Historian Nancy Bristow tries to make sense of a 1970 shooting on a college campus. (No, not that one.)
History professor Nancy Bristow specializes in race and social change in 20th-century history. Her new book, Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College (Oxford University Press, 2020), explores a shooting of African American students by police that killed two and wounded 12. It’s an event that you may have never heard of—in part because it took place just 11 days after the Kent State shootings. In her book, Bristow explores the historical currents behind the Jackson State shootings, their less-publicized aftermath, and efforts by survivors and activists to ensure that the event is remembered—and understood—today, 50 years on.
Q: This is a pretty momentous event. Why isn’t it remembered better?
A: There actually was some press attention in the immediate aftermath, though never at the scale of the Kent State shootings, and then the event just disappeared from our national memory. On some level, this is easy to understand. The victims at Jackson State were African Americans gunned down by white law enforcement—a familiar story. At Kent State, for the first time, we had soldiers wounding and killing white students on a college campus. It was shocking to most Americans—although it’s important to remember that not everyone was sympathetic to the Kent State victims. What is remarkable, though, is how even in the wake of the Kent State shootings, the Jackson State students had difficulty making their case—that they were innocent victims of state violence—or getting the American public to remember them. Their experiences were overshadowed by the shootings at Kent State.
Q: Are there other reasons beyond Kent State?
A: This could have been the moment when white Americans rose up and said, “Oh, my God, it’s happening in the black community, as well.” But, in fact, the decade of the 1960s was filled with the murder of black people. People remember the little girls in the Birmingham church bombing. They remember Medgar Evers being gunned down in his driveway in 1963. They remember Chaney and Schwerner and Goodman [civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi]. They remember Martin Luther King. They may remember Malcolm X. But remembering these moments doesn’t require us to ask the tough questions that remembering Jackson State demands—questions about how systemic and institutionalized white supremacy has not only produced centuries of violence against people of color but has allowed that violence to be ignored.
Q: You say that writing this book required “a new kind of courage for me.” Can you elaborate?
A: I’ve written two books on the era of the First World War in which the principal characters, the people whose life stories I would be telling, are all gone. And those books were only narrowly inflected with this fundamental reality of American life, the role of racial identity. I am a white American. I have been raised as one, and I move through the world as one, with all of the privilege and safety that comes with it. Now I’m attempting to tell a story of the African American community, a move that could signify a great deal of hubris. So I’ve had to constantly say to myself, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”—and at the same time try to do it. Because I believe this story is so important. Those who were affected by this violence have not been silent, have not forgotten, but beyond that community, only one book has been written on this event. I believe this is a story that needs to be known by as many people as possible. I’m always reminding myself that I will never fully know the experiences of those who suffered through it. But I have to try.
Q: You frequently refer to something called “memory work.” What is that, exactly?
A: For many years, historians saw themselves as separate from popular memory, saw themselves as somehow above it. Memory, well, “That’s what everybody else does.” But increasingly many of us see ourselves as one part of the building of memory. It happens in the stories we tell at the dinner table, the songs we sing, the books we read, the monuments we build. We affirm those memories in our families, our hometowns, our colleges. Each community has its own set of memories. Nations, in turn, have their own memories. It’s essential to how we think of ourselves as a people. So beginning to attend to how we create those memories and the impact those memories have is vital, because it shapes how we live our lives. Terrible things are done every day based on what we believe to have happened yesterday or the day before. For those with power, in particular, a more critical understanding of how we’ve built our national narrative could help move us toward a more just community.
Q: As a historian, do you find that millennials’ ability for critical thinking is stronger or weaker compared to other generations you’ve taught?
A: I think students are increasingly aware that the world is more complicated than what they were taught as children. They’re recognizing that simple answers aren’t going to work with the pressing questions their generation is facing. They want to understand the complexities of their past and present, the differentiated and inequitable workings of their world, because they’re living and seeing them every day. We also have a generation of students coming up who are more willing to accept, understand, and learn more about the nation’s racialized, and often horrifying, past. More and more of my students, including my white students, recognize that there is a history of this country that is not only about white people and is not just the glorious narrative, the national lore, that they were fed as young people. They’re saying, “Why am I only learning this now?” And they’re outraged.