Remembering Kent State

I grew up within 40 miles of Kent State University and was a high school sophomore on May 4, 1970. Students had been demonstrating all weekend against US incursion into Cambodia. Some of it had grown violent, with an ROTC building being burned down and students who engaged in rock-throwing at National Guardsmen sent to keep the peace.  Four students died when the National Guard troops ordered to Kent by then Ohio governor James Rhodes opened fire with lives rounds. Sixty-seven shots were fired. Nine others were wounded.  Two of the four students who died, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, were not part of the demonstrations and were walking to class, nearly 400 feet away. Sandra Scheuer grew up in Boardman, Ohio, a suburb neighboring my home town of Youngstown.

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We were shopping for spring flowers at our local nursery yesterday when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” came on their PA system. The memories came flooding back. Mostly what I remember are three things. One was the day after and walking around as a high school sophomore in shock that this could happen so close to home. Another was that a girl from the Mahoning Valley was among those who died. And the third was fear as I overheard adults who said, “they should have shot more of them.” My hair was kind of long at the time. I wondered how some of them looked at me. That’s an indication of how divided we were as a country at the time over the Viet Nam war and how divided generationally we were.

I find myself reflecting on three things today. One is the importance of responsible dissent. Student dissent did contribute to ending the Viet Nam war and the events at Kent State were part of what caused our nation to pause. Yet not all of the dissent at Kent was responsible. When dissent escalates from words to acts of violence against people and property, we deepen the divides between us. It is also folly to take on an armed force, presuming it won’t act when life and limb are at risk of harm.

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The Guardsmen were also victims that day. They were in a situation for which they were not trained, and they bore the opprobrium of many afterwards, as did returning veterans from the war. It seems that we have learned since to focus more attention on the elders who make such decisions rather than the young men and women who have to put themselves in harm’s way.

Finally, I think about how the war divided our generations. It is not only a case of old men ordering the young into battle. It is what happens when public trust is broken and the keepers of that trust (and those who believe in the keepers) and the ones who are served by those leaders are set at odds with each other. This points up the deep responsibility of those of us who are elders to think not only about protecting our interests, but most deeply, about caring for the next generation when we face such decisions.

If those of us who were young at the time of Kent State can remember these lessons now that we are older, and pass them along, perhaps then we might avoid the sad situation of governors giving orders that result in the killing of our children.

 

9 thoughts on “Remembering Kent State

  1. Thanks, Bob. I remember it so well. Along with what happened at Jackson State and UC Santa Barbara, it motivated me to take a stand for non-violence on my own campus.

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  2. Thanks Bob for sharing your memories and thoughts on this. As one who takes a personal stance of non-violence and is a part of the Brethren Peace Initiative within our church denomination I really enjoyed reading this It is always a good thing to reflect on mistakes we once made and what we can do to make them better for the future. Thank you.

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  3. To some extent, I think it is only with the passing of time and the benefit of protracted life experiences that we really gain a more accurate perspective in matters such as this. What jumps out at me now (I was just in Junior High and didn’t grasp much about Kent State at the time) is the impact that the media had on fomenting situations like that. Objectively and militarily, we were winning the war in Vietnam, but the reporting that came back persuaded many Americans that we were losing, and created the public perception that it wasn’t worth it. By reporting on our failures (e.g., My Lai massacre) to the exclusion of the brutality of the enemy, the media created a false picture of what was at stake and effectively encouraged anti-war protests such as the one at Kent State. Here it is, 44 years later, and news reporting, at least in the main stream media, has, if anything, become even more biased and partisan. And as a nation, we’re probably even more divided than we were in 1970.

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    • Ernie, thanks for your comments. I wish it were otherwise but I think you are right that we are more divided. We simply lack the “flashpoint” of the war and so our wars remain those fought with words. Yet I think even this can be dangerous as were the inflammatory words of both north and south that preceded the American Civil War.

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  4. Bob:
    Thank you for this. I remember you from high school days and Bible study at the Barn! You might remember me as Teda! May 4, 1970 was my 15th birthday. The events of that day shook my world and changed my life.
    I attended Kent State and followed in Sandra Scheur’s footsteps, becoming a Speech Language Pathologist. She was just a gentle soul on her was to classes that day when her life was tragically ended by a stray bullet. She has inspired me to help others in my work. So happy to find this blog today! Hope that you are well.
    Sincerely,
    Kathy Wooten Crowl

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    • Kathy,

      Wow! That is a whole other set of memories! I do remember you from those meetings at the Barn. These days, I work with a collegiate ministry and trace my journey back to those days. Glad you found the blog and thanks for your comments! Bob

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      • Bob:
        So nice to reconnect after 40+ years! Just read your post on Mill Creek Park and really enjoyed seeing the photos. We lived above the fish pond and were in the park all day long. Great photos. Thanks for sharing your memories. We live outside of Cleveland and enjoy our Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, such an awesome place. I want to take my husband back to Y-town and show him Mill Creek Park soon. Just waiting for a nice weekend to visit. Kathy

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