Today is the 46th anniversary of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students at Kent State University protesting President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia as an escalation of the Vietnam War. Four students were killed, and nine were injured in an event that produced a legacy that lives on not only in the memory of students and friends of Kent State and at the May 4 Visitors Center, but also in each and every protest that has taken place since. The events on May 4 (and the days preceding) triggered a widespread movement in which students were frustrated and wanted to change their world from the bounds of their campuses–an idea that persists in student protests even today.
It has been (almost to the date) one year since I last wrote on this topic, in an academic thesis as a culmination of my academic interests and studies. In that work, I examined campus political culture both before and after May 4th on campuses in Northeast Ohio, interested in exploring whether or not the events at Kent State were a catalyst for student political mobilization in the region. My findings, based on a close examination and analysis of university-sanctioned, student publications at that time, concluded that these events had, in fact, resulted in greater occurrence and coverage of political discussion and activities in university newspapers, indicating to me that the editorial staff of these papers determined that these events were newsworthy and of interest to the student body. Additionally, the coverage of these protests indicated that numbers of protest participants had, in fact, increased after students heard of the Kent State Shootings.
Now being one year and almost 2,500 miles removed from my undergraduate thesis, the events at Kent State have taken even greater significance, both in my life and in the events that have transpired in the past year. Historically, Kent State, it turns out, had impacted a larger portion of the country than just the region; this, for example, is a leaflet distributed on my graduate studies campus, the University of Washington, following the events at Kent State. It invites students to the Husky Union Building (the HUB) to discuss the events and come up with a political action plan for their own campus, providing evidence that, over two thousand miles away, students in Seattle felt that the “Four Dead in Ohio” were like four of their own. Today, I see echoes of Kent State everywhere: at a meeting where Black and minority students discuss ways for their campus to be more inclusive; in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Seattle, and other places where citizens gather together in support of breaking down discriminatory practices in their communities; and in the recent discussions of immigration on college campuses (here and here).
As a society, we are still experiencing the legacy of Kent State. We struggle to understand the role that protestors play in a democracy, undermining their cause as being emotional or naïve or, simply, wrong. It is important to understand the events that transpired that day, as well as the legacy that resulted, in order to understand today’s political activity and upheaval. As long as people come together to work to correct the injustices they perceive in their society, the spirit of Kent State–the drive of the student body to change their world–will live on. However, it is our duty to ensure that Four Dead in Ohio does not become Four Dead in Cleveland, Ferguson, New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., or wherever protestors may gather. On May 4, we are reminded of the power of a group of protestors and the horror of violence that was, and continually is, used against them.
In case anyone is interested, here is the full text of my thesis: http://collected.jcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1070&context=honorspapers