For those of us who were young adults or near adults, it should be a bit of a somber day. Fifty years ago, today, four Kent State students were shot, nine others wounded, one paralyzed. Twenty-eight Ohio National Guardsmen fired approximately seventy rounds in less than fifteen seconds into students, some protesting President Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion” by the US military, others who were simply watching from a distance, one was walking from one class to another. Nixon had promised the day before to get us out of the war.
It had been a contentious period in our history, “The Kent State Massacre” was neither the beginning of the violence nor would it be the concluding chapter. Three protesting students were killed and some thirty injured during a protest at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, SC in February. Several days after Kent State, two students were killed, and a dozen injured at Jackson State. Both were confrontations with the police and on a small scale exemplified the student unrest over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.
Kent State had been a hot spot for student protest beginning in the middle Sixties. Students For a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Student Organization and the Youth International Party, (Yippies) all staged sit-ins, marches and other protests, including an attempted take over of the Administrative Offices by the SDS that led to fifty-eight students being arrested by the Ohio Highway Patrol. There had been scattered violence, including the burning of the ROTC building, but no deaths until May 4, 1970.
Monday, May Fourth. was the culmination of four days of unrest that began the previous Friday after President Nixon announced the Cambodian Incursion on the previous Thursday. From the aforementioned fire, a protest march, beer bottles and rocks being thrown at police, bonfires in the street, and numerous arrests, violence reared its ugly head, violence from the students, and from groups sworn to protect them.
Unconfirmed rumors of students with caches of arms, spiking the local water supply with LSD, and of students building tunnels for the purpose of blowing up the town’s main buildings added gasoline to an already volatile cocktail. The city mayor requested National Guard Troops from the governor and the request was granted. They came armed with loaded M-1 Garands, bayonets, tear gas, and smoke grenades.
The National Guard first became entangled on the Third, breaking up a rally and a sit-in, using tear gas and even bayoneting students. A noon rally of some 2000 students on the Fourth became the catalyst for the shooting. Again, rocks and tear gas were involved until the shots rang out. It became a they said-they said situation after the gunpowder had cleared.
I was a struggling sophomore in college, less than a month past my twentieth birthday when news of the massacre flashed across the community tv screen in the basement of Brokaw Hall. I remember the silence that followed and the debate that issued later. Despite being a Southern liberal arts college, Newberry was not a fertile ground for liberal thoughts.
Near the end of the semester, I was more concerned about the effect exams might have on my grades than what had taken place in faraway Ohio or nearby Orangeburg. I was also mourning the end of my first serious relationship, one I characterized as a hurricane waiting to happen. You knew you were in for a big storm you just didn’t know when or where it would happen. It had happened. A hurricane that had turned my grades into a shambles.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware, I was. A male, I had just participated in the first draft lottery and hadn’t won but I hadn’t lost either…April 9th came up 219…kinda in the middle. My awareness was focused on my poor but improving grades and fear.
I had no desire to die in a rice paddy in a Southeast Asian country but like many of the young men surrounding me, I would have gone to my death rather than disappointing my family and friends. I would do what was expected.
As I look back, I am both proud and ashamed. Happy I wasn’t called while feeling I missed something by not being called to serve. Ashamed for not taking a more active interest in protesting the war. Confliction but I am a conflicted person.
There were several veterans on third floor Brokaw my freshman year taking advantage of the GI Bill. They were good guys, damaged good guys. Few returned for our sophomore year, fewer still graduated. They were just too damaged.
I wondered which was worse, dying in a jungle or leaving a part of your soul there. They all participated in the activities of college life, but it seemed they only participated from the periphery. All still had the “Thousand Yard Stare.”
One vet, of Marine Force Recon, had been our protector during our freshman year. I didn’t know what Force Recon was, I just knew from the whispers he was a badass dude. He was much older and became a buffer against Rat Week and later the fraternity bull pledges whose grades were so low they had been moved out of fraternity housing and onto the freshman halls. They weren’t happy and wanted to take it out on the ‘rats’. Force Recon would have none of it and the bull pledges left us alone.
He sat next to me as Walter told us about Kent State. A man of few words, he leaned over and asked, “Who gives fucking National Guardsmen live ammo against students?” I wondered myself. Several friends were National Guardsmen and I wouldn’t have trusted them with a pea shooter. Thankfully, they were members of the SC National Guard Band. They blew into their instruments instead of blowing things up.
Later, Force Recon would suggest in a bit of a drunken stupor, “If you get drafted, run to Canada. It ain’t worth dying for.” This from the same man who ‘liberated’ a Christmas tree from the Winn Dixie parking lot late one night so we could decorate with toilet paper and beer cans in our community restroom…good times. Coming from a veteran I began to rethink the war.
Violence begets violence and the violence didn’t end in May of 1970. Many more Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians would die before that little policing action was over.
The shootings at Kent State would trigger more protests, one in Washington estimated at a hundred thousand that caused President Nixon to be whisked away to Camp David. Hundreds of college campuses would close involving over four million students due to student protest. Eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico during a peace rally and peace protesters battled pro-Nixon construction workers in what became known as the Hard Hat Riots.
1968 was bad, ‘69 was a bit of reprieve if you didn’t look past the moon landing to the Manson Murders and Mai Lai. ‘70 was a return to the bad but as some smart someone said, “it gets darkest just before the dawn.” It would be five long years before dawn and the Vietnam War ended but the US had been out of the warzone for the last two. I must believe Kent State and the protests that followed helped get us out of a war we should never have been involved in. Helped to stop the killing.
I drew from a lot of sources but since I am not selling this I’m not going to footnote. If you question something other than my sanity I will go back and do so.
The featured image is the iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Don Miller writes on various subjects and various genres. His authors page is at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2Iyegsi5CjQ4ZNPU2nA9C1e3q7jekDZ6e3T8qw5QUgwNhM9Yj_-dKOag4