Fifty years after a crisis provoked by the invasion of Cambodia, a new public health crisis prevented thousands from gathering at Kent State on May 4, 2020, to honor the dead and those killed under similar, yet different, circumstances at Jackson State on May 15, 1970. But the killings by the National Guard will not be forgotten. Kent State University, better than any institution confronted by 1960s ferment, came to terms with its anti-war past. Beginning in 1990, working with and sometimes challenged by students and alumni, the university erected memorials and historic signage, created the May 4 Visitor Center—the only national site that interprets the anti-war movement of the Long ’60s—supported the successful designation by the Department of the Interior of 17 acres of campus as a National Historic Landmark, and, once conditions allow, will install markers where the students fell.
And when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine activated the state’s National Guard in response to the coronavirus, he felt the need to offer the reassurance, “Sometimes people think of calling out the National Guard means they’re going to have guns…. the way the National Guard is used in the state of Ohio…is to help us, to assist us.”
In the half century since students were murdered at Kent State, the events have been chronicled in books and photographs, including John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning image, and have also inspired songs, films, and plays. The documentary record represents the rifts that bitterly divided American society in May 1970. Much of journalistic and legal evidence generated as a result of the National Guard salvo—which claimed four lives and wounded nine others, including this writer—is familiar to the historically literate.
Yet, for all the notice the shootings have garnered, the backstory, and what most think they know of the deadly clash, is still unclear. Much remains clouded in the barrage of smoke unleashed by the guardsmen’s weaponry, 61–67 rounds fired into the ranks of protesters and bystanders.
Last October, hundreds at Kent State watched May 4th Voices, an affecting play that uses oral-history accounts by eyewitnesses to the shootings. During the subsequent discussion, a young actor remarked how struck she was by the youthfulness of protesters and guardsmen alike. Her ignorance of the guardsmen is, rather than the exception, generally the rule.
Within days of the shootings, Vice President Spiro Agnew went on television to discuss the killings. Agnew maintained that the guardsmen’s youth, “18-, 19-, 20-year olds,” helped to explain their actions. Years later, former Joint Chief of Staff chairman Thomas Moorer made them younger still. “And here you had 17-year-old boys at school and 17-year-old boys in the National Guard,” he assured his interviewer. In his telling, the guardsmen, a bunch of inexperienced teenagers, were frightened, too.
In reality, the guardsmen whose actions triggered the killings, and launched unintentionally the largest student strike in American history, were not adolescents. No state mobilized its guard units during the 1960s as often as Ohio. A half dozen of the part-time guardsmen involved in the shootings were employed in the law enforcement field. Two of the eight guardsmen indicted by the US Justice Department in 1973 were police or deputy sheriffs. The guard captain who testified falsely of finding a gun on the body of slain student Jeff Miller worked as a police detective.
Enlisted men were in their mid-20s, officers a decade older. The sergeant who many believe prompted the shootings, was 39, the same age as the lieutenant colonel. Their general, whose poor decisions contributed to the day’s fatal outcome, was 55. If an order to fire was given to the troops, as the latest evidence shows, the officer most likely giving the command was 43.
What of the protesters? The growth of the university following World War II attracted working-class enrollees from the industrial cities that bordered small-town Kent. Many had grown up in labor families with parents loyal to the New Deal. College-bound students were part of the demographic cohort that comprised the majority of US forces in Vietnam. When the guardsmen shot into the students, dozens of veterans came under fire.
Kent State was the culmination of a dialectic of radicalization and repression preceded by a longer arc of activism on the campus, where a sometimes biracial movement had been gaining momentum throughout the 1960s. Protests at the decade’s outset focused on supporting Southern civil rights sit-ins, integrating public accommodations and eliminating racial segregation in off-campus student housing. A few Kent State students went south. One joined the Freedom Riders in 1961; another registered voters during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer; a third marched in Selma. The struggle to form a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality became the subject of bitter campus debate in 1964, as did the first protests against the Vietnam War. Alongside anti-war activity, biracial activism moved to the forefront in 1968. In solidarity with Oakland’s Black Panthers, members of Kent’s Students for Democratic Society chapter, along with Black United Students, impeded Oakland Police representatives from recruiting on the campus.
If the accrual of activism at Kent State has been overlooked, most authors have argued that the killings did what they were intended to do: silence dissent. In making such a dubious claim, writers ignored evidence easily located in area newspapers that establish the persistence of activism until the Vietnam War ended.
The radical notion that repression breeds resistance was borne out at Kent State in the years after the killings, a time when Vietnam veterans were entering student ranks in greater numbers. Some hardened activists nourished dreams of revenge. Yet revenge came not from retribution but in continuing to oppose the war and against the indictments issued to participants in the May 1970 protests. And, in 1977, when the university sought to literally bury the memory of the killings under a gymnasium, thousands there chanted, “Long live the spirit of Kent and Jackson State!”