Remembering Kent State

 

Perspective_of_Ohio_National_Guard_at_Kent_State

 

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)

 

NYTimes

 

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. 

Songs were written.  

Here’s a YouTube of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young singing Ohio, with additional photos.

 

[learn_more caption=”The lyrics “]Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio[/learn_more]

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.

 

800px-Map_of_Shootings_at_Kent_State_University_in_1970
the opening photo was taken at the “pagoda” on this map, with Taylor Hall only slightly visible on the left.

 

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

  1. to raise and provide answers to twelve of the most frequently asked questions about May 4 at Kent State.
  2. to offer a list of the most important questions involving the shootings which have not yet been answered satisfactorily.
  3. 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? 

NOTE: This post was originally published here in 2016 on the tragedy at Kent State.

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32 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Thanks for this reminder. I know about Kent State, of course, but I don’t remember being aware of it at the time. I was in junior high then. I’m sure it must have been front page news, and my family did not support the war, but I don’t have any memories of it.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Merril. Now I’m wondering how much your own kids might know of that era. Is it taught in schools? And, more importantly, how?

  2. Jerry Waxler
    | Reply

    Thanks for this, Janet. Despite the illusion that we have been saturated with these images, I believe that for young Americans those ancient events are remote and hard to put into context. I hope we old-timers can help keep the lessons alive, or at the very least, share the stories.

    As for where I was, by 1970, I was already burned out. Three years earlier, in 1967 at the University of Wisconsin, I stood in a building arm in arm with hundreds of protestors. When the police piled in, they were under orders to hurt as many of as possible. The police chief, years later said in an interview he was proud of the fact that 47 students were sent to the hospital. “Those students needed to learn a lesson.” After witnessing so much naked violence, I decided that active protest breeds dissension, the very lesson that police chief wanted me to learn. I describe these events and my resulting search for meaning my memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World

    • Ian Mathie
      | Reply

      You are indeed right that active protest can breed dissension, but more so when attacked as savagely as that police chief did. If handled more tactfully by the ‘controlling’ authorities it can still give people a voice and produce constructive discussion. When things are really wrong there needs to be some mechanism to make those maintaining the wrong stop, listen and hear. Sometimes active dissent is the only mechanism left. The fact that your police chief attacked an was proud of his actions just proves he was the wrong man for the job.

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        We had a plethora of “wrong men for the job” back then, Ian. That was part of the problem.

        As I write this, I’m aware how quickly I retreated into the relative safety of middle class suburbia. Middle class white suburbia. My black friends, whom I’d lost all contact with, did not have such protection. I’m heading to my 50th hs reunion in a few weeks. I shall see if I can bring this topic up with them. We may need a break from all the dancing.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for this, Jerry. I look forward to reading your new memoir and your recollections of an era that remains all too clear in my own mind. In an off-blog email, we spoke of us “old timers” as amateur historians. We lived it, we experienced it. And while I can speak volumes of the anti war movement that thrived in NYC in the very early 1970s, I know little of the altercation you experienced in Madison. My question continues to be, “have we learned anything?”

  3. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, I remember this event as if it happened yesterday. I was working as a nurse in an outpatient psychiatric clinic when one the social workers walked into the nurses’ station to tell us the news. The anti-war, anti government sentiments ran very high during that time but this event solidified the rage and confusion. It will remain a major wound in our collective psyche. For those of us who lived through it, it serves as a reminder of the high price we paid for a violent response to differences. For those too young to remember, it serves as a lesson. Either way, Kent State will not be forgotten. Thanks for another thought-provoking and important post.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Kathy. It was such a violent era. From the scenes of war coming across our TV screens (Vietnam was the first) , the newly restructured draft (doing away with deferments), the long line of assassinations we’d recently lived through, and the (TV again) scenes of slaughter and violence first from our Jim Crow south and then out of Chicago (at the democratic convention), … we grew up watching violence daily in our own living rooms. I’m not sure it’s ever returned to its earlier position of “last resort.” And then the demise of Authority, it’s power questioned and its responsibility unseen.

      It appears we’ve not gotten any better over the past 40 years at asking the hard questions.
      Looking at our mass media, I fear we’ve gotten worse.

  4. […] We The People brought an end to the Vietnam War. It was a heady time. I marched on Washington twice. I stood near the arch in Washington Square (NYC) and waved my sign. And I grieved along with the rest of the country when National Guard troops opened fire on students at Kent State and later, Jackson State.  Here’s the link to a recent blog post on the anniversary of Kent State.  […]

  5. Clive
    | Reply

    This was a lead story in the news in the U.K. too. I was 16, still at school, and the echo of this tragic day numbed us all – it was unthinkable that something like that could happen. The CSN&Y song was played often in our students’ common room when it was released. From afar, it seems that guns are still a big problem in the US.
    Clive recently posted…Feeling Good? – For Mental Health Awareness WeekMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Clive and Welcome back. I suppose it’s a good thing that the story made news around the world. Lately, we’ve had so many of these deaths (not at the hands of national guard perhaps, but at the hands of police) that no longer make the news. And yes indeed. Guns! They are polarizing when speaking of putting them in the hands of everyday citizens.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  6. Pamela
    | Reply

    I was in high school, and knew about it, was horrified, but didn’t understand the magnitude of it like I do now. Now, it’s hard to believe such a horrific thing happened. I agree with you, we need to remember it every year to learn from the mistakes. I tutored in a high school for ten years, and what happened in Kent State was not taught – probably because it was not one of the questions in the educational testing that teachers have to teach to. That tells you something, doesn’t it….?
    Pamela recently posted…From the Sea . . .My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      It’s heartbreaking to me that this is not taught in schools. They study the Vietnam War, don’t they? This was indeed a defining moment in the FINAL ending to our involvement over there. AND, we have obviously learned nothing. When I worked at Penn (I raised money; didn’t teach) I often had contact with the students and I found myself once using the term “The Vietnam War syndrome.” He didn’t know what I meant and I explained, “It’s when you keep doing something only because you’ve already invested so much in it you don’t want to stop; that it’s a bad idea is irrelevant.”

      Thanks for adding your voice, Pam.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  7. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I responded when you posted this the first time. But so much has happened since 2016. Do you think of this tragedy differently now when looking at it with the current administration in place? Do you still think lessons have been learned?
    Merril Smith recently posted…Ghosts of Guilt, NaPoWriMo, Day 30My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Lessons have not been learned, at least not by those in power, Merril. Just the opposite, I imagine. It’s too easy to pose these students at Kent State and Jackson State as trouble makers. And it’s too easy for the average citizen to buy into that explanation. So much easier to go along.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  8. John rieber
    | Reply

    I posted about this tragic event last year as well…it’s dismaying to have such a horrible incident forgotten, because then we are destined to repeat it. I see the activism of the late 60’s and early 70’s coming back to a degree, and we don’t seem to be any closer to understanding why peaceful protests invariably turn into needless violence…
    John rieber recently posted…The Weinstein Company Owes The Biggest Stars Lots Of $$$! Streep! Leonardo DiCaprio! Malia Obama Too!My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, John. that’s what I thought too in the wake of Parkland. But those students are younger; they still have to finish high school, never mind college. Back in the 60s and 70s it was the college students, the ones facing getting shipped out to die in a war no one could explain. So, I see the motivation the same, but the age is so much younger. It’ll take another ten years for us to see an impact. (I think). And I hope I’m wrong; I hope they rise up en masse and demand their country come back to its senses. I’m am not optimistic.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Hi Janet. I was still a toddler when Kent State went down, and obviously have no memory of it. Still, it forms one of my earliest political memories, since its after-effects lingered well on past the event, perhaps especially so in Ohio, where I grew up, just a couple of hours West of Kent. Where I grew up was rural and conservative, and probably not very sympathetic to the student protestors; but still, I got the sense that what happened was troubling and confusing even to the mostly-conservative adults in my life back then. I shutter to think what their reaction would be, today, with our current climate of intolerance and the right wing media machine at the ready to disparage the students and vigorously defend the actions of the Guard. I don’t remember the social divisions of the ’60’s and early ’70’s, but at least they weren’t aided and abetted by our most-watched television networks, and I find it hard to believe it could be much worse than it is now.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim. Thanks for adding your thoughts. I moved to Ohio in 1971, a year and a half after the Kent State tragedy and it was fresh on everyone’s minds still. I don’t know if it’s worse now or not; different certainly. Then I think back to the Civil War; to the divisions in the country in the run-up to WW II (the isolationists were big) and so many others. I’m not sure I can find a time in our history when this country hasn’t been divided. I used to believe that was our strength, that in our very diversity had come our strength. The diversity we now experience is so unhealthy, forget about it bringing strength. Yes, I’m discouraged.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  10. The Recipe Hunter
    | Reply

    Thanks, Janet for another good post shared at Senior Salon. I am always looking forward to reading all these wonderful Senior Salon shares.

  11. susan scott
    | Reply

    Thanks Janet, an extremely interesting read. On June 16th, 1976, when schools erupted in violence in Soweto (SoWeTo – south west township) the apartheid police shot at protestors (black children were forced to learn in Afrikaans). There is one photo that is not unlike yours – of Hector Pieterson, bleeding, being carried in the arms of another. This was splashed across worldwide news. I remember that well. I know of the Kent state massacres and the subsequent shootings – the world was mad then as it is now …
    susan scott recently posted…A to Z Zooming in on LilithMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I remember the Soweto uprising. Didn’t this lead S Africa to release Nelson Mandela? Some countries, I’m learning, have a more complicated history than others. Yours among them. Other than Cry the Beloved Country, are there books you might recommend for us outsiders to read to better understand South Africa’s history? Thanks for bringing this story into the mix. It’s important.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  12. […] REMEMBERING KENT STATE shared by Janet […]

  13. Leslie
    | Reply

    I was about 9 years old when this event took place – old enough to understand that something terribly wrong had happened. John Filo’s photograph of Mary Vecchio crying over the dead body of Jeff Miller has been etched in my mind for the last 48 years, and viewing the Ken Burns documentary about Vietnam put it in context for me. As I get older, I think about such events less as news stories, and wonder more about the lives of those Kent State students, today, those Jackson State students, today. Have some healed? And how are the unhealed wounds being passed down to generations?
    Leslie recently posted…Six Weeks Later: Still Full From Viewing Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen! Part TWOMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Leslie and welcome. Thank you for adding your voice and your memory. War has many more victims than we ever realize. And I can’t imagine how the trauma of those wars can’t be passed down.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Remembering Kent StateMy Profile

  14. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    I was a wife expecting my second child when the abominable Kent State Headlines were front and center. Thanks for sharing…may we never forget!
    Bette Stevens recently posted…Thank You Mama (Poem) by Bette A. StevensMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Betty, Your comment from last week somehow escaped my attention. I apologize. I’m so glad you wrote. I was a student at NYU when the news hit and didn’t actually see the papers until years later. Where was I getting my news back then? You know, I’m not sure. Didn’t have a TV either. Radio perhaps. NPR hadn’t quite begun. But New York had good coverage, as I recall. And good music back then. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…FINDING MY TOPICMy Profile

  15. Lise
    | Reply

    This was a good couple of decades before my time, but my dad told me about this when I was younger. It was a terrible tragedy and it needs to be remembered, definitely.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Lise. I’m so pleased to hear your dad told you about this tragedy, pleased to hear the story is not being forgotten. Thanks for adding your voice.
      Janet Givens recently posted…FINDING MY TOPICMy Profile

  16. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    My father, as a funeral director, buried one of the students who was killed at Kent State. I was in elementary school and couldn’t understand why our yard/street/everywhere was full of people and television cameras.

    My father had gotten his BA from Kent and, this January, our younger son was graduated from there. Last year, I went to the ceremony when this event was remembered.
    Kelly Boyer Sagert recently posted…Hidden History of Lorain County: August 6, 2018 Release Date!My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kelly. As a graduate student there, not so long after 1970, I benefited greatly from the first person, eyewitness accounts the faculty could tell and show me. It quickly became more than a factoid of history to me. I appreciate your adding another personal image for us. I’m curious if your dad was able to share impressions of his experiences or if professional ethics prevented that? I don’t know his field very well. Again, thank you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Spring BreakMy Profile

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