Many people today are celebrating May 4 as the lisping salutation of Star Wars’ “May the 4th be with you.” I’m a big fan, don’t get me wrong–I’m all for celebrating George Lucas’ creation.
But in my mind always is the “other” May 4. That would be May 4, 1970, 50 years ago today. I was in high school, and my stepmother was attending college–at Kent State University. She came home from school that afternoon in tears. By the time the news was on that night, we all saw what she’d escaped from. National Guard members had shot and killed four students and wounded nine more in the middle of a protest against the expansion of Vietnam War into Cambodia.
From Kent State University records: Four Kent State students died as a result of the firing by the Guard. The closest student was Jeffrey Miller, who was shot in the mouth while standing in an access road leading into the Prentice Hall parking lot, a distance of approximately 270 feet from the Guard. Allison Krause was in the Prentice Hall parking lot; she was 330 feet from the Guardsmen and was shot in the left side of her body. William Schroeder was 390 feet from the Guard in the Prentice Hall parking lot when he was shot in the left side of his back. Sandra Scheuer was also about 390 feet from the Guard in the Prentice Hall parking lot when a bullet pierced the left front side of her neck.
Nine Kent State students were wounded in the 13-second fusillade. Most of the students were in the Prentice Hall parking lot, but a few were on the Blanket Hill area. Joseph Lewis was the student closest to the Guard at a distance of about 60 feet; he was standing still with his middle finger extended when bullets struck him in the right abdomen and left lower leg. Thomas Grace was also approximately 60 feet from the Guardsmen and was wounded in the left ankle. John Cleary was over 100 feet from the Guardsmen when he was hit in the upper left chest. Alan Canfora was 225 feet from the Guard and was struck in the right wrist. Dean Kahler was the most seriously wounded of the nine students. He was struck in the small of his back from approximately 300 feet and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Douglas Wrentmore was wounded in the right knee from a distance of 330 feet. James Russell was struck in the right thigh and right forehead at a distance of 375 feet. Robert Stamps was almost 500 feet from the line of fire when he was wounded in the right buttock. Donald Mackenzie was the student the farthest from the Guardsmen at a distance of almost 750 feet when he was hit in the neck.
I attended KSU from 1974-1978, and the presence of the Guard was still felt there. You could walk from the Victory Bell on the Commons up Blanket Hill in the footsteps of those who had rallied that day, protesting the War, protesting the government, protesting the presence of the Guard at all. You could walk around the journalism building to the parking lot at Prentice Hall (the place I lived freshman year) and see the tributes left for the dead. The bullet hole in the big black sculpture remained. Each year, students and staff of the May 4th Task Force held a ceremony, remembering what had happened.
In 1977, the University proposed to build an expansion of Memorial Gym. The plans extended the building onto a section of the campus in front of the journalism building that was part of the area where the shooting had taken place. The Task Force and others protested this construction, saying it would change the space where the shootings had taken place. In May 1977, protesters began setting up a Tent City on the hill, and it soon was populated by many, many people sympathetic to the cause.
I met several of these folks while I was finishing my last semester there. Tent City had whole families who cooked meals together, jam sessions, political discussions. It was a glimpse back into the Sixties, for those of us who had been too young, people who’d gathered to express themselves and weren’t afraid to be arrested if they got to make their non-violent point. Because there was no violence, this go-round–Joan Baez and others came to sing of peace, and Dick Gregory and Ron Kovic urged the protesters to continuing sitting-in. Arrests occurred several times through July and August as the university attempted to clear the campers off the property, as hundreds watched, chanting “Long live the spirit of Kent and Jackson State!”
I don’t intend to get into the discussion of whether the May 4 shooting was justified–the court says it wasn’t. The ROTC building had been burnt by the protesters, true. The fact that some of the protestors were throwing rocks at the National Guard is also true. No one was blameless here (except for victim Sandra Scheuer, who was apparently just on her way to class and not involved at all).
But I believe it’s something worth revisiting in this day and age as protests ramp up over the orders meant to protect life and limb against coronavirus. Will there come a time when it’s less about politics and more about life and death? When it will be considered “justified” to shoot young people? Black people? White people? What kind of society do we want to have?