JSU graduation disrupted twice for the Golden Class of 1970

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This year has been marked by unprecedented loss and cancellations due to the pandemic. But the Jackson State University class of 1970 was robbed not once, but twice.

First in 1970 two weeks before JSU’s May commencement, a tragic event dashed their college graduation ceremony plans.

Rev. Guy Hendree a member of the 1970 JSU class described what he heard.

“One night we heard shooting,” he said. “I was not on campus, I was a couple streets over. We heard a lot of shooting going on and we rushed up to campus and they shot up the dorm. The state police marched down Lynch Street. "

Like the University of Memphis today, back in 1970, the JSU campus had a busy street running through it like Central Street.

By many accounts, students were into their second night of unrest along Lynch Street. They were protesting the long war in Vietnam and racial injustice when a mixture of Jackson City Police and State Law Enforcement opened fire, killing two people and leaving the campus queen among the injured.

“They said that they saw a man on the 5th floor of the dorm, with a weapon,” said Rev. Hendree.

Another graduate, JSU alumna Jean Perkins-Chatman, was worried about her sister.

“My sister was dorm leader. My first thoughts were about her safety,” she said.

Perkins-Chatman’s sister was safe.

Both Hendree and Perkins-Chatman say they doubt the police account.

“The reason it’s very unlikely is that the dorm mothers would not have permitted a man to go in the dorm on the 5th floor,” Rev. Hendree said,

With all the unrest, the 1970 graduation was canceled. Students were rushed off campus after informally being given a certificate marking their degree after 4 years of college work.

50 years later, in May of this year, Hendree and Perkins-Chatman were robbed again of their moment to march across the stage at a JSU commencement to receive their golden anniversary recognition.

Rev. Hendree remembers what a big deal it was going to be.

“I had paid money for all of the events,” he said. “I paid for the rental of caps and gowns. It was going to be a big deal. My kids and grandkids were going to attend. All of a sudden it’s canceled.”

This second time the golden graduation was waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic. But a young, bright, former campus queen, Lori Evans, didn’t give up.

Evans, the Memphis Alumni Chapter president, restored some of the celebration by going virtual.

“I was able to get in contact with them. I sent them all invitations to participate with our chapter meeting,” Evans said.

It turns out, twenty-one members of the tradition-steeped class were living in Memphis.

Missed graduations due to COVID-19 became a norm in 2020, but Perkins-Chatman points to a JSU blue and silver lining.

“So, the message is these young people can also survive and thrive in spite of these kinds of circumstances,” said Jean Jerkins-Chaman.