of May 14, 1970, and otherwise might have been shot.
“If you think back, the State of Mississippi never apologized for the tragedy that occurred on this campus on that night, never apologized,” said Mr. Frazier, who is Black. “So since I’m here representing the State of Mississippi in my role as state senator, I’d like to issue an apology to the Jackson State family for the tragedy that occurred that night.”
Nerene Gibbs Wray, a sister of Mr. Gibbs, accepted his doctorate at the ceremony.
“Over the years many people have forgotten, but Jackson State never forgot,” she said.