May 4, 1970
On the morning of Monday, May 4, 1970, I was anxious to attend the rally that was scheduled for the Kent State University commons at noon. It had been a weekend of disorganized protest and disorder both on campus and in the bar-laden downtown section of Kent, Ohio. The protests had started on Friday, one day after Richard Nixon announced he was escalating the Vietnam War into Cambodia.
Many Kent State students were commuters and for them the rally had an air of catching up with what had been happening on campus. The commons is a grassy area in the center of campus. On one end was the ROTC building that had been torched over the weekend. At the other end was a hill and at the top Taylor Hall, the architecture building. To the right of Taylor was Johnson Hall where I was living at the time.
The university administration apparently tried to stop the rally by distributing leaflets that said it was cancelled. My sociology professor, on the other hand, cancelled his class so everyone could attend. The rally never got started as the Ohio National Guard moved in to disperse the gathering. Most of the students, myself included, retreated up the hill to the area behind Taylor Hall. It is there that the shooting took place killing four students and wounding nine.
Despite being in the area I can’t honestly say that I saw what happened. My only recollection was of herding several fellow students into my dorm room which was safe and, being on the second floor, had windows overlooking the area where the shooting took place.
We were soon notified that the building and the entire campus was to be evacuated. I don’t know what I did or what I was thinking for the next hour or two but before long I felt like the last person on campus. As I walked out, taking a circuitous route past Bowman Hall and avoiding the commons, there was no one in sight. I remember carrying an umbrella as it had started to rain and at one point smashing it against a street sign. I walked to a friend’s off campus house where I stayed until I could get a ride to Cleveland Hopkins Airport to head home.
Young vs. Old
The shootings at Kent State put an end to a decade that began with so much optimism and ended with Americans at war with each other. Young vs. old. Black vs. white.
The issue that fueled campus demonstrations and the growth of the radical student movement was the Vietnam War. Many of us who were on the campus of Kent State and every other campus in America at the time would soon have a lottery number put on our heads (mine was 95) that would determine whether or not we would get drafted to head off into an Asian jungle to fight against peasants who our government had decided were the enemy.
The parents of this generation of students might have eventually been able to overlook the whole sex, drugs and rock and roll thing. But many were World War II veterans who served in Europe or the Pacific and raised their baby boomer kids in the home they bought in the suburbs with the GI Bill. What they couldn’t overlook were their sons and daughters on the street chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.” When I arrived home after the shooting in Kent, my father pronounced, “They should have shot them all.”
The student movement grew as the war had dragged on. But they didn’t have many friends other than each other. The “don’t trust anyone over 30” mantra disconnected them with the growing numbers of older Americans who were coming to the same conclusion about the war. While the student left adapted the vernacular of class struggle they in reality made little connection with the working class or the unions that represented them. If you were working in a factory or at a construction site being a student at a place like Berkeley or Columbia looked like a pretty cushy gig.
And while liberal minded whites had long served as participants in many aspects of the civil rights movement, black students were having a generational conflict of their own. They were rejecting the non-violent civil rights movement of their parents and focusing on Black Power. White allies were sometimes unwelcome and at other times viewed with a wary eye.
Black vs. White
The civil rights movement that characterized the first half of the decade achieved at least nominal success. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were signed into law in 1964 and 1965 respectively. That didn’t end discrimination and it didn’t end racism in America. In fact, it got worse. It also became clear that racism was not a Southern problem, but rather an American problem.
It has always bothered me that shortly after the shootings at Kent State a similar incident occurred at the predominately black Jackson State University in Mississippi but the latter never seemed to spark the same level of attention or indignation. James Michener didn’t write a book about Jackson State and Neil Young didn’t sing a song about two dead in Mississippi. The incident was the same, students shot dead while protesting the escalation of the war, in every way but the color of the victims.
Meanwhile blacks, and especially younger blacks, are thinking that while it’s nice to be able to sit in the front of the bus, it doesn’t matter much if you don’t have bus fare and if you don’t have a job to take the bus to. The goal after all wasn’t to hang around with white folks, it was to attain the housing, education and jobs necessary to improve black lives.
America’s race war was most dramatically demonstrated by the urban riots and rebellions that visited virtually every major U.S. city, usually sparked by real or rumored over-aggressive law enforcement. It started in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965, included the riots in Newark and Detroit in 1967 and reached a peak in 120 cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The race wars of the 60’s had a more profound and longer-lasting impact than the war between the generations. White residents fled urban areas as did white-owned business. So did blacks with the wherewithal to get out. The plants, mills and factories that provided inner city jobs packed up and moved out. Inner city schools began a decades long decline. Some cities, like Newark and Detroit, still haven’t recovered.
Nor has America overcome its war between the races. Just a few years after we could proudly point to the fact that we elected a black president, the events in Ferguson, Mo., seemed to thrust us right back into the 60’s, the decade of the gun.