On Monday, May 4, 1970, at twenty minutes past noon, 28 National Guardsmen fired 61 shots into a crowd of college students on the hill above, leaving four dead and nine wounded. It lasted just 13 seconds.
This was something that just didn’t happen in white, middle-class America and the incident made the front page of the New York Times (and papers across the world, of course)
and became a turning point in the Vietnam War, a moment in time when politicians would later look back and say, “That was the day I knew we had to do something different.”
Ten days later, two more people were shot and killed on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi. I don’t want us to forget them, either.
Still, John Simons, one of the Ohio National Guard chaplains, and the one present that afternoon, has stated, “It was the first time that middle class white students were shot by middle class young people.” And for the majority of Americans, “Kent State” became the symbol of a country that had veered terribly off course.
We’d become a nation divided over more than our conduct in Vietnam. We were terribly divided over what was “appropriate” in protesting the war, and what was the “proper” response to those protests. A chasm had grown within the United States: father against son; neighbor against neighbor.
It’s a chasm I feel again today. But I’ll leave that for a future post. Perhaps we can learn something by remembering Kent State.
Here’s a YouTube of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young singing Ohio, with additional photos.
The “Four Dead in O-hi-o” were:
Allison Krause, 19, of Pittsburgh, PA
Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20, of Plainsview, NY
William K. Schroeder, 19, of Lorain, OH
Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, of Youngstown, OH
Two were participating in the demonstration that afternoon, and two were simply walking to class. Does it matter which?
Nine more were wounded:
Alan Canfora, Dean Kahler, Donald (Scott) Mackenzie, Robert Stamps, Doug Wrentmore, John Cleary, Joseph Lewis, James Russell, and Tom Grace.
Here’s a partial map of the campus, with more details than I’d seen before.
A Pulitzer Prize was won
John Filo, a Kent State photography major at the time, won a Pulitzer Prize for his shot of 14 year old Mary Vecchio crying over the dead body of Jeff Miller.
Ten years later, Ray Price, then the chief of staff for former president Richard M. Nixon, had this to say of those National Guardsmen, “They were just a bunch of scared kids with guns in their hands.”
They were also young men taken off an extended Teamsters strike without a chance to rest in between.
For those of you interested in details, I direct you to two sources. First is the repository of information on the Kent State shooting, managed by the local FM station, WKSU.
In the early 80s, I was a graduate student at Kent State, working for my masters in sociology. Two professors in that department, Jerry M. Lewis, (yes; he’s gotten much ribbing over the years for his name) and Tom Hensley, have spent the better part of their careers dealing with the aftermath of Kent State, and creating my second source: a very readable collection of information they’ve put together for high school social studies teachers.
This article is an attempt to deal with the historical inaccuracies that surround the May 4th shootings at Kent State University. … Our approach is
- to raise and provide answers to twelve of the most frequently asked questions about May 4 at Kent State.
- to offer a list of the most important questions involving the shootings which have not yet been answered satisfactorily.
- Finally, we will conclude with a brief annotated bibliography for those wishing to explore the subject further.
I’ll quote a brief paragraph from their article that speaks to why they want the Kent State tragedy to be remembered.
The May 4 shootings at Kent State need to be remembered for several reasons.
First, the shootings have come to symbolize a great American tragedy which occurred at the height of the Vietnam War era, a period in which the nation found itself deeply divided both politically and culturally. The poignant picture of Mary Vecchio kneeling in agony over Jeffrey Miller’s body, for example, will remain forever as a reminder of the day when the Vietnam War came home to America. If the Kent State shootings will continue to be such a powerful symbol, then it is certainly important that Americans have a realistic view of the facts associated with this event.
Second, May 4 at Kent State and the Vietnam War era remain controversial even today, and the need for healing continues to exist. Healing will not occur if events are either forgotten or distorted, and hence it is important to continue to search for the truth behind the events of May 4th at Kent State.
Third, and most importantly, May 4th at Kent State should be remembered in order that we can learn from the mistakes of the past. The Guardsmen in their signed statement at the end of the civil trials recognized that better ways have to be found to deal with these types of confrontations. This has probably already occurred in numerous situations where law enforcement officials have issued a caution to their troops to be careful because “we don’t want another Kent State.” Insofar as this has happened, lessons have been learned, and the deaths of four young Kent State students have not been in vain.
I was a student at NYU that spring of 1970. Our college was closed for the remainder of the semester, all classes giving a Pass-Fail option. Were you a student then too? Did your campus close? What do you remember?