The family of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs includes Dale Gibbs, widow, Phillip Gibbs Jr., son, (age 50), Demetrius Gibbs, son, (age 49), and Cierra Gibbs, granddaughter, (age 25) (photo by Spencer McClenty / JSU)
By RACHEL JAMES-TERRY
The daughter of sharecroppers, Dale Gibbs, grew up in Ripley, Mississippi, with three brothers and a sister. “I went to high school and graduated. No college,” she explained, seated in a hotel conference room.
A meek and humble woman, Dale is flanked by her two sons and granddaughter. Though it is apparent, they are connected through love. They are also bound by a pain that lingers in their hearts.
At the age of 17, Dale married Phillip Lafayette Gibbs. At 19, she became a widow left to rear two young sons without a father. On May 15, 1970, Phillip Gibbs was killed by police bullets on the campus of Jackson State University.
It was alleged that students were protesting, rioting, or just standing peacefully in front of the women’s dorm. Nonetheless, Phillip, 21, and James Earl Green, a 17-year-old track star at Jim Hill High School, died in the 400 rounds police fired.
In high school, Phillip was a ladies’ man, according to Dale, whose maiden name was Adams. And, she said, his reputation dissuaded her interest in him. At least at first, but he was persistent. One day during school, he announced to Dale that he was coming to her house.
“I knew him. His sister married my first cousin, so I knew him, and I wanted no part, but then he showed up at my door,” she explained with a laugh.
Dale said her husband was into Greek mythology and had a good sense of humor. “He was just fun to be around, and I liked the way he treated me.”
When the couple went on dates to the movies or shopping, Phillip Gibbs would borrow his uncle’s car. “Uncle Leg had a car, but he didn’t have a key. You turned the ignition with a screwdriver,” she explained, amused. “I didn’t mind.”
Phillip decided to propose to a then 17-year-old Dale, but first, he asked her father’s permission. Despite the “no” Phillip received, he declared that he would marry Dale anyway.
“My mom was all for it. She really liked him. But my dad, I don’t know if he didn’t like Phillip or he just didn’t like anybody that I saw. I think that was it,” said Dale. “But he didn’t, especially at 17, 18 years old, and now I understand.”
Dale’s mother convinced her father to let the young couple marry. And in 1968, they exchanged vows.
“We got married in his sister’s house. I had on a white dress, and he had on, I’ll never forget, he had on a black suit. All of our friends and family were there. And uh, it was good,” said Dale, her voice trailing off.
In 1969, she gave birth to their first son, Phillip Gibbs Jr.
Phillip moved his family to Jackson, Mississippi, where he enrolled at Jackson State University. Initially, he planned to become a doctor but switched his major to pre-law studies because of the expense of medical school.
But soon, financial challenges became too much, and Dale and their son moved back to Ripley with her parents. Every weekend Phillip made the 200-mile trek to visit her.
A love lost
“I’ll never forget. The weekend before (the shooting), he was leaving going back to school, and we had an argument about something silly,” she said. “He left that Sunday, and I am so happy he called. It was either Tuesday or Wednesday night, and we made up.”
A few days later, Phillip and Green were dead. Phillip’s sister Noreen, who lived in Ripley, broke the news to Dale.
“I heard screaming. My mom or dad, one of them, came in and got me up and (little) Phillip was still asleep,” shared Dale, her voice quivering. “Phillip’s sister, Noreen, was still screaming. Finally, she came to herself or something, and she said that he had been shot.”
Dale recalls going to bed later that night, praying that it was a dream. In fact, she pinched herself to make sure. “Yes, I did. I literally did that.”
But it wasn’t a dream, and the next day Dale awoke to a house full of friends and family in the throes of grief. “At my age, choosing a casket for my husband, it was a horrible time.”
Three months later, Dale discovered she was pregnant with her second child. “It was scary because here I am 19 years old (with) a high school education and two kids. But it did bring me out of the fog.”
Demetrius was born in 1971, and he and Phillip would never know their father.
In 1972, the families of Phillip, Green, and the wounded survivors filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi against the state of Mississippi and others.
“Well, I felt it was a wrongful death. I felt it was murder. I thought they should pay not only for what they did to my husband, but for what they did to James Green, and the other students that were injured,” Dale said. “I just felt they needed to know that his life mattered. They needed to pay.”
The trial took place in Biloxi, Mississippi, with an all-white jury and Judge Walter Nixon presiding. After nearly a month of testimony, the defendants were found not liable.
“Myself and the attorneys were very upset, but I think I expected it,” she said.
A shared legacy
Eventually, Dale remarried, and after living in Tennessee and Connecticut, the couple landed in Phoenix with her two sons.
“That’s one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. I got married again. He was an engineer, and the marriage didn’t last,” said Dale, a feeling of regret in her voice.
“I will say that it was partly my fault, too, because he would say, ‘I cannot compete with a dead man.’”
After 12 years, Dale and her husband divorced. She admitted that while remarried, it was a struggle for her to let go of what could have been with Phillip.
“I have been married to that man all this time,” she said.
It’s a belief that is not too difficult to grasp. After all, their time was abruptly cut short, and they had two sons together. Their youngest son, Demetrius, now 49, would grow up to be a great athlete, excelling in football. He would later attend and graduate from Jackson State University.
Once he moved to Jackson, Demetrius realized the impact of his dad’s death.
“I didn’t know that it was that big of an event. I didn’t know so many people knew what happened to him,” he said. “I would date girls and meet their parents, and their parents could remember exactly where they were when my father was killed.”
Unfortunately, Demetrius has no memories of the man who gave him life. If there were anything he could tell his dad, Demetrius said he would let him know that he “had another son.”
“Lil man” is what Phillip would affectionately call his oldest son, who went on to graduate from the University of Arizona. Now 50, Phillip Gibbs Jr. said that he hopes his dad is proud of him.
“Dad, I hope I lived up to some expectation you may have had for me. Hopefully, I did some good things. Forgive me for the bad things. Here is your granddaughter, the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Cierra Gibbs, 25, said her grandmother, Dale, would tell her stories about her grandfather. Now, Cierra said she wondered what life would be like if he were here.
“Since I wasn’t around when it happened, I don’t get super emotional about it. But it hurts. It hurts for my family. It hurts to see my grandma sad and to know that she lost the love of her life,” she said.
Proud of her grandfather’s legacy, Cierra said she would tell her future children about him. She also will encourage them to follow in his footsteps.
“I didn’t go to Jackson State, and I really wish I did. I think I didn’t go because of fear. I was afraid to leave home, but I really do wish I went,” she said. “If I do have kids, I’m going to encourage them to go because I think they should experience that. They should go somewhere with more culture and where they are celebrated.”
Cierra said she recognizes that her grandmother Dale has not completely healed from her grandfather’s death, but she would like her to be.
Clinging to the tissue in her hand, Dale disclosed that part of her pain lies in bringing up two sons who never knew their father. The other is: “The way he died. If he had died in a car accident, it would have been devastating, of course. But the way it happened, I don’t know if I will ever get over that.”