On this day in 1970 I was 16 years old and looking forward to my summer vacation as I was about to enter my senior year in high school. On the minds of most of us at that point was the need to prepare for college or face the prospect of being drafted. I had been following the anti- war music and movement for several years and the thoughts of weekends at the South Jersey shore, girls, and football camp combined to at least postpone the dreadful prospects of fighting a war for a year or so.
The sight of college students lying dead on the ground, having been shot by National Guard troops, both sides composed of kids barely older than myself, struck me like a bolt of lightning.
Then, Kent State happened. The sight of college students lying dead on the ground, having been shot by National Guard troops, both sides composed of kids barely older than myself, struck me like a bolt of lightning. Even though Walter Cronkite did his best to bring the Vietnam War into our living rooms each night with the ever constant reminder in the upper right hand corner of the screen of the number of Americans killed in action that day, Southeast Asia was far away, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia all countries that might as well have been on another planet. But on May 4, 1970, they all conspired to inject a grim reality into the world of high school upperclassmen and college bound students who sought refuge in these presumptively safe academic havens.
Those in my generation, at least those from places like Philadelphia, New York, Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, DC and metropolitan areas throughout the country had witnessed race riots and cities on fire, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK. Many of us were caught up in the white flight from the cities to the suburbs, a monumental attempt to keep such upheaval at arms length, only to have four white kids killed on a college campus while exercising their right to question authority. The shelters we had found so reassuring were cracking, and walls were falling down all around us. We simply could not hold back the encroaching reality of a world coming apart at the seams. That is what Kent State meant to many of us. We would soon be faced with the prospect that we would be called upon, and in some cases forcibly commanded, to engage in senseless violence that previously seemed so far away.
As fate more than anything else would have it, the graduating class of 1971 would largely escape the draft and the war. Those of us who escaped conscription by attending college only narrowly escaped military service due to public pressure to end hostilities in Vietnam, but the images of Kent State, and the haunting music of Neil Young crying out “Four Dead in Ohio” forced us to reexamine our ability and responsibility to challenge authority. As the seventh anniversary approached I was a graduate assistant at Temple University teaching my political science students to do just that, question authority, and they challenged me to join in a pilgrimage to Kent, Ohio to join thousands of college students from across the country to protest the university’s decision to build a gymnasium near the site of the massacre. We loaded on a chartered bus late on the evening of the 3rd of May across from City Hall in Philadelphia for the all night ride to Kent State. There were kids from many Philly schools: Temple, Penn, Drexel, St. Joe’s, La Salle, Villanova, and most of them would have been in grammar school at the time of the shootings. But the passion was infectious and the energy level was palpable.
We sang songs into the night, the soft scent of marijuana wafting through the bus as we bounded across the Pennsylvania Turnpike into Ohio and as dawn approached on what would be a cold, rainy day we entered the bucolic campus and joined busloads from California to Louisiana and everywhere in between.
Famed Defense Attorney William Kunstler, activist/comedian Dick Gregory, and wounded Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic spoke to us that day and we marched from the iconic Victory Bell through the campus and down Blanket Hill, where the bullets rained down upon unsuspecting students seven years earlier, killing 4 and wounding 9, and plowed through the temporary fencing that had been erected around the gymnasium construction site. All the while police, military, and FBI agents with high powered equipment, including weapons and cameras captured the activities from the rooftops of campus buildings. I was interviewed by
a Cleveland television station on a raw and intimidating day. After the chanting, speeches, marching, and general camaraderie engendered for a cause that was still both relevant and larger than all of us we boarded the bus for the long trip back home. While tired, the passion of the discussion about the importance of the day’s events kept us up as we bounced back across the PA Turnpike.
The need to mobilize and energize our youth today is as important as it was then. There is a glimmer of hope in the spike in youthful activity surrounding the Bernie Sanders’ campaign and it is important to capture that exuberance and direct it to the presumptive Democratic candidate
Joe Biden. Cities are not on fire but economic and social inequality is destroying the very fabric of our society today much as civil rights did a half century ago. We are currently involved in a public health war that in 12 weeks has caused more American deaths than in 12 years in Vietnam.
In the 1960s Michael Harrington wrote about “The Other America,” and towards the end of the decade the Kerner Commission warned about the creation of two Americas—one black and one white. Today we are confronting the wildly disparate fortunes of the 1% versus the 99%. It is long past time to question the direction our nation has taken and demand a major course correction. Kent State would and should haunt us and force us to flatten the curve of social and economic injustice and ensure that the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice. Kent State will be with us forever.