Personal Reflections on the Kent State Tragedy

At 11 a.m. on a pleasant spring Monday, May 4, 1970, 77 combat ready Ohio National Guardsmen with bayonetted rifles and gas masks assembled at the lower edge of the Kent State University campus. In front of them across a large grassy area known as the Commons were several hundred angry students awaiting a 12 o’clock anti-war rally that was going ahead despite having already been banned. 

Kent, a small city in northeastern Ohio, had been tense since April 30 when President Nixon announced American forces had entered Cambodia, a significant escalation of the Vietnam war. Nixon’s television address triggered protests on hundreds of campuses including Kent State where two days earlier a reserve officer training center was set ablaze. As many as 1,000 students cheered as the wooden structure near where the guard was now assembling burned.  Downtown protesters had clashed with police. Shop windows were broken. Kent’s mayor declared a civil emergency and asked Governor James Rhodes to send in the national guard, 1,000 of whom were now in the city.

Shortly before noon on this fateful Monday rallying students were ordered to disperse. When they didn’t the soldiers advanced. They walked deliberately. Teargas was fired. Students retreated, fleeing up the hill at the far end of the Commons. Amid smoke and screams they scattered. The guardsmen kept coming, their rifles held at waist level pointed straight ahead. 

The troops reached the crest of the hill, then proceeded down the backside a few dozen yards towards an athletic field. There they halted and several knelt in firing position but did not shoot. After some minutes the guardsmen returned to the top of the hill, some nervously peering over their shoulders as spent tear gas cartridges and insults were hurled at them. 

At 12:34 p.m. a sergeant raised his pistol, turned and fired in the direction of the remaining protesters. All hell broke loose. For the14 agonizingly long seconds 29 guardsmen fired 67 rounds from their M-1 Garand rifles. When the shooting stopped four students lay dead and nine others lay wounded.

Student photographer John Filo captured the moment 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio cried out over the body of slain student Jeffrey Miller. That image appeared on front pages across the world. Filo was awarded a Pulitzer prize.

John Filo’s iconic photo

The shooting of unarmed protesters shocked the nation and apparently even President Nixon. Gasoline had been poured on smoldering embers, a protest firestorm was ignited. 

The next day  up to a million students at 800 colleges walked out of classes expressing solidarity with Kent State and demanding an end to the war. The protests quickly swelled to four million, a nationwide student strike was underway.  

By Saturday 100,000 protesters had gathered in Washington where elements of the 82d Airborne were mobilized. Buses were parked end to end surrounding and protecting the White House. Unable to sleep, the president left the residence at 4:15 in the morning, arriving at the Lincoln Memorial where protestors were encamped. Nixon and a group of what some media called hippies talked for an hour, the president departed saying he understood how they felt.

In California singer/songwriter Neil Young, enraged by what he saw in Filo’s photograph, composed Ohio, a lament that became an anti-war anthem. 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio…”

The view soldiers had when they opened fire (Photo: Barry Wood)

As these events unfolded I was a junior faculty member and anti-war activist at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, 280 miles away. Kent State was well known to us as both schools were in the same athletic conference.  The mood at Western was electric and scary. There had been small, non-violent protests following April 28 but now activists demanded stronger action. It was too late to join the protests in Washington, a 13-hour journey by car.  

Amid anger and a sense of helplessness, our anti-war coordinating group agreed on a single protest rally with speakers from student government, churches and the community. I was among those who addressed a crowd of several thousand. What I remember most was leading the singing of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.

Barry Wood, WMU Kalamazoo, May 1970

It’s almost a cliché to say America was more divided five decades ago than today. In my opinion that’s not true. Of course, the country was divided. Beyond college campuses, a silent majority either opposed the protesters or supported the war. Dissidents promoted a variety of causes—civil and gay rights, environmentalism, free schools, feminism, organic foods– issues that gained little traction with the majority. The divide was apparent even by choice of clothing.  Straights tended to be prim and proper, dissidents sloppy and shaggy but colorful. The counterculture felt itself superior and was energetic, determined, and arrogant. Woodstock in the previous summer had resulted in a strong sense of community and solidarity.

With the advantage hindsight the counter-culture was more closely linked to the Vietnam war and civil rights than previously thought. At core it was about young men being unwilling to fight and die in a war they passionately opposed. 

During that now forgotten war 300,000 young Americans were being drafted into the military each year. When it finally ended in 1975, 58,000 Americans had died in southeast Asia.

The protests associated with Kent State and Jackson State in Mississippi where police killed two black protesters were arguably the high-water mark of the movement. Yes, there was May Day a year later where 12,000 protesters in D.C. were arrested, the greatest mass arrest in American history. During that May Day week in Washington, many of us admired the resolve of people to put their bodies on the line “to stop the war makers.”  Inspiration came from seeing dozens of Vietnam Veterans Against the War throwing away their medals as they marched past the White House.  

But there was also a sense of finality, that a noble cause was failing. For me, having been in Washington for the Pentagon march in 1967, the moratorium in 1969 and now May Day, what really had been accomplished?  The war was still grinding on. 

Worse, a year later in 1972 President Nixon was triumphant over anti-war Democrat George McGovern, winning 49 of 50 states, one of the greatest landslides ever. 

Why is the societal divide deeper today? After all there’s no dress code for today’s politics and little gap between young and old.

A key factor is the gulf between coastal elites and a populist hinterland.  The elites believe themselves superior.

Joan Williams, the savvy progressive Democrat in San Francisco, wrote that Donald Trump won in 2016 by leading a working-class rebellion against privileged, entitled elites who had been running the country.  The elites—the new establishment– were politically correct, favored abortion on demand, same sex marriage, relatively open borders, and globalization. Diversity and tolerance are key beliefs.

The other side reveres tradition, is skeptical of multi-culturalism and unchecked illegal migration. They blame free trade for the loss of jobs and the hollowing out of American towns. It is protectionist and nationalist.

Neither side has much respect for the other. People are siloed—one side watching CNN and MSNBC, the other Fox News. There is a notable absence of civility. 

The rift in our land will eventually be healed just as occurred after Vietnam. While the gap today is wide, core institutions remain intact. Both sides respect democratic principles and invoke the constitution as arbiter. Despite a war of words civil unrest has been minimal.

For the first time not long ago, I visited Kent State. Parking the car, I thought of myself as a kind of modern pilgrim. It was a perception reinforced inside the May 4th visitors center housed in Taylor Hall adjacent to where the shootings took place. Its poignant photographs and documents are riveting and sobering. Later, strolling past landmarks intact from 1970, you realize that what happened here could have occurred at any college campus.

Sadly, Kent State is where dissent devolved into tragedy.#

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