May 4 – Kent State – Never Forget

I’m sure I’ll get an email from former coworker and friend. John J. Lopinot today. It’s going to be short and simple. “Never Forget.” He sends me one every year.

May 4 is the day when the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University. I promised more in 2012 after doing a big piece in 2010. To be honest, May 4 snuck up on me and you’re just going to get a smattering of photos this year.

Looks like a nice spring night

I’m not sure what caused the big turnout in front of Ohio University’s Baker Center Student Union on May 1, 1970. It might have been Mother’s Weekend. Or it could have just been a nice warm spring night after a nasty winter. There are lots of shorts and short sleeves in the picture. The crowd seems to be just hanging out. (You can click any photo to make it larger.)

Here comes trouble

Despite what you might think, not every student in the ’60s was a long-haired peacenik freak. OU was a fairly conservative campus with an active Greek community that was even more conservative than the average student.

I’m not exactly sure who these guys are or what caused them to go marching down the street looking like something out of Gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s pretty obvious that they’re looking to kick some serious hippie ass.

There had been a batch of nuisance dumpster fires for several days and there was one here that night, so that might have been what prompted the confrontation.

Fight broke out

Without much warning, one of the most violent student-on-student confrontations I covered at OU broke out. It didn’t last long and the combatants were separated fairly quickly, but it was heated while it lasted

Students have short attention spans

Just as quickly as it started, it was over. Long-haired and short-haired students joined in to pitch the trash back into the dumpster and everybody went back to enjoying the evening.

Kent State erased the boundaries

What does a minor student brawl have to do with May 4?

The killings at Kent State unified the campus. Petty differences between cliques and classes were set aside when students realized that this wasn’t a game anymore.Straights and radicals; faculty members and students, young and old all pulled together in this memorial gathering on the Main Green the morning after the killings.

Neil Young captured the mood perfectly in his song, Ohio:

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming

Four dead in Ohio.”

Earlier stories about protests




5 Replies to “May 4 – Kent State – Never Forget”

  1. I always found it odd that the press never accurately reported what happen to a few soldiers in the Guard that day a person can take just so much then you pop.

    1. Just what was unreported by the press that would justify gunning down unarmed students?

      The first radio report I heard, reflecting the bias of the area and the times, was that it had been the National Guardsmen who had been shot.

      Of the four killed and nine wounded students, the closest was 71 feet away; most were at least 300 feet away and one was 750 feet away. Either the guardsmen were lousy shots who couldn’t hit the closer targets who “put them in fear for their lives” or they were firing indiscriminately at kids who were several football field lengths away from them.

      The real culprit in the affair was Ohio Gov. Rhodes who held a table-thumping law-and-order press conference in Kent on May 3 and characterized the student protesters as “worse than the Brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America. We’re going to eradicate the problem, we’re not going to treat the symptoms.”

      That speech was widely broadcast, including into the National Guard’s bivouac area on the Kent State campus, something that was thought to give tacit approval, if not encouragement, to the shootings that would happen the next day. Rhodes was two days away from a tight primary race and he was hoping to fire up his base.

      The official Scranton report concluded that the gunfire from the Ohio National Guard was “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” That’s not the media saying that, it was President Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest.

  2. I’m one of many who will always remember that day. It was my first year of teaching at a university with students who looked just like the ones who were shot.

  3. I’m sure the protestors had their hearts in the right place and were trying to make the world a better place but….Any time you try to face down a man with a loaded gun you have to expect the worst and hope for the best. You are dealing with ‘weekend warriors’ (no disrespect intended) who are called up at the last minute and put into an unusual situation of trying to corral people who are taunting you to “Do Something About it”, someone in the hundred guardsmen there will be a human being and make a mistake. Some how we are demonizing good people as aggressive, mean, trigger happy, unfeeling. It’s one thing to protest. It’s another to try and cause trouble. Destroying things, lighting things on fire, throwing objects at others is not ‘in control’ protesting. Yet you expect the guardsmen to stay ‘in control’. Very unfair in my opinion when you say the Ohio National Guard killed four and wounded nine as though the guardsmen acted in concert to intentionaly shoot them.

    1. Dick, I spent way too many hours at these protests. I thought the majority were well-meaning, but naive. Guys quickly figured out that you had a better chance at getting luck after a rousing demonstration than the second-best way, an old-fashioned tent revival.

      There were jerks, too. Two cops and I were standing on campus having a conversation when a big chuck of concrete block fell between us that had been dropped from a rooftop. After the chased the guy down and arrested him, I said, “You’re lucky they were the guys with guns and I was armed with a camera, because I’d have shot you off the roof of that building and not shed a tear when you hit the ground.”

      Having said that, the national guard had just come off a bitter truckers’ strike where they had encountered real violence. Agnew and Ohio Gov. Rhodes were playing to their base trying to whip up anger and resentment, and that message was conveyed to the guardsmen. That’s why I blame Rhodes more than the guys with the guns.

      Nobody ever figured out who gave the order to fire, or if there WAS an order. There was no fire control. If they were in fear for their lives, why didn’t they take out the threats instead of someone who was 71 feet away, outside of rock-throwing range? How could an unarmed student 750 feet away be a threat?

      I see the event as being a failure of leadership at the highest political levels: Nixon, Agnew, Rhodes. I see it at the Guard officer level for failing to train the troops in crowd control and maintaining discipline. And, if you argue that the students had it coming, then I fault the guard leadership for not teaching better marksmanship.

      If I remember correctly, between 61 and 67 rounds were fired, and they only scored four dead and nine wounded. Most of them were at least a football-length away, so they did a lousy job or target selection.

      There’s plenty of blame to go around, but students were the only ones killed at Kent State and Jackson State. Never heard of Jackson State? Here’s an account.

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