Friday, May 4, 2012

After the Kent State Shootings

Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the deaths of four students at Kent State University.  I remember that day extremely well.  After the Ohio nation Guard stopped firing and marched away, I heard a lot of shouting.  Student journalists poured in to the student newspaper office to relate what they had seen.

Then, abruptly, we were told to go home.  I don’t recall how authorities relayed the information, but we all knew.

I didn’t have a car, but my girlfriend, Karen, did.  A few friends were in the same stranded position, so we gathered as many as possible, jammed them into a car and headed out.  To go to Canton, our first stop, we maneuvered through traffic.  We could see the grim-faced residents of Kent on porches.  At least one seemed to have a shotgun at the ready as if we were about to attack.

Once home, I began to read newspaper stories and TV accounts of the shootings.  They were fascinating in how much was distorted from what I had seen and experienced.  The Guard claimed someone on the roof of Taylor Hall aimed at them.  The person they cited was a friend, Jerry Stoklas, who was a photographer with a long lens.  If that was their alibi, it was very weak.

Songs were written – “Four Dead in Ohio” being the most successful.  More than 465 universities nationwide closed in protest.  Meanwhile, Nixon Administration officials like Vice President Spiro Agnew (right) eagerly attacked students with a variety of dictionary-worthy epithets. 

None of us could go to classes, so professors came to us.  Each sent us material to do at home.  One professor in my religious history class excused me from further study, noting that if I knew the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, there was no point.  An English teacher required a long list of essays.  I did them, only to get a letter back saying no one else did.  So, he dropped the assignment. To my chagrin, I got a B anyway.

A third English professor set up a meeting at his Kent home.  I went.  We met in the backyard for the final exam.  It had a series of impossible questions on poets Shelley and Keats.  However, the last question asked our opinion of the impact of the shootings on our lives and with a note that anyone who answered any of the previous questions would get an F.

I went to graduation to see friends get their diplomas.  Famed author James Michener (right) was the guest speaker.  Midway through his boring comments about how college students should behave, he accidentally dropped his sheaf of papers.  As he bent down to pick them up, an old woman in front of me stood up and yelled: “We don’t want to hear it.”  Unfazed, and maybe hard of hearing, Michener finished anyway.

After Michener stopped, a young man walked up to the podium and started to speak.  A few moments later, security hustled him away.  A member of the skydiving team, he said later that he thought Michener deserved a response.

I was editor of the school’s daily newspaper in the fall.  It would eventually win the award as the top college newspaper in the country for the school year 1970-1971.  By then, I was persona non grata on campus and beyond.

On campus, we caused trouble. For starters, we covered everything, including hearings about the shootings as well as a decision by President Robert White to cancel a planned gathering by the African-American students.  We ran the story with the headline “White Bans Black Homecoming.”  The administration responded by telling faculty to deny the story was true.  I was asked about it in class and confirmed it was true.  The proof? The homecoming program was never held.

In addition, for no apparent reason, a student from Bowling Green University interviewed me and wrote a story that I said I saw someone with a gun on campus on May 4.  No, that was in the fall, after we returned to school.  I had to explain that to President White.

Then, there was Michener, who published a book about Kent State.  It included a ton of information, most of it drawn from interviews of students.  One of the chief sources was a colleague of mine on the daily newspaper.  She made it all up.  When we confronted her about that, she whined: “I didn’t think he’d believe me.”  Michener did.

I had a chance to interview him for a PBS program.  He admitted he had not vetted any of his sources nor knew what happened after the shootings.  The director asked me to stop asking questions after that.

Then, two Cleveland writers wrote a book about the shootings and promoted it as “two young college students who were there.”  The only thing true about that statement was the word “two.”  They even cribbed material from a column I wrote, but didn’t bother with niceties like quote marks or citations.  One, Joe Eszterhas, (left) was later let go by the Cleveland Plain Dealer allegedly for unrelated plagiarism, but carved out a nice niche as Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter.

Both of them showed up in the student newspaper office, screaming mad because we reported how they had lied to promote the book.  Eszterhas’ partner, Ned Whalen, later refused to work with me when I was hired as a reporter at the Plain Dealer, and I lost that job.  I did write for him later, however, when he was editor of Cleveland Magazine.

The quarter was made more interesting by visiting reporters from Newsweek and the New York Times, who frequented out office.  We adopted a plastic cow udder as our symbol.  It was included in a   Pink Floyd album.  No one could stand the music, but we liked the udder.  We used it somewhere in every staff picture.

In a spring, I wrote a story about how the campus police chief had used students to infiltrate the student protest groups and instigate problems.  The conservative editor then buried the story on page 6, making the best read page 6 in the newspaper’s history.

None of that compared to the legal front: no one in the Guard was ever found guilty of killing anyone.  The families of the dead students were never compensated.  At least one parent of a wounded student lost his seat on a city council in the next election because of his son’s role in the shootings.  

One student was convicted of rioting, but only because he was in jail for being drunk, and prosecutors tacked on an extra charge.

The university was affected: enrollment plummeted from 21,000 students to about 14,000.  Its image was now permanently cemented as the place where students were shot and killed.

The administration objected to any memorial program the next year, but author Mark Lane and poet Allen Ginsberg (right) came anyway.  Ginsberg gathered students around him and tried to levitate while perched in the corner of the Commons, but failed to get off the ground.

Today, there’s an annual commemoration on campus as well as plaques to mark the place where students were killed 42 years ago.  An area behind Taylor Hall has been set aside for quiet contemplation amid trees with bullet holes in them.

The local Akron Beacon-Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.  Student photographer John Filo won the Pulitzer Prize for his iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio crying over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed that day.

Those awards are long since forgotten.  However, the impact of the shootings still affects American society, echoing down the years since the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students after what started out as a small protest against the Vietnam War three days earlier.

The first impact was immediate: more than 460 schools closed nationwide.  There was a spontaneous impact on education as well as the normal life of this country.  The disruptions eventually forced the White House to do something about the war.  President Richard Nixon announced the “Vietnamization” of the fighting, which largely consisted of turning over control to inept Vietnamese leaders.  It failed; we eventually pulled out rapidly and in disgrace.

Divisions within society deepened. Many people refused to believe that students simply didn’t want to fight in a country more than 12,000 miles away and insisted the protest movement was a Communist plot.  For example, in the fall, as editor of the student newspaper, I was invited onto a radio call-in radio show with my managing editor, Jim Nichols.  A caller accused us of taking money from Cuba to riot.  Both of us looked at each other.  We were paying our own way through school and probably had $10 between us.  I told the caller I wished Cuba was paying us; we could use the financial help.

In addition, education was altered completely.  A national survey taken prior to the Shootings showed that 70 percent of students attended a university for an education, not a career.  The same survey taken in the fall after the shootings showed that most students went to school to get training for a job, reversing the basic tenet of high education that had been the base of western educational systems for nearly 1,000 years.
The students of the Kent State Shootings era turned into the “Me generation” a decade later.  They were responsible for the variety of money-oriented scandals that rocked the financial world.

The Shootings also seemed to let the steam from the anti-war movement. Anti-war protests locally and nationally taper down.  The last major protest on the Kent State campus occurred a few years later: students marched in opposition to pay toilets in downtown Kent. 

At the same time, distrust of government expanded rapidly and continues as a prominent feature of American life.  Americans had trusted their presidents.  They may have disagreed politically, but motives and patriotism were not in question. In 1960, the election of youthful John F. Kennedy (left) seemed a cornerstone to a great American future.  His assassination in 1963 dampened the mood.  The brutality unleashed against Civil Rights marchers continued the process of depressing American optimism.  The further murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy added to the pervading gloom.

The Shootings sealed that attitude.

Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson could – and did – get away with a variety of foibles.  Johnson once cautioned reporters to avoid any mention if they saw him leaving one of the bedrooms used by women guests in the White House.  Kennedy’s many affairs were not reported until long after.

Today, even a minor foible turns into a top story.

The president has become an opponent, someone to be investigated relentlessly to block nefarious actions.  As it turned out, both President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were forced to resign within four years of the Shootings as the result of unrelated events.  The relentless probe of president actions has continued with the pervading feeling that anything done somehow can't be in the best interest of the country.

At the same time, the FBI lost its sterling reputation.  When it reported that the lone video of the Shootings had disappeared, knowing students simply nodded their heads.  The FBI was seen as the enemy, not as brave upholders of American ideals.  The attitude toward the FBI has not changed since 1970.

Like the Civil War and the Great Depression, the Kent State Shootings marked a clear dividing line in American history.  The largest bulge in American population reached adulthood around the time of the Shootings.  They had grown up with Hippies (left), Flower Power, Yippies, the Beatles and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius – from the daring nude musical Hair – only to discover nothing was so rosy. Disillusioned, they turned inward.  Vitality drained out of this country.

Today, 42 years later, the Kent State Shootings garner only a few lines in the history books.  There’s an historic plaque on the campus, an area set aside for quiet contemplation amid trees with bullet holes in them and some markers where the students died.  Nevertheless, the Shootings mark a significant moment in American history.

In many ways, the volley of shots ended the upbeat Baby Boom Era and ushered in a time we inhabit now: a surge in conservative hopes to turn back the clock to an era when society was not disillusioned and deeply split; a rise in religious feelings as a way to escape the overhanging cynicism; and expanding escapism in media as one way to ignore the real world brutally exposed in 13 seconds on the top of Blanket Hill. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion, religious history and current events.  He was an eyewitness to the Kent State Shootings and holds a B.A. and M.A. from KSU.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  You can also follow him on Twitter.


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