Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kent State Shootings Tied to Other Historical Events

Tear gas before the shots were fired
Every year around the beginning of May, like now, I start to get a twinge.  The May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University are seared into my memory.  Even when the bullets were being fired just yards south from where I was standing, I realized that the event was historic.

It’s hard to believe the shootings took place 43 years ago.

Then, amid what started out as an anti-Vietnam War protest, Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of students, killing four and wounding nine others.   Historians have called it the first shooting on American civilians since the Boston Massacre in 1770. 

That’s not quite true: in 1770, there were no American citizens.  The country wasn’t born until 1776.  Moreover, American troops were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, which led to the deaths of several people.  In addition, Washington, D.C., police attacked U.S. veterans living in a so-called “Hooverville” in 1932. Two of the campers were killed.  Later, an estimated 55 vets were injured when the Army besieged the camp and dispersed the residents.  At least one death was reported.

In that light, Kent State represents a further continuation of government attacks on citizens protesting against its policies.

Each of these dramatic events had a lingering effect on this country’s history. 

Boston Massacre as seen by an artist
The Boston Massacre took place when British troops were sent to enforce the Townsend Acts -- passed to raise money to cover costs of officials and to prove that the English Parliament could tax the colonies -- and fired on protesting Americans.

Five people died, giving the rebellious colonialists their first martyrs.  As news spread, the State Street Massacre (as it was known then) galvanized public opinion and united the 13 colonies.  The shootings led directly to the Revolutionary War.

It had a secondary effect of underlining American belief in laws.  Future President John Adams defended in the soldiers accused of shooting into the mob.  The captain and six of the men were found innocent by an American jury in two separate trials.  Only two were convicted despite the overwhelming emotion, emphasizing the American demand by both justice and fairness.

Both are still hallmarks of American jurisprudence.

Artist view of the Whiskey Rebellion
In the Whiskey Rebellion, President George Washington sent in troops to Pennsylvania to enforce an unpopular tax on whiskey, a tax that hit poor people particularly hard.  Then, drinking hard liquor was endemic because rivers were often too polluted.   

Two distinct lessons grew from the event.  First, the government showed that it would enforce its laws against American citizens.  That helps explain why National Guard troops were sent to Kent State.  At the same time, the Rebellion revealed that poor people would protest laws passed by wealthy lawmakers.

That willingness has not dissipated over time.

Veterans face off against troops.
The military assault of the massive veteran’s camp in the capitol also had a long-term effect.  It led directly to the G.I. Bill, which helped millions of returning World War II soldiers and established the precedent that American veterans have earned economic and psychological support in their return to civilian life.

Kent State also had several long-term impacts that still affect us.  It created such pressure on the Government that, eventually, this country was forced to leave Vietnam.  It split this country into conservative and liberal camps, a status unchanged in the succeeding decades.  It generated fear and hatred of the U.S. government, which had been widely supported before.  That suspicion of government actions and motives has not subsided since.
Ohio Guardsmen open fire.

The Kent State shootings changed attitudes toward education and careers.  It launched the “me” generation into the self-serving approach that evolved into insider trading scandals and other frauds.

As with the other climatic events that preceded it, the shootings became a watershed in American history.

All of these significant events are worth remembering even if their reverberations didn’t still echo in our lives.  If nothing else, they remind us what can happen if we ignore the past.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion, religious history and, occasionally, American history.  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.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

No comments:

Post a Comment