We all have special memories of particular moments that meant a lot to us. Perhaps it could be a memory of the death of a loved one. It might be the recollection of a world event with meaning for us. But we can recall where we were and what we were doing when we first heard of the thing which burned the memory into us.
One of those moments for me was hearing of the confrontation of protestors at Kent State University and the Ohio National Guard contingency there. It was on May 4, 1970, a time sensitized by the turbulent sixties, and a time when college campuses were hotbeds of activism.
I don’t recall learning of some events leading up to the “massacre” before it happened. I can now read histories about how the Ohio National Guard came to be on that campus, but have no personal memory of knowing that until the shooting happened. There were various protests across the nation involving human rights and political events along with demonstrations against military presences on campuses.
I probably should have been more aware of the Kent State protests since I had been involved in a similar situation at my university. I was a first-year faculty member at the University of Detroit, and had already been involved in supporting a student sit-in at our Administration Building. A student had entered the career counseling room where job recruiting was done, had sat quietly there for a while, and had then begun a conversation with another student who came in intending to interview with an army recruiter. The protestor suggested that the student he was talking with might want to reconsider the army as a career.
As it turned out later, the two engaged in conversation which was civil and respectful both ways. It was the manager of the career center who was offended and asked the demonstrator to leave. The demonstrator politely refused, citing the fact that the career center was open and available to all students. The manager then called the campus police, who in turn called the city police, who arrested the demonstrator after reading the “riot act.
This was a time when many students had intense dedication to belief systems, and many students began filling up the foyer of the Administration Building. The group of demonstrators included many students who had no problems with military personnel but who wanted to make it clear that they thought the actions of the administration were too high-handed. I spent some time with the students sitting in, and along with other faculty and students gave interviews to local news media. For those who want completion of this event, charges were eventually dismissed against the arrested protestor when the University’s senior administration failed to produce any evidence to the prosecution (intentionally sabotaging the manager?) that the protestor was interfering with the operation of the career counseling center.
Reports of the shooting at Kent State began circulating around mid-afternoon. A few people had radios, but the reports were sketchy and self-contradictory. There was a television in the student center, but the reports over it were as confusing as the rumors and the radio. It was clear that something awful had happened, but it was not clear what it was. The main point was that violence had occurred on a college campus. For communities which had thought of themselves as having a nonviolent sub-society, this was very disturbing and even threatening. Campus apparently did not have a special right to nonviolence.
That evening as the news reports began to clarify the picture of what happened, it became clearer that students at Kent State were killed and wounded by “outsiders,” specifically those called in to maintain order. I recall vividly the looks on the faces of many of those I saw on campus the next day. There was the “stunned,” almost zombie-like look, that I had recognized in 1963 upon the occasion of the assassination of President Kennedy. It fit the description my parents gave me of the looks on people’s faces when they told me of hearing of the bombing of Pearl Harbor or of the death of President Roosevelt.
When the shock began to wear off, it was replaced by fear. Many felt that under the circumstances, there was no place that was safe. If the government could invade and kill people on a college campus, what was to stop them from entering a home and doing the same thing? And for many on college campuses, that fear became anger. There was rage against the local military people on campus – ROTC and military recruiting. Some vandalized military buildings and property. Fortunately none of that was extensive or involved personal injury to anyone.
My reaction was similar to those whose expressed rage. Even though I had committed to a nonviolence position at an early age, I was ready at that point to confront violence with violence. It took a few days of introspection to finally determine “yes, I am violent; but that is not what I want to be.” From there it was possible to look for positive nonviolent ways to react to the situation.
My University joined with another College about a mile away to jointly memorialize what happened at Kent State. Because of my previous efforts on behalf of the students supporting the protestor in our career center, I was asked to give a talk to lead off the memorial. I made the point that those killed at Kent State were not protestors, but merely people who were caught in the fire while walking between classes. I doubted they should be treated as martyrs, but remembered as people who were victims of a violent mentality.
The President of the College was sitting in the front row of the audience, and I noticed him nodding (apparently in approval) from time to time. He had the same stunned look on his face that I had seen so much already. It was one of the few times in my life that I felt a college president had really listened to what I had to say.
The “Kent State Massacre” certainly stood out as a major historical event at the time it occurred. President Nixon referred to the Kent State protestors as “bums.” But the event turned the anti-Vietnam War feeling into hatred of the president. While the downfall of Nixon is rightfully attributed to the Watergate mess, there is no question in my mind that he was also blamed for contributing to a situation where violence was condoned against those who disagreed with him.
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