FIFTY YEARS ON….

May 4th, 1970 is the only anniversary date I recognize every year on my blog. That’s when four students were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. It was interesting today, fifty years on, to see the event marked by some of the Twitter feeds I follow, complete with photographs of the memorials put in place to mark the fallen in response to a peaceful protest in which I happened to participate in 1998. Though I haven’t been back since 2000–if you had told me then I wouldn’t be back for twenty years and counting I would have called you a liar, such is life–I have tried to mark the occasion in some way. For some years I stood vigil at the Viet Nam Memorial in front of the Florida Capitol buildings (yes, we have two) from noon to 12:28 p.m. (covering the time frame from the Guard’s initial deployment from their staging area to the shootings)  I am physically past that now so I have lately contented myself with remembrances on the blog which can be easily accessed by going to my Archives and searching for the May 4th entries each year from 2012 to the present. Even had I been able to attend the anniversary ceremonies this year–even if this were not the first year since 1970 when American universities are shut down (a student strike, standing in for so much else, then, a “virus,” standing in for so much else, now)–I wouldn’t have gone. If standing vigil at our local memorial is beyond me, i would not think of tackling the long treks required to cover the Kent State campus, perhaps the only place in America where the past is so fully integrated with the present.

But I’ve not forgot. Alison Krause had been radicalized by the actions of the Guard on the previous weekend, which included chasing her into the nearest dorm with bayonets. Jeff Miller was an activist. When his grandmother heard news of the shootings she asked “You don’t think Jeff was there do you?” His brother, not yet knowing Jeff was a victim, said “Yes, grandma. He was there.” Bill Schroeder, an R.O.T.C. member who won bar bets by naming every Rolling Stones’ track on every one of their albums in order, was trying to figure out where he stood on the war and the draft and had stopped to watch the Guard in action. His military training led him to recognize the sound of live rounds instantly and he threw himself on the ground where a bullet that might have taken him in the ankle had he, like so many others, mistaken it for buckshot, instead found his spleen. Sandy Scheuer was walking to class. She fell along a straight line from the front door of her sorority to her next class. She was perhaps twenty feet from the “radical” Alison Krause.

If I’ve not forgot, it’s because I know how easily, with only the slightest twist of fate, any one of us could have been any one of them:

6 thoughts on “FIFTY YEARS ON….

  1. I was a freshman in college when the Kent State Massacre happened. Most people I knew were shocked if not stupefied by the murders. (Well, okay—some of the righties smiled smugly for days after.) Few had seen something like this happening—at least not to white college students. It led to demonstrations around the country, including the biggest anti-war protest in the history of my hometown, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

    I was one of the organizers and it. started on the campus of Wilkes College, led through the center of town, included an “occupation” of the Luzerne County Court House, and ended up back at Wilkes.

    We had arranged everything with the city beforehand and they were remarkably cooperative. A police officer on a motorcycle was in the front of the marchers (we estimated a little over 1,000 participants) and in the rear. One of my jobs was keeping order at the end of the line and whenever an “overeager” marcher stepped out of line, the policeman would call my attention to it and let me handle it.

    Everything went well that day as far as I knew and both the protestors and the police “cooperated” in a manner that certainly surprised many of us on the marching side of things.

    While there were no more mass shootings of students on campus, Nixon upped the ante and escalated the Vietnam War into the Southeast Asian War. Tens of thousands more young Americans would die in the next few years along with hundreds of thousands of civilians.

    I don’t think we have ever fully recovered from the LBJ/Nixon war of 1964-1973 . . .

    • An incredible tragedy. There should have been a full inquest into what actually happened, and why. It seems inconceivable that National Guard troops would open fire on an unarmed crowd for no apparent reason. It seems unlikely we will ever actually find out why this horrific incident occurred. Hopefully nothing like this ever happens again.

      • There was actually a trial at which the Guardsmen were acquitted…The tragedy echoed through the years, alas. There were quite a few shootings by police and Guardsmen in the Viet Nam era. Most were at Southern black universities (Southern, South Carolina State, Jackson State) and hence received less publicity even at the time. The other shooting at a white school, Kansas State, managed to kill one of the few black students.Perhaps the biggest reason KSU lingered so long in the American conscience, though, was because of the dramatic photos taken by John Filo and other student photographers which were widely circulated and directly inspired the CSNY song. (David Crosby put Filo’s picture of the young girl screaming over Jeff Miller’s body in front of Neil Young…Young went off in the woods by himself and when he came back the song was written. They recorded it a few days later.) I, too, hope we have put such things behind us but you know what the say: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Actually it’s the price of everything, which is why this is my only annual post. Lest we forget.

        best Mike
        jwr

  2. I was nine when it happened and completely unaware. I didn’t even listen to the radio so I didn’t even hear the CSNY song until years later. My first specific awareness (I’m sure I had picked up something from the air!) was from my high school reading of Doonesbury collections where Zonker had some kind of Kent State memory moment on one of the early anniversaries. How I wound up on the Kent State campus in 1998 is a story I keep hoping to tell someday but I’ll have to find my notes to do it justice. Memory s a tricky thing!

    Anyway I’ve done a lot of reading since. It was a perfect storm of, among other things, gross incompetence on the part of every single political and military leader involved, including some who weren’t anywhere near the place…suffice it to say I doubt a single guardsman woke up that morning thinking “hey, lets shoot some college kids today” and yet by the time it happened it was all but inevitable.

    My great hope is that, one of these years, I’ll be able to head this commemoration with AT LAST, WE’VE LEARNED SOMETHING. But I won’t be holding my breath the meanwhile.

  3. Doubting that “a single guardsman woke up that morning thinking ‘Hey, let’s shoot some college kids today’” is probably, um, unrealistic. While most Guardsmen were “normal joes” doing their duty, some were something else. While even old protesters like me want to believe that most of the shooters panicked, that does not appear to have been the case.

    One eyewitness recounted that the Guardsmen “turned around, got on their knees as if they were ordered to—[and] they did it all together—[and] aimed [and fired].”

    Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

    Time magazine was direr, determining that “triggers were not pulled accidentally at Kent State.”

    John, you and I may have to wait until we get together over a burger and a shake at a diner with a good jukebox in Heaven before we know the truth . . .

    • No they didn’t panic. But they never should have been carrying loaded guns to begin with. That was, shall we say, a management decision…one of many. One reason it isn’t likely any Guardsman woke up thinking he was going to shoot someone (or at least went into the previous weekend thinking that) is that it’s unlikely they could have guessed they would be carrying live rounds (against the existing protocols of both the U.S. Army and the Ohio National Guard)…especially when that very unit had policed Ohio State a couple of weeks earlier, faced much stiffer and more violent opposition, and responded with buckshot. Of course, once you’re told to load your M-16 with live ammo, all kinds of new possibilities present themselves. It’s not even out of the question that they pre-planned the shooting (a strong possibility in my opinion) and/or were responding to a direct order (a real possibility as well). Like I said…by the time it happened it was all but inevitable, but a lot had gone on between the early morning hours and the noon showdown.

      You’re right though…we won’t know the truth on this plane. All the books and articles I’ve read, all the online archives I’ve perused, all the walking of the ground I did on my three visits there and I’m still triangulating! Hope there’s some good music on that Jukebox!

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