On May 4, 1970, many of us remember the shootings of several students at Kent State University in Ohio during a protest against the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. I was in grammar school, but I can recall vividly the photograph that was made famous that day, of a hysterical teenage girl (Mary Vecchio) crouching by the dead body of 20-year-old Jeff Miller. A photojournalism student named John Filo won the Pulitzer Prize for that shot which he snapped while thinking the bullets fired were blanks.
On the 30th anniversary of her son’s death, Jeff Miller’s mother Elaine Holstein wrote:
“That Jeff chose to attend that demonstration came as no surprise to me. Anyone who knew him in those days would have been shocked if he had decided to sit that one out.” Jeff at the age of 8 had written an impressive article on the plight of black Americans for Ebony magazine, who incorrectly assumed he was black.
At age 16, Jeff composed a poem in which he referred to the Vietnam war as “The War Without a Purpose.” When he told his mother he was attending the May 4 rally, he said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I may get arrested, but I won’t get my head busted.”
There were many protests going on against the Vietnam war at that time, and they increased after the incident at Kent State that left Jeff Miller and three others dead and 9 wounded, including 1 permanently paralyzed. Hundreds of schools and universities closed. Protests then became directed not only at the war but at the presence and behavior of the National Guard and members of the police.
Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley in the Department of Sociology at Kent State wrote “The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The search for historical accuracy.” In it, they said that when, in April, under President Richard Nixon the U.S. Invaded Cambodia and expanded the war, it sparked more protests. On May 1, 1970, anti-war rallies occurred across U.S. college campuses including at Kent State, where a rally was held at noon on the Commons and “a copy of the Constitution was buried to symbolize the murder of the Constitution because Congress had never declared war, and another rally was called for noon on Monday, May 4.”
It was after that rally and a series of violent confrontations between students and police that the Ohio National Guard was called in. Lewis and Hensley tell how it happened:
“As the Guard arrived in Kent at about 10 p.m., they encountered a tumultuous scene. The wooden ROTC building adjacent to the Commons was ablaze and would eventually burn to the ground that evening, with well over 1000 demonstrators surrounding the building.”
To add fuel to that fire, Ohio Governor James Rhodes flew to Kent State and, in a press conference, called campus protestors “the worst type of people in America” and said that he would seek a court order declaring a state of emergency. University officials tried to ban all rallies but, by noon on May 4, 3000 people had gathered at the Commons. Across the Commons stood about 100 Ohio National Guardsmen carrying M-1 military rifles.
After the guards tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas, there was yelling and rock throwing from the protesters. At some point the guards fired at the students, and in 13 seconds the deaths and injuries resulted. The guards tried to argue in court that they acted in self-defense, and the case was settled out of court with a payment of $675,000 by the state to the injured and families of the dead. Many doubted the guards’ claim that they were in danger.
Jeff’s mother said that his death “destroyed the person I had been – a naive, politically unaware woman. Until the spring of 1970, I would have stated with absolute assurance that Americans have the right to dissent publicly from the policies pursued by their government. The Constitution says so. And even if the dissent got noisy and disruptive, was it conceivable that an arm of the government would shoot at random into a crowd of unarmed students? With live ammunition? No way!”
Holstein also said she was shocked to receive hate mail after Jeff’s death, showing her how strongly some people favored the war.
“I think there was a great deal of hostility toward the students initially,” Lewis said. “I think that has moderated, and I think the faculty who have written about May 4 get some credit for that by telling the story and showing the distances (between the students and the guardsmen). But initially, it was sort of blaming the victim, and it was very tough.”
More on the Kent State incidents can be found at: http://dept.kent.edu/may4/jeff.html
By Sally Rege Carroll
Sally was born in India, lived in England, and ended up in the USA. She works in Boston, Massachusetts. More about her at Linkedin.com/in/sally-rege-carroll-8268a483 and http://saltyspring.wordpress.com
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