People cluster around a wounded student on Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970. (AP Photo.)
Earlier this month, Kent State commemorated the forty-third anniversary of the National Guard killing of four students and the wounding of nine others on May 4, 1970, by opening an official Visitors Center. It was a significant milestone for activists—some already dead, the rest gone gray—determined to uncover the truth and honor the memory of those who died in an antiwar protest on that fateful day.
The random character of those deaths, and those at Jackson State two weeks later, drove home the message to millions of students that spring that they too might become victims of an escalating war at home. The Crosby, Stills and Nash song, “Four Dead in Ohio,” became a universal dirge.
Questions still remain, and this year’s formal events raised more, thanks to filmmaker Oliver Stone, the keynote speaker.
Activists leading the long inquest demand that the Obama Justice Department take a new look at recently discovered cassettes from 1970 which, under modern forensic technology, may clarify at last whether orders to fire at the students were given to the guardsmen, or whether the shooters reacted spontaneously to provocation by students.
In an emotional speech to over 800 from the local community, Oliver Stone went further. Stone revived an old theory—long discredited by state and federal investigators—that an informant doubling as a sniper that day instigated the chain of events. Stone’s theory was quickly denounced as a “red herring” by Alan Canfora, who was shot in 1970 and who continues to be among the most respected researchers on the events. Stone’s theory, Canfora says, diverts attention from the explanation that researchers are closing in on—that orders to kill were given—and revives the “sniper” excuse given to justify the killing spree that day.
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The forty-three consecutive years of overnight vigils, demonstrations, conferences and memorials at Kent State are the longest such campaign in the history of the antiwar movement. Tom Grace, an activist shot that day and now a college professor in New York estimates that 65,000 people have trekked over the years to the off-the-highway location. The numbers are sure to increase with the opening of the Center.
While monuments proliferate for many social movements, and while President Obama memorably mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall in his second inaugural address, national recognition of what happened at Kent State has evolved only with painful gradualism. Obama spoke at Kent last September 26 before 6,600 cheering students and came away with 2,000 new voter registrations. He won Kent in November by over 80 percent. That mattered in Ohio’s tight election, won by Obama by less that two percentage points. Next to Ohio’s African-American voters, Obama’s strongest Democratic supporters are concentrated in the Kent area of northeastern Ohio. Among the leading longtime Democrats in the Kent area has been Alan Canfora and the activist network still seeking answers to what happened on May 4, 1970.
Obama said not a word about the Kent State legacy in his September 26 campaign speech. Was this an omission of forgetfulness, or a calculated avoidance of reviving controversies that still lurk among some Ohio voters with Guard connections? What might it take for Obama to include Kent State in a future litany of sites made historic by social movements?