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A look back at the Kent State Massacre: What can we Learn?

Kent State University Massacre
1971 Pulitzer Prize, Spot News Photography, John Paul Filo, Valley Daily News and Daily Dispatch.

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

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MBFC News.

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9 Comments on A look back at the Kent State Massacre: What can we Learn?

  1. Vivian Grace // February 6, 2017 at 12:21 am //

    I’m uncomfortable with this article at this point in our country’s state of turmoil. Being from that time and an active participant in many peaceful protests, I feel this article on a non-anniversary date is ill-advised and possibly inflammatory, stoking an already hot fire.

    We were protesting an unconstitutional war where friends, family and schoolmates were being sent off to fight, die, be injured, imprisoned or never to be found. The war had been going on too long. Too many people died and there seemed to be no end in sight… only acceleration into other parts of Southeast Asia.

    Today’s riots are not peaceful. There is no just cause beyond intolerance from both extremes. Instead of attempts at talking, today’s Left actively incites riots and violence while proclaiming unknown or rightwing anarchists are the cause and culprits. Yet, they join in, cheer on and watch fellow STUDENTS be viciously beaten for the sin of being conservative. Today’s Left cares only for a chosen few and deliberately maligns, marginalizes and actively despises those who don’t fully agree wit all their mandates. They are nothing like those of us who marched and protested for freedom for ALL, justice for ALL, equality for ALL and an end to war.

    Think carefully… this article is not a sign of an unbiased source.

    Sincerely,
    Vivian Grace

  2. Vivian, the fact that you are uncomfortable with this article due to our country’s current state of turmoil is exactly why it is relevant and important to remember. In this article there is zero bias. The writer simply re-tells the story without any mention of today’s political climate. Could it happen again? That is most likely the line you do not like. It is a fair question though. As you mention there is a great deal of unrest among the political left and there is a shift to an authoritarian executive branch. The President has casually stated that he would send the military into Chicago, so there is a very real danger in government over-stepping. Lastly, the article is simply meant to show how quickly things can change and how dangerous it can become.

  3. I thank you for this article. I was a university student in 1970 and remember this too well. I didn’t know Jeff Miller was so outspoken and articulate! I think it’s important to commemorate these things, as a reminder that we have a duty as well as a right to speak out against injustice. The threats against the media (Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway) have no place in American discourse. Highlighting the Kent State killings shows what people have sacrificed for our First Amendment rights. Thank you.

  4. Vivian Grace // February 7, 2017 at 6:19 am //

    Dave, thank you for your comment. I live in Chicago near a high homicide zone and paid close attention to non-biased news sources regarding that statement. Trump did not say he would send the military. Reread exactly what he said. The extreme conclusion you reached highlights my point.
    Now is not the time to give the people more reasons to jump to wrong conclusions or believe the worst that biased media is feeding them… from both sides. The media has forgotten their role… to give us facts, all the facts… not just those that fit their sgenda. It is not their role to give us opinions of these facts during the report but to save those for sepsrate commentaries.

  5. Vivian Grace // February 7, 2017 at 6:23 am //

    Excuse previous typos. My eyesight is going and I occasionally hit wrong letters on my tablet that I don’t see til too late.

  6. Margie Vawter // February 7, 2017 at 10:47 pm //

    Such a loaded headline for a fact checking source! We didn’t call it a massacre back then, neither did the press. It was a terrible tragedy, but it was called a shooting. Google it.

    The piece is the typical SWJ trick of appealing to emotions and twisting history to suit their delusional belief that only they know what is best for America. If antifa and leftists (the true totalitarians) keep up the riots and destruction, they will be remembered in history as the aggressors, not the victors.

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  8. This is a fluff piece. What can we learn? Nothing from this article.

  9. I like reading a post that can make people think. Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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