This essay appeared in The Valley News titled “May 4, 1970 — -Four Dead in Ohio”
Forty-five years ago on May 4th, at half past noon, I was watching pints of blood flow out of Jeffrey Miller’s head onto the asphalt parking lot of Kent State University. He had been shot by Ohio National Guardsmen during a student protest, not over the Viet Nam war, but over the presence of Guardsmen who had taken over the Kent State campus because of anti Viet-Nam-War protests. It’s a small distinction — -anti-war vs. anti-guardsmen protest — — but a telling one because history gets changed in the telling.
I didn’t know Jeffrey Miller’s name at that moment, although I would work with his mother and the parents of the other three students killed, for the next few years trying to get President Nixon to reverse Attorney General Mitchell who refused to convene a federal grand jury to investigate the shootings. We would eventually get it convened in 1973 when Nixon took his eyes off Kent State to deal with Watergate (the scandal which caused him to resign) and an “acting attorney general” was put in place for just three months. The administration had panicked when the duly appointed attorney general and his assistant attorney general both jumped ship in protest (the “Saturday Night Massacre” it was called) over Nixon’s cover-up in Watergate, and they had to have someone to run the Justice ship. Sounds confusing and it was. History can turn course forever in a simple three months, or in a tiny 13 seconds, the time it took guardsmen to shoot 61 rounds into 13 students at Kent State.
Without that three month temporary attorney general (Robert Bork) no federal grand jury to investigate the Kent State killings would ever have been convened. After a month of taking testimony, that grand jury was disbanded forever by the judge for what he called ‘insufficient evidence’ : A failure to prove there was a “conspiracy” to deprive the Kent State students of their civil rights before the gunshots were fired. No conspiracy, no violation of the law. You could be dead after you were shot by Ohio National Guardsmen, but your civil rights would still be intact, unless the guardsmen had ‘agreed beforehand’ (i.e ‘conspired’) to take your civil rights away. No guardsman has ever spent a mille-second behind bars for killing those students.
I remember watching a national news show the day after the killings and a mother of a college-age boy was being interviewed. Here are her exact words, which I will never forget: “If my son had long hair and sandals he should have been shot too.” That viciousness pinpoints the quality fear and hatred between the generations in 1970. The healing humor of redneck Archie Bunker and his hippie son-in-law, Meathead, in the television series “All in the Family” had not been invented yet. “Never trust anyone over thirty” was the mantra of a generation of kids whose fathers were sending them off to die in Viet Nam. Does anyone remember the Draft?
I didn’t know Jeffrey Miller. But I did know one of the three other students who were dead near my feet in that parking lot: Allison Krause. She ate in the cafeteria of the dorm where I was a graduate counselor, and was conspicuous at 5’10’ tall (a good target in a crowd of shorter students) and conspicuous as a striking brunette beauty with long hair.
She and her boyfriend were the Romeo and Juliet of our dorm complex, always together, always embracing each other. She was dying in his arms while Jeffrey Miller lay dead at my feet, part of his skull blown off. The guardsman’s bullet that hit her exploded on impact and ripped through several vital organs.
Alan Canfora was one of the nine wounded survivors, shot in the wrist. He had been wearing a headband like Jeffrey Miller, and had given the guardsmen an upraised middle finger while waving a black flag, a clear target. He is sixty-five now, and will become a father for the very first time, around this year’s forty-fifth anniversary his facebook page proudly proclaims. He has kept the annual memorial services at Kent State going for all these years.
Sometimes history needs to stand still, if only for a candle to burn in remembrance.
Dean Kahler, the most seriously wounded of the nine survivors has been in a wheelchair for forty-five years. He and I and two other Kent State students drove from Ohio to the Nixon White House for the second time since the shootings, during the Watergate scandal in 1973, to present Nixon with 10,000 Kent State signatures for a federal grand jury — — — petitions which the President clearly did not want . Nixon was “busy Watergating” to quote his aide Leonard Garment, who promised us he would “pass along the petitions to the President.”
Little did we know that, because Nixon had taken his eye off the Kent State ball to deal with the Watergate, we would actually get a grand jury convened. Dean Kahler, who held the heavy cardboard box with those 10,000 signatures in his lap, has been in that wheelchair all these 45 years, including that day in the White House Executive Office Building. It is the closest a Kent State victim ever got to President Nixon, who willfully allowed justice to be delayed. Nixon’s own words after the shooting were bloodless in their coldness; “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” The day before the shootings, Allison Krause, who would die in her boyfriend’s arms, put a flower in a National Guardsman’s rifle and said, “Flowers are better than bullets.” The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko would write a poem dedicated to Allison Krause: He titled it “Flowers and Bullets.”
When I last saw Dean in Boston where we shared a hotel room for the 25th anniversary of the shootings at a memorial held by Emerson College, I became fully aware of the daily difficulties a paraplegic endures, despite the passage of the Americans for Disabilities Act which Dean worked to have made law after his own disability was thrust upon him by Guardsmen’s bullets. Dean still had both his legs at that 25th anniversary, albeit paralyzed. His facebook page today reveals that they have since been amputated ; but it also reveals that he still competes in wheelchair races. He too is in his 60’s now.
When I was watching the blood flow out of Jeffrey Miller’s head, time stopped for me, or rather is seemed to slow down. I suppose that was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) , although that term hadn’t been invented in 1970. There was an eerie silence among the crowd. A faculty marshal was shouting at students to leave the area lest they all be killed. My eyes were so riveted on Jeffrey Miller’s ashen face and the flowing blood that I failed to notice a girl on her knees screaming near the body with her hands upraised. That image became the most famous photo of the anti-war protest movement. It inspired the musical group, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to create what became the rock anthem for that movement, “Four Dead in Ohio”, whose line “Tin soldiers and Nixon comin’ ” rang frighteningly true.
All I could see was death, not the future photo which would imprint itself on the country’s conscience. There was no way anyone could lose this much blood and not be dead, I thought .
I walked calmly, almost in a daze , back to my dorm to call my parents in Connecticut to tell them I was alive. When I found that the phones were dead, I thought, “I am trapped” and I got in my car and drove out of town with only the clothes on my back. (Cell phones had not yet been invented.)
I noticed telephone lines on the ground as I drove out of Kent, being “repaired, ” Or were they being disconnected to cut off the students from the “outside agitators” which Ohio’s governor, James A. Rhodes, claimed were coming to the Kent campus? That fear-mongering was the governor’s pretext for having sent in the National Guard two days before : “They’re worse than the Brownshirts, and the Communist element, and also the Night Riders, and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America and we’re not going to let them take over campus,” Governor Rhodes had declared. He was running for the U.S. Senate and this rhetoric made him look tough. I did not find a working phone for ten miles.
The National Guard and the FBI took over the campus immediately after the shootings and ordered 18,000 resident students to leave at once; buses were brought in to ferry them away The campus had been emptied by nightfall on May 4th, 1970. I was a bit sick to my stomach. I drove to Cleveland where a family I had met only once took me in.
Every room on campus was searched for “weapons”. One of my RA’s ( resident advisors) was a geology major in Manchester Hall, a dorm where I was a counselor. His geology rock collection was confiscated by the FBI and later appeared as evidence on a display table set up by the local Portage County grand jury for the press to photograph, evidence that students had been harboring “weapons” in their dorms to injure the National Guardsmen. Authorities (including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) were desperate to prove that the guardsmen had acted in self-defense in killing four ivory-tower children of American mothers on an apple-pie Ohio campus.
That Portage County kangaroo-court grand jury flabbergasted the press further by exonerating the guardsmen for the killings and indicting students and faculty for creating an atmosphere of violence which led to the shooting. One of the students indicted was Craig Morgan, President of the Kent State Student Body. He was also an ROTC cadet. History is often made up of absurdities, and this was one of them: The students caused themselves to be shot according to the local grand jury.
While hippies and yippies chanted “ Seig heil Judge Jones” I stood outside the Portage County courthouse in 30 degree weather carrying a home-made sign saying “$137,000 of your tax money is being WASTED.” I was wearing a three piece suit to show the public I was respectable, even if I did have a beard — -a symbol of protest and rebellion in 1970. It snowed while I stood there so I built a snowman to hold my sign.
The closest student killed was 263 feet from a Guardsman. Let’s assume he or she (two of the fatalities were girls) had a rock as a weapon. Even the best pitcher in baseball couldn’t throw a rock 263 feet with menacing accuracy. The local grand jury didn’t care. And neither did the U. S. Attorney General. It is worth noting here that Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, himself a lawyer, is on record as saying that in his opinion the Kent State killings “are at least second degree murder.”
I am sorry to report that two years before the Kent State killings, three male students were shot in the back and killed by state troopers at South Carolina State University at Orangeburg during anti-segregation protests. The students were black, and were soon forgotten.
And eleven days after the Kent State killings, three students were killed by local and state police at Jackson State College in Jackson Mississippi in an anti-war student protest. They too were black, and they too were soon forgotten.
The Kent State students were white and were remembered vividly for decades. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young saw to that. So did the famous photo of Jeffrey Miller with the screaming girl kneeling beside him .
Not the bigotry of Orangeburg or Jackson State, , but the passage of time, has finally diluted Kent State, a name which now sounds to modern ears like Iwo Jima sounded to my ears fifty years ago, a distant event, inked in on the pages of a history book. There is no blood left in the words “Kent State” at all.
And I suppose that is a blessing. How could we live in a world where over 60 million people were killed in a single world war, if we carried their blood on our hands throughout our lives? The amnesia of history, its ability to white-out guilt and shame , is probably a psychological necessity to assure the continuance of humanity.
I wish I could tell you the American system worked and justice was done for the dead and wounded who lay bleeding around my feet on the parking lot at Kent State forty-five years ago. No, it was not justice : It was just dumb luck.
Nixon took his eye off his three-month-old acting- attorney general, who somehow allowed a federal grand jury to squeak through the Justice Department’s politically clenched iron fist. Did he intend it — -did he even know it? That three-month ‘temp, Acting Attorney General, Robert Bork, was himself later rejected as being too conservative when nominated for the Supreme Court. One wonders about his motives. Or perhaps he was a real lawyer, simply following the law, Watergate or no Watergate.
I left Kent State late in 1973 and went on to Yale University Divinity School to try to understand what kind of divine power would allow unarmed students to be maimed and killed by armed, uniformed officers in America. I never found an answer to that question.
By 1977, seven years after the killings, I arranged for the largest collection of Kent State archives related to the shootings to be donated not to Kent State Library which refused to guarantee to protect them. Remember, Kent State was funded by the State of Ohio after all, a state which was being sued by the parents of the dead students in a civil lawsuit after the federal criminal grand jury was dismissed by the judge, so it was absurd to think Kent State would agree in writing to protect documents which might be used in evidence against their own funding-source: Ohio .
No, the archives would go not to Kent State — where they rightfully belonged, historically speaking — — but to Yale University instead, which not only guaranteed to protect them but to put them in their Manuscripts and Archives Division at Sterling Memorial Library. Yale has one of the great libraries of the world with over fifteen million volumes. The donation is called the Kent State Collection at Yale and can be found on the Internet today.
I have often said since then that getting the archives donated to Yale instead of to Kent State was the only justice the parents of the dead would ever receive : Poetic justice.
There has not even been the slim satisfaction of a poetic justice for those slain black students at Orangeburg and Jackson State during these forty-five years of honoring the white Kent State dead.
How long will it be before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice are lost to such white-outs of history ? Or as demography changes, and people of color become the American majority, are such white-outs on their way out ?
I suspect sadly, that, black or white, history will continue to be written in blood, not in ink.