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Kent State 40 years on — What have we learned?

Published: Sun, April 25, 2010 @ 12:01 a.m.
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It’s been nearly 40 years since a student anti-war protest at Kent State University ended in violence with the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.

1970 can perhaps best be described as a turbulent time in the United States as opposition to the war in Vietnam, particularly on college campuses, grew.

“It’s (been) 40 years. Those of us who teach and talk about it realize we won’t be around forever,” said Carole Barbato, now a KSU communication studies professor who was a Kent junior from Youngstown in 1970.

There are a great many lessons to be taught and learned from what happened, she said, including the reinforcement of the First Amendment as an important part of the American way of life, respect for diverse opinions and the importance of nonviolence.

“Violence is not the answer to resolve conflict or dissent,” she said.

Anti-war protests reached a new level when then-President Richard Nixon announced April 30, 1970, that the war was being expanded with military excursions into Cambodia.

Kent State had been experiencing anti-war demonstrations for a number of years by that time, with a branch of the Students for a Democratic Society activist group functioning there before losing its campus charter in 1969.

Things heated up dramatically on and around campus between May 1 and May 4, 1970. Tensions came to a head around noon May 4 when a large group of students was confronted by about 1,000 members of the Ohio National Guard that had been sent to campus by then-Governor James A. Rhodes. The guardsmen arrived to restore order after demonstrations on campus and in the town of Kent, during which some downtown businesses were damaged.

The guard arrived May 2 about the time the campus ROTC building was burned.

Things turned deadly when a group of Guardsmen involved in dispersing a May 4 rally fired weapons into the crowd of students, killing four, including Sandra Scheuer of Boardman who was not involved in the protest but was on her way to class to take a test.

The others killed were Allison Krause of Pittsburgh, Jeffrey Miller of Plainview, N.Y., and William Schroeder of Lorain. Nine students were wounded.

Volumes have been written and a number of investigations have occurred over the years to determine what happened and who was at fault, but conclusions remain cloudy.

The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest determined that although some students were violent and criminal in their behavior, the shootings and resulting deaths were, “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

Much depends on the individual’s point of view of armed guardsmen confronting students, some hurling rocks and verbal abuse, who were angry to see their campus suddenly occupied by the military.

Among the students, the consensus seems to be that their campus had been invaded.

Among the guardsmen who fired, they said later that they felt their lives were in danger from screaming, rock-throwing protesters. There were also confirmed reports that some students were chanting “Kill, kill, kill” before the shooting.

Some guardsmen at the scene that day later were critical of their leadership, saying there was no real need for them to be on campus. Some have also expressed disappointment that no politician ever stepped forward to take responsibility for what happened, pointing out that it was the politicians who made the decision to bring in the National Guard.

The debate and the study continues.

“What happened here at Kent State was historic, and it’s appropriate that it receives this special designation,” said current Kent State President Lester A. Lefton in recently announcing that the 17.4-acre site of the confrontation has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“The National Register recognizes those places that are significant in American history and culture, and the May 4 site definitely qualifies for this recognition,” Lefton said.

“What happened here at Kent State was an important part of American history, and 40 years later, we continue to learn from it,” said Laura Davis, an English professor at Kent State and one of the four co-authors of the National Register application. She was a freshman from Lyndhurst, Ohio, on May 4, 1970, and attended the rally that day, witnessing the shootings.

The university has shown a consistent pattern of creating resources and support for the story of May 4, she said, citing the number of memorials and related activities backed by Kent.

She and Barbato, another of the authors of the National Register application, co-teach a May 4 course for juniors each spring. Barbato had intended to attend the May 4 rally but took the advice of a professor who urged her and others not to go.

The shootings resulted in the largest student strike in U.S. history, affecting hundreds of campuses. The event also expanded the anti-war movement, becoming a rallying point as an example of a government confronting protesters with deadly force.

Kent State will mark the 40th anniversary by bringing U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a leader in the American civil rights movement since the 1960s, to speak at 6:30 p.m. May 3 in the Kent Student Center Ballroom on the second floor of the KSU Student Center.

Other university events scheduled for the next day include the official ribbon cutting and plaque installation of the May 4 National Register of Historic Places and the dedication of the May 4 Walking Tour on the historic site.

The university has launched an online newsroom at http://may4newsroom.kent.edu to provide information, event details and multimedia regarding the 40th anniversary of the event.

2010 also marks the centennial of Kent State.

“May 4 was a defining moment, but it doesn’t define Kent State,” Lefton said, noting the newsroom helps put into context the 100-year-old institution’s impact with news and information about today’s Kent State as well as providing resources related to May 4, 1970.

“The best way for the university to recognize May 4 is to do something critical to our mission by educating others about it,” said Iris Harvey, vice president for university relations. “If we don’t apply an educational lens to it, then we’re not leaving a legacy for others to learn from and be shared with others.”

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