Monday, April 7, 2014

Kent State Shootings Live On

Ohio National Guardsmen fire tear gas at students.
I’ve been noticing many references to the Kent State Shootings, the May 4, 1970 deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others at the hands of the Ohio National Guard.  For example, recently, a Louisiana State University fraternity had to apologize for making an insulting reference to the event.

Put up prior to an LSU-Kent State football game, students posted a painted bed sheet that read: “getting massacred is nothing to Kent State.”

That was created more than 43 years after the Shootings, yet the event remains fresh even in the minds of students born decades after the tragedy.

In addition, a May 4 welcome center has opened on Kent State campus in northeast Ohio.  Meanwhile, scholars continue to pump out papers, including looks at the multiple songs created after the fusillade to attempts to figure out why the shots were fired in the first place.

May 4 Welcome Center

The steady interest seems strange.  Since 1970, many other major events have occurred in this country, including Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon, the end of the Vietnam War, the collapse of the savings & loans, Operation Desert Storm and the related invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11, the election of the first black president and so much more.

Yet, the memory of Watergate has faded, leaving only the “gate” suffix to mark other scandals.  Who talks about Vietnam anymore?  Nixon is dead; the Oliver Stone movie about him garnered little interest and lost an estimated $21 million.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem far away and get little coverage these days. 
Dr. Lewis

Why does the Kent State Shootings maintain its preeminent position?

Authors Jerry Lewis (my one-time sociology professor) and Thomas Hensley gave three reasons in their 1998 paper titled The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy.

·              The shootings have “come to symbolize a great American tragedy which              occurred at the height of the Vietnam War era, a period in which the nation found itself deeply divided both politically and culturally.”

·              The wounds created by the war have not healed.

·              The Shootings provided a way to learn from the past. “…better ways have to be found to deal with these types of confrontations.”

That’s not as true today.  Wounds have closed.  American veterans have returned to Vietnam and met their counterparts there.  We now have open relations with that country.  Certainly, police agencies have learned how better to cope with rioters, such as happened in California over the weekend when drunken students attacked law enforcement officers.  Pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets substituted for live ammo.

Kent State, however, continues to hold onto public imagination.

Guardsmen open fire.
The main reason relates to the Lewis-Hensley’s first point, but is not limited to the Vietnam War Era.  The divide between sections of the population, highlighted by the war, was irreparably ruptured by the Shootings.

National polls showed that half of Americans thought the students were rioters who deserved to be shot, even after legal proceedings proved there was no riot.  (Actually, we were standing quietly on the Commons when National Guard troops fired tear gas at us.)  Courts also held that the students had the right to meet.

Opponents held to their opinions even after the state of Ohio agreed to pay $675,000 each to the families of the wounded and dead students and issued the following statement:

In retrospect, the tragedy of May 4, 1970 should not have occurred. The students may have believed that they were right in continuing their mass protest in response to the Cambodian invasion, even though this protest followed the posting and reading by the university of an order to ban rallies and an order to disperse. These orders have since been determined by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to have been lawful.

Some of the Guardsmen on Blanket Hill, fearful and anxious from prior events, may have believed in their own minds that their lives were in danger. Hindsight suggests that another method would have resolved the confrontation. Better ways must be found to deal with such a confrontation.

We devoutly wish that a means had been found to avoid the May 4th events culminating in the Guard shootings and the irreversible deaths and injuries. We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted.

At the same time, the Shootings led to complete distrust of government officials.  Previously, they had largely been held in high esteem.  John F. Kennedy, for example, had been a model for Americans.  Lyndon Johnson had been responsible for getting the Civil Rights Act approved, ending legal discrimination against women as well as against African-Americans. 

That changed after the Nixon Administrations comments against Kent State protestors; the loss of the video taken of the shootings; the failure to identify individual shooters or explain why they shot; Today, the anti-government sentiment continues unabated.

So does the chasm between parts of this population.  Liberals were seen as coddling protesting students while conservatives wanted the law-and-order of a dimly imagined earlier era.  The liberal-conservative split radiates through all aspects of society, reflected in highly partisan elections and dire claims made by both sides.

In many ways, Kent State was a demarcation point between eras, the breaking point from the past to the present.  There have been many before: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Depression, World War II and 9/11.  The Kent State shootings were different, however.  Americans died, shot by other Americans. 

The aftershocks still linger.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus, a graduate of Kent State University, usually writes about religion and religious 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

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