We are frequently shocked and horrified now by reports of violent encounters between young people and police. And we mourn for the lives lost, and for the racism that underlies many of these confrontations. But such events are not new, and not always based on racism. Those of us who lived through the protests of the 1960s and 1970s are not unfamiliar with irrational and deadly violence. We remember, along with Watts and other riots fueled by racial oppression, along with vicious incidents over desegregation, the ugly confrontations between police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the killings at Kent State University and Jackson State University. Issues are not simple, and there are no clear-cut solutions.
May 4 is always a day of mourning for me. On that day in 1970, on a sunny Monday noontime, thirteen Kent State University students were shot by the Ohio National Guard; four were killed and one paralyzed. My then husband and I had come to Kent State to teach the previous fall. The events of that May have, in many ways, influenced my life.
Recently, I was talking with a young college student who asked me where I had taught. When I mentioned Kent State, she asked me where it was. She had never heard of the university, much less the shootings, even though she attends a similar state university in the next state west, less than 300 miles from Kent. Her parents may not even have been born at the time of the shootings.
If you want to read about the events of that tragic time and their effect on the nation, the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings is excellent. Here are some observations that I would add to that article.
Kent State was then a university largely populated by first-generation college students who were not deeply involved in political issues and protests. They did not have much experience in protest, and were not well prepared to protect themselves physically. Dispersing when confronted by an armed National Guard would have been wise.
The National Guard soldiers who were on campus that day had come from a ten-day labor union dispute in Akron where they had been the targets of bricks and rocks – and possibly worse. They were tired, jittery, and facing people their own age. Even though most of the students were not particularly privileged – most were working to help pay for college – their student draft deferrals must have made them seem privileged to members of the Guard.
The preceding weekend had been the first warm weekend of a late spring. Kent was then a town full of bars, catering to students, locals, and visitors from a wide area. The atmosphere included a certain amount of general letting loose, along with some indignation over the invasion of Cambodia.
Kent State’s President, Dr. Robert I. White, was out of town at the time and not available to respond to the protestors.
The ROTC building that was destroyed was a small temporary structure used by a very small program that in 1970 was not popular on college campuses in general. In later reports, it sounded as if a major university building had been burnt.
I remember standing at the checkout at a local grocery store a month or so after the killings and hearing the woman in front of me, a frail-looking, white-haired person, tell the checkout clerk that “they should have shot more of them.” Bitterness – much of it aimed against the students – was common in the town of Kent for years.
Most of the students who were shot were either standing around watching a few students actively confront the Guard or passing by on their way to their next class.
The then Governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, was vilifying students for the opposition of some of them to an unpopular war before the shootings occurred. For many years afterward, during Rhodes’ further terms as governor, the university’s budget requests were routinely cut at the state level. There were years in which we, the faculty, brought chalk and erasers to class. Handouts and other materials were rationed, maintenance deferred, and expenditures in general pared to the bone.
When I tell people of my generation or their children that I taught at Kent State, they always ask, “Were you there . . .?” Yes, I was. But now it’s old history or totally unknown to younger people. Have you heard of the killings that rocked the nation? Do you know the names of the dead?
Sandra Scheuer was walking from one class to another.
William Schroeder was also on his way to his next class.
Allison Krause, who had put a flower in the rifle of a Guardsman the day before, was watching.
Jeffrey Miller was participating in the protest.
Nine other students were shot; most were either watching or passing by. The most severely injured was Dean Kahler, who was not himself confronting the National Guard; he was shot in the spine and paralyzed from the chest down. He went on to finish his degree and became a teacher and was active in local and state government. I knew him very slightly later and admired his lack of bitterness. But all of those who were shot that day found their lives shaped by the consequences of the shootings. Those of us who were a part of the campus community were also affected permanently.
Remember them all. Remember the time when the nation killed its own on their own college campus. Remember the names of the dead.
This is a revision of a post previously published on May 4, 2014.