Remembering the Shootings at Kent State University – 50 Years On
Find Out How You Can Virtually Attend the 50th Anniversary Commemoration at Kent State – this Monday, May 4th, 2020 at Noon – by clicking on a link in the Commentary below.
A Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted May 4th, 2020 on Niagara At Large
“It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song,” said Neil Young in liner notes for ‘Decade’, a compilation of some of his best songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students,” he went on. “Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”
The song was ‘Ohio’, recorded 50 years ago this May, and still regarded by some of the best in the business of reviewing music as one of the more powerful protest songs ever recorded
The place of learning was Kent State University, located in verdant, rolling hill country south of Cleveland, Ohio, where on a Monday – May 4th, 1970 – four days of campus protest against the seemingly endless and pointless slaughter of human life that was the Vietnam War morphed in to ‘apocalypse now’ when soldiers from the Ohio National Guard trained their guns, loaded with steel-jacket bullets, on a large crowd of student protesters and opened fired.
Within a matter of seconds, four students (two of them onlookers who were not even involved in the protests) were dead, and nine others were injured – one of them paralyzed for life.
Shot dead and etched in some of our collective memories forever were; William Schroeder, 19, Allison Krause, 19, Jeffrey Miller, 20 and Sandra Scheuer, 20.
Today, with so many other events that have shocked our systems since – the countless other mass shootings on school property, the very recent mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the rising curve in the number of destructive flood, fire, and wind storms, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the tens-of-thousands of people who haven dying and continue to die on this continent alone in the COVID-19 pandemic – what unfolded on the Kent State University campus 50 years ago this Monday, May 4th may now just seem like a footnote in a modern-day history of human mayhem many of us seem to have become far too desensitized to.
Sad to say, in today’s world, the Kent States shootings might have a news cycle of about three or four days before the attention of mass media turns to the next act of madness. That’s how low the threshold for the bad and ugly has sunk, and it doesn’t say much for our collective attention span either.
Yet, for people coming of age in the late 1960s and early 70s (for millions like me who were still in our teens, or barely out of them, at the time), and for generations older, the shootings at Kent State were a seismic event that, to paraphrase a few lines from a Bob Dylan song, shook all windows and rattled the walls.
To use a word that almost seems to light to describe feelings that followed in the wake of the news, it was shocking.
Coming just 10 months after the youthful counter-culture of the 1960s reached the top of the rainbow when half a million ‘flower children’ celebrated three days of peace and music at the Woodstock Festival, just a few hundred miles away in the Catskills of New York, what happened at Kent State ,on that Monday, at noon hour on May 4, 1970, along with, months, the Manson family murders in the hills of Hollywood and My Lai massacre in Vietnam, drew the curtain on the hippie movement, flower power and the Age of Aquarius.
At least one good thing did come out of it though. It swelled the ranks of those who protested and eventually helped end the war in Vietnam that those four young people died protesting.
As the recent documentary series called ‘The Vietnam War’, produced by award-winning film maker Ken Burns, shows even some of those who were drafted to fight in that war joined the anti-war movement. As one returning veteran said the film, and I paraphrase; ‘It’s not enough that they are sending young people to the other side of the world to get shot and killed, now they are killing them at home.’
There was also an uptick in the number of young Americans who crossed the border to Canada to avoid the draft.
And there are still lessons from this terrible episode, and one of them is that words coming out of the mouths of political leaders matter, and can lead to tragic consequences.
In the weeks and days leading up to the Kent State killings, the then vice president of the United States, Spiro Agnew, repeatedly tarred young war protesters as traitors, the president, Richard Nixon, called them “bum,” and the governor of Ohio compared them to “Nazi brownshirts.”
There is a president in the United States today who has repeatedly said hateful things about people of the Muslim faith, about migrants, and about members of the news media and about other groups.
And to paraphrase one of his more infamous talking points; ‘Sometimes bad things happen.’ And when something bad happens to those who was saying vile things about, it is never his fault, and often he will even deny he made the remarks in the first place. It’s just more “fake news.”
Today – this Monday, May 4th, at noon – you can watch and listen to a virtual 50th anniversary commemoration from Kent State. Find out how you can do that by clicking on the following link – https://www.kent.edu/may4kentstate50/50th-virtual-commemoration
And if you happen to miss the commemoration while it is streaming live, it is most likely you can click on this link anyway or just do a quick search yourself to find a way you can watch it in re-run.
For a video featuring the original recording of Neil Young’s song ‘Ohio’, with Crosby, Stills and Nash in the studio with him, coupled with a little more history about Kent State, click on –
For more information and stories on the Kent State shootings, here are some key links;
For a well-detailed BBC audio program on the Kent State story, click on –https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000htp7?fbclid=IwAR3PlnfoFVWnN5Ql9Zg6us6n7xDXDGkML1hTLWfQw1_m_xVMHdRcblHYyPI
For a recent New Yorker magazine article on Kent State, click on – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/04/kent-state-and-the-war-that-never-ended
For a good piece that The Washington Post put together on documentary film-maker Ken Burns, who recently produced a film series called ‘The Vietnam War’, and his take on the events at Kent State, click on – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2017/09/27/the-american-war-kent-state-was-originally-a-footnote-in-ken-burnss-documentary-then-he-visited-the-campus/
Just a few final notes –
One person I reached out to in recent days for a few thoughts on the Kent State shootings was Rosemary Hale, who was Brock University’s first female dean, and who remains a strong advocate for the arts and culture in Niagara.
Rosemary graduated from Kent State University a few years before the shootings and taught English at a nearby high school when they took place.
“My heartsick memories are about how that hill (where the National Guardsmen turned and fired) was a place where we all played. … slid down on cafeteria trays in the winter and rolled down in the mud when spring came,” Rosemary told me.
“That sloping hill was forever changed. They’ve (since) planted daffodils (on that hill). For me, they honour the lives lost that day and the collective loss of innocence.”
Thank You Rosemary Hale for sharing some of your thoughts.
As for this journalist and author of this commentary, I will spend this day remembering how shaken I and those around me were all of those 50 years ago when we first heard the news
I will also remember going to Kent State for the 25th anniversary commemoration when Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ there, and the Victory Bell down below that hill full of daffodils rang – once for every student wounded and killed.
I will remember looking over at the families of the dead students when the commemoration ended and there was Allison Krause’s sister, Laurel, who looked quite like the pictures of Allison so burned into my brain,
I remember Laurel Krause seeming to offer a sad smile of thanks for coming when, for just a few seconds, our eyes met. I always regretted not going over to her and saying something, but what the hell more could one say after the moving words already spoken at the ceremony. Those words were still soaking in.
A day or so before she was gunned down, Allison Krause reportedly walked up to one of the National Guardsmen holding who was holding a rifle in the direction of protesting students, placed the stem of a flower in the barrel of his rifle and said; “Flowers are better than bullets.”
I sometimes wonder if that Guardsman is still around and, if he is, how he feels about that now.
Allison Krause was only 19 years old at the time, born April 23rd, 1951, only two days before I was, and I cannot help but think about how much life she and the three other stduents, murdered so coldly and senselessly, have missed.
RIP to Allison, William, Sandra and Jeffrey. Let us continue the march for justice and peace, so that your deaths were not in vain.
Doug Draper, Niagara At Large
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