Carbondale police shootout with Black Panthers 43 years ago
CARBONDALE, IL (KFVS) - The date was November 12, 1970, the time was very tense with racial issues raging throughout southern Illinois.
At the intersection of 401 North Washington and Evergreen in the early morning hours 43 years ago Tuesday, those tensions erupted in gunfire.
"We had just gone to bed and I heard a loud blast. And I said, 'uhh, sounds like gun fire,'" Margaret Nesbitt said.
Just four houses away from Nesbitt's, the shooting was just getting started shortly after 4 a.m.
The police had surrounded the two story wood house on the corner. Inside were six Southern Illinois University students who were also members of the Black Panthers.
"I got up and went to the door. And I saw a police officer from SIU standing in my yard. And I said, 'Sir, what's going on?' And he looked at me and said, 'Oh, some people just want to shoot up,'" Nesbitt said.
But, the shooting between the police and the men holed up in the house didn't slow down.
"It just started getting worse and worse,"Nesbitt said. "It's a sound like a sound you never want to hear again. You never want to be in a war zone."
For the people living near the two story house on North Washington that morning, they were in the middle of a war zone. Between police from Carbondale, SIU, Illinois State Police, Murphysboro, Du Quoin and as far away as Benton and members of the Black Panthers.
"I ran to a house that was to the north of the house where the gunfire was coming out of the second floor window," said Amos Covington a retired SIU Police Officer. "And these guys were shooting at me. I could hear the slugs hitting the ground around me. And then they started shooting at the porch where I was at, and I could feel wood chips falling down inside my collar."
For more than three hours that morning gunfire filled the air of the neighborhood. As the sun came up on that morning, residents got their first glimpse of the house.
"You should have seen that house," Henry Traylor said. "It looked like a sieve, there was a bunch of holes in that house, looked like a piece of swiss cheese. They're lucky nobody got killed."
The six men inside the home did get shot and so did a couple of police officers.
All six men were charged with attempted murder and aggravated battery of a police officer.
In the summer of 1971, a Jackson County jury found three of the men not guilty, and a judge dropped the charges against the other three men.
Now, since the documentary "778 Bullets" has been shown several times throughout the Carbondale community, a group of citizens has come together to create change for a better environment in Carbondale.
"It's the screening of the film that provides the space for people to discuss the things in their contemporary lives that are concerning them, with people who feel the same way," said Angela Aguayo, PhD assistant professor at SIU's Department of Cinema and Photography. "Together we can move forward with some positive actions towards making Carbondale a more equitable space for everyone. We have the opportunity to make things different."
The Community Racial Justice Coalition meets the first Thursday of every month at the Good Shepherd Christian Church in Carbondale.
A special thanks to SIU Department of Cinema and Photography and the African-American Museum of Carbondale for the video and photographs in this story.
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