Battling Over a Deadly Past

By Tom Grace
May 4, 2005

Thirty-five years ago today, National Guardsmen, ordered to Kent State University by Ohio Governor James Rhodes, fired into a crowd of bystanders and unarmed students protesting the US invasion of Cambodia. Sixty-seven shots struck thirteen people, killing four. Historians remember the clash as the deadliest campus confrontation of the long sixties.

Whether one's understanding of what happened on May 4, 1970 has been shaped by popular culture, educational instruction, personal memory or, as in my own case, direct experience, the killings are today associated with a single photograph: John Filo's now iconic image of an anguished girl kneeling over the lifeless body of a slain student, Jeffrey Miller, lying in a pool of blood. Yet other photos make the record more complete; a cohort of Guardsmen discharging their weapons from a top a hill; or the lone student, Alan Canfora, waving a black flag at the same Guardsmen minutes beforehand.

Filo's photo—which seemed to capture the profound anger of those whose years of previous efforts to stop the war had proved futile—helped propel millions of students to shut down their campuses in protest against their government. Many participants in this nationwide generational strike later went on to careers in journalism or academia, and just as John Filo made use of a darkroom, they used their newsrooms and classrooms to sustain the memory of Kent State— as an example of both the abuse of state power and the power of collective action.

If the killings generated solidarity among students, others such as Robert C. Dix, Kent's small-town publisher of The Record-Courier, took their cues from Governor Rhodes and Richard Nixon's White House, and spread hostility towards youthful dissenters. Along with groups like the American Legion, they incited a backlash that soon surfaced in opinion polls showing that most of the nation sided with the National Guard. The most extreme man-in-the-street sentiment: "They should have shot 400 more."

Investigations by several newspapers, the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, and even the FBI, largely absolved the students and faulted the Guardsmen. Such findings diminished, but did not eliminate, the enmity directed at Kent's students. In Ohio, hatreds produced by the shootings persist. The gunfire of 1970 is likely to echo for generations to come.

While bitterness lingers, memories fade, aided in no small part by the conscious efforts of those who want to erase the legacy of Kent State. In 1977, only seven years after the shootings occurred, the university built a gymnasium annex on the site where some students fell. Throughout the 1980s, activists battled the administration over the construction of a fitting memorial to those who died, while just days after President Bush declared combat to be over in Iraq, authorities in Kent arrested protestors who had participated in a May 4th observance when they marched in opposition to the war. Conservative students at KSU utilize the school newspaper to condemn what they term the "politicization" of the remembrance and have, on one occasion, blocked a funding allocation for the annual memorial tribute.

When Alan Canfora—wounded on May 4th shortly after his photo was taken—was invited in 2003 to participate in a Ohio bicentennial ceremony at a county fair, Kent's current newspaper publisher orchestrated a successful campaign to have Canfora disinvited. Better "to celebrate the harvest… small business, and the all important work of farming," wrote publisher David Dix, than involve a person who was "a lightning rod" over the Vietnam War.

Of course, history has always been used as a weapon in the battle for power. Decades ago, Kent State was one front of a national struggle over the war in Southeast Asia. Many conservatives would assign that moment to oblivion, or wrap its hard truths in the gauze of myth. But other Americans, like me, will continue to insist on remembering it for what it was— a time when a generation stood together to register their forceful dissent against the governments reckless pursuit of an unnecessary war.

Tom Grace, who was shot through the foot on May 4, 1970, holds a Ph.D. in American history and is teaching this semester at Cornell's School of Industrial & Labor Relations in Buffalo, N.Y.