Across the country, as Americans practice social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, graduation ceremonies are moving from grand auditoriums and campus greens to the virtual space. The commencement at Kent State University is likewise moving online, which normally wouldn’t be all that extraordinary. Except that this year, the school was set to commemorate 50 years since the last time graduation didn’t happen after National Guard troops fired upon a crowd on campus, killing four and wounding nine others.
For the past half-century, Kent State has been trying to live down those 13 seconds of bloodshed on Monday, May 4, 1970. Five days prior, President Richard Nixon publicly stated the Vietnam War had expanded into Cambodia, sparking unrest at college campuses nationwide, including at Kent State, a teacher’s college in Northeast Ohio that had a small, but particularly militant, chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. That Friday night, protestors broke windows and threw bottles at police cars. The next day, the ROTC building on campus was set ablaze; arson was suspected, but nobody was ever apprehended. Local officials asked that the university close down, but Ohio Governor James Rhodes—who himself was running in a contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate—called in the National Guard.
A noon rally was set for Monday, May 4. National Guard troops fired tear gas at the crowd, which included some people throwing rocks at the soldiers, and appeared to be falling back before several Guardsmen, explained at the time as a moment of panic and fear for their lives, fired a total of 67 shots from M-1 rifles at the students—some protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and some just on their way to class. Four students, Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, were killed and nine more were injured.
That evening, White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler read a statement dictated by Nixon himself:
This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy. It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the Nation’s campuses—administrators, faculty, and students alike—to stand firmly for the right that exists in this country to dissent and just as firmly against the resort to violence as a means of such expression.
Three days after the shootings, a general student strike occurred across the country, with nearly 4 million people walking out of class. On May 14, at Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi, National Guard troops and local law enforcement fired more than 150 shots into a dormitory—responding, they said, to sniper fire. (No evidence of sniper fire was ever found.) Phillip Gibbs, a student at Jackson State, and James Green, a high school student, were killed in the barrage.
The Kent State shooting remains a watershed moment in American history. It sparked a nationwide student strike shortly thereafter and reverberated throughout the final years of the Vietnam War and the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. Folk rockers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young quickly released a song about the shootings. The incident was also regarded as a seminal moment in the founding of the band Devo—many of whom were from the area; founding member Jerry Casale was in the crowd during the shootings.
But for decades afterward, both the university and the town of Kent had a complicated relationship with the event. Civil and criminal cases resulting from the shootings wound their way through the courts in the ’70s, and the university sponsored commemorations for the first five years after the shootings but stopped—and then built a gym on part of the parking lot where students were wounded and killed. The university commissioned a sculpture by pop artist George Segal, then refused to display his creation, “Abraham and Isaac.” (It’s now at Princeton University.) The school even tried to rebrand itself as “Kent” because the next word in many people’s minds after “Kent State” was “shootings.”
“It was very contentious for a couple decades,” says Chic Canfora, a student activist on campus at the time of the shootings, who still lives in Northeast Ohio and has advocated for remembrance. “The university initially wanted to forget what happened and just make those of us who wanted to talk about it and heal and educate others about it to go away.”
But gradually, the university has come to understand its role in the healing process – and how the Kent State shootings fit into its mission as an educational institution. A museum on campus offers classroom space and displays artifacts related to the event, and incoming freshmen are required to read two books about the shootings: This We Know: A Chronology of the Shootings at Kent State by university professors Carol Barbato, Laura Davis and Mark Seeman; and Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, by two reporters who covered the shootings for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mike Roberts and Joe Eszterhas (yes, THAT Joe Eszterhas).
“It didn’t come easy and it didn’t happen overnight,” Canfora says.
“The dust of history is settling,” says her brother Alan Canfora, who was wounded at the shootings. “Time has been on our side, but the movement for truth and justice has been powerful and protracted. We’ve never given up, and now the university is fully embracing their educational duty.”
In the immediate aftermath and for years afterward, some held the idea that the students at Kent State got what they deserved. According to Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students for the incident; just 11 percent blamed the guardsmen. In Kent State: What Happened and Why, author James Michener recounts the litany of rage-filled letters to local newspapers. “The National Guard made only one mistake,” one said. “They should have fired sooner and longer.” Why would the university want to venerate the victims?
“Middle America was not ready to accept the idea that American soldiers turned their guns on American citizens without having a good reason to do so,” Chic Canfora says.
Rhodes used a common deflection of the time, blaming external agents, comparing protesters to Brownshirts and communist agitators. (It’s worth noting that all 13 people killed or wounded in the shootings were Kent State students.)
Thomas Grace was a student at Kent State and friends with Alan Canfora. They were standing about 20 feet apart when the guardsmen opened fire.
“There was a sense at the time that everyone who was at a college campus in the 1970s was a pampered, spoiled kid,” says Grace, who was injured in the shootings and is now an assistant professor at Erie Community College near Buffalo. Grace notes that at the time, about 10 percent of students at Kent were military veterans, many using GI Bill benefits to attend what was then the second-largest college in Ohio.
But in addition to changing perceptions, the passage of time has also brought with it new information. Documents, once classified, become part of the public record, like a recording made by a student, which was turned over to the FBI and was found decades later at Yale University. A forensic analysis of the audio commissioned by the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed an apparent order to fire, refuting the long-held idea that a guardsman shot out of panic, leading other troops to also fire. And illustrator Derf Backderf, whose graphic novel about the shootings is due out this fall, believes even more was covered up.
“The story you think Kent State is not accurate,” says Backderf, who was a 10-year-old growing up nearby at the time of the shootings. “There are still revelations waiting to happen, and I don’t know if they will happen.”
Carol Cartwright was announced as Kent State president in 1990, the first woman to serve as president of any of Ohio’s state universities. Questions about the shootings, or Kent State’s role in remembering the incident, hadn’t come up at all during her recruitment and interview process, even though the university had just marked the 20th anniversary. That year, a memorial was dedicated on campus, and a formal apology was given by Ohio Governor Dick Celeste. In the university’s mind, it was an endpoint. Alan Canfora says just the opposite.
“That was really the beginning of the healing,” Canfora says, which Cartwright would soon find out herself. Early in her presidency, she issued an internal questionnaire about the university’s mission, organizational development and organizational culture. None of the questions pertained to the shootings—but a lot of the answers did.
“People wrote on the back of the page, in the margins that somebody needed to deal with May 4,” she says. “You really saw the angst over the perceived ambivalence about it. It was either ‘Own it or forget it and move on.’ We couldn’t forget it, so we went to work thinking how we own it in a scholarly way.”
Over time, the university addressed its role as “reluctant custodian of an indelible mark on the American landscape,” as president Beverly Warren said in a 2018 speech. The spots where each of the slain students fell were marked off as memorials. Taylor Hall became home to the May 4 Visitors Center with educational space and displays of artifacts related to the shootings. And the memorials have been planned with help and input from the university itself, as well as students and activists.
As a student at Kent State, Rod Flauhaus helped plan commemorations of the shootings in the 1980s. Now, he’s the project manager for the 50th anniversary commemoration, which had been planned for the past two years. Before the pandemic shut down the nation, it was supposed to be celebrated on a grand scope.
On the schedule was a concert with David Crosby and guitarist Joe Walsh, who was a student at Kent during the shootings and knew some of the victims. Jane Fonda was supposed to speak as well. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to those plans—as well as in person learning, not just at Kent State, but at colleges across America—but a virtual commemoration is planned. The vision of a show of unity in the same spot where blood was spilled a half-century earlier won’t come to pass, but people who can’t be in Kent can take part from across the world.
“We’re at an interesting place,” Flauhaus says. “We’re transitioning from personal memory to history. For the first 50 years, so many people lived through this. It’s sometimes difficult but also sometimes eye-opening.
“And it’s the right thing to do.”