Remembering Kent State
Michigan State University's Ron Dorr looks back on the 40th anniversary of the shootings
Ron Dorr is a professor emeritus in Michigan State University's James Madison College.
Forty years ago this month, four students from Kent State University lost their lives on their own campus. On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard shot
I can still see the images on the CBS Evening News: guardsmen kneeling on the football practice field and sighting on students, getting up without shooting, returning to Blanket Hill, wheeling around at Taylor Hall, shooting into the parking lot next to Prentice Hall, wounding nine students, and killing Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder. Sighting on and shooting students reminded me of the “moment of truth,” or kill in bullfights in Bogota, Colombia. Here, however, the victims were people.
The next day I asked my students at the University of Minnesota whether the students at Kent State got what was coming to them. One-third of the students raised their hands in agreement. I asked whether the Ohio National Guardsmen responsible for what happened at Kent State should be prosecuted. One-third of the students answered, “Yes.” “And what about the rest of you?” I asked. “What happened yesterday at Kent State?” the other third of the class wanted to know.
That mixed reaction of undergraduate students mirrored the kind of reporting and interpretations of the incidents at Kent State. Three reactions prevailed. On the conservative side, the Portage County Grand Jury indicted 24 students and one professor from an “apathetic university community [that had] allowed a vocal minority to seize control of the university campus” and called for kicking the troublemakers out. On the liberal side, the “Special Report” by the Akron Beacon Journal on May 24, 1970, was typical of those sympathetic to the students: While condemning students for their illegal acts of destruction, it blamed President Nixon and National Guardsmen who “fired without orders to do so.”
In between those two interpretations rested the summary, prepared by the U. S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, of the FBI reports on Kent State. A 10-page FBI summary found that the shootings “were not necessary and not in order.” The longer summary, based on 8,000 pages of reports, identified the National Guardsmen who could be indicted for killing the four students, none of whom threatened the lives of the guardsme
I. F. Stone’s book, “The Killings at Kent State,” includes all the interpretations outlined in the preceding paragraph. Besides, I agree with its subtitle: “How Murder Went Unpunished.” Published in 1971, this 158-page book is not James Michener’s monumental study, “Kent State: What Happened and Why,” which appeared that same year. In Stone’s book, the reactionary interpretation is well-represented by the Grand Jury report, which indicts the wrong people, avoids the central issues, and appeals to all sorts of illogic and nonsense. In the appendix, even vice president Spiro Agnew says, “where there is no premeditation but simply an over-response in the heat of anger that results in a killing, it’s a murder.”
Both the Grand Jury and Beacon Journal reports, I believe, overstate the gulf between the university community and the larger public. The Akron newspaper, however, takes its readers through a four-day narrative of the events on the Kent State campus, arriving at these conclusions: “The four victims did nothing that justified their deaths.” Some of the National Guardsmen “aimed deliberately at students; others fired in panic or in follow-the-leader style.” Most important, “It was not necessary to kill or wound any students. The Guardsmen had several other options which they did not exercise.” Section III of the newspaper report, entitled “Guard Had No ‘Meaningful’ Riot Training,” is right in calling the National Guard ill-trained, scared, and over-reactiv
The FBI reports capture some of the conflicting accounts of what happened especially before the shooting. None of the four victims on May 4, however, was implicated in the destruction of the ROTC building two days earlier. In fact, Scheuer, Schroeder, and four other wounded students were not involved in the protests on campus. Krause and Miller had taunted the Guard. But all of these students were 90-130 yards away from the guardsmen who fired on them.
At least 29 members of the National Guard fired 54 shots within 11 seconds. Later, “six guardsmen, including two sergeants and Captain Srp of Troop G stated pointedly that the lives of the members of the Guard were not in danger and that it was not a shooting situation.” Most “fired after they heard others fire or because after the shooting began, they assumed an order to fire in the air had been given.” The FBI report goes on: “We have some reason to believe that the claim by the National Guard that their lives were endangered by the students was fabricated subsequent to the event.” Of the 13 students hit, two were shot from the front, seven from the side, and four from the rea
In 45 pages of his own interpretation, I. F. Stone takes the FBI findings to their conclusion. The Portage County Grand Jury report fabricated evidence, did not read the Department of Justice summary, found a scapegoat, and insisted on more law and order. Six National guardsmen could have been indicted for second-degree murder. The U. S. Government dilly-dallied, washing its hands clean of this injustice. The Nixon Administration was not even comfortable with the report of the President’s Commission on Cam- pus Unrest, which included dozens of photographs confirming what the FBI reports had said. Murder at Kent State did go unpunished. It was a sad, sad day when the war in Vietnam duplicated itself on a campus in the U.
We must do whatever it takes to assure that such an event never occurs again: train National Guardsmen more fully, use rubber bullets instead of lethal weapons in such a campus situation, find more creative ways of resolving such bitter conflicts, and practice nonviolence in everyday situations so that it can carry over into more dramatic occasions. Most importantly, we must practice peacemaking in our bones and sinew--genuine peacemaking, which is not simply the absence of war, conflict, and violence, but whole- ness, health, and justice implemented in all our relationships. In this particular case, at a minimum, a federal grand jury should have been called.
There are two memorials on the Kent State campus to the killings that took place on May 4, 1970. Like the monuments for John and Robert Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery, the two at Kent State are great contrasts. One is huge, the other modest. One includes four elegant blocks of granite, designed by Bruno Ast and dedicated in 1990. Beside the boulders on the hill is a place for repose, and on the floor of that area are three words: “Inquire Learn Reflect.” I would add a fourth: “Engage,” or act responsibly.
In the Prentice Hall parking lot, the site of the four students’ deaths, is a much simpler monument, shaded now by an oak tree grown above it. On it are the names of the four Kent State students, supported by courageous faculty who wanted to honor them a year after they were killed. I can only that the bloodshed there 40 years ago has indeed watered the tree of life.