Return To Kent State

Thirty years ago today, National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed student protesters. The memories, the loss and the disbelief are fresh for those who were there.


KENT, Ohio -- It's a brilliant day on campus: the sky is bright, the landscape green, the air a little chillier than you'd like. As you head for the memorial on the hill, you zip your jacket to the top. Here in northeastern Ohio, spring just can't make up its mind to settle in.

But you're here to remember, not take leisure. And as anyone at Kent State University can tell you, remembering brings anything but comfort.

Thirty years ago today, 28 members of the Ohio National Guard, called to this campus by Gov. James Rhodes, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine. Scholars agree the shootings were a seminal moment in American history, helping turn the public tide against the war in Vietnam and the president who escalated it. But the deepest wounds may have been the personal ones.

Three decades after the fact, the victims and witnesses of the Kent State massacre still can barely speak of those events without horror, grief and dismay. What plagues them most, it seems, is that even 30 years later, no one knows exactly what happened that day. Mourning can be long and painful; mourning in the absence of facts can go on forever.

You bring these thoughts with you to the crest of Blanket Hill, to a 70-foot plaza of carnelian granite. To your right, four coffin-like structures call to mind the students killed. At your feet, three simple words etched in stone speak their own truth: Inquire, Learn, Reflect.

The Ohio wind stiffens, and well it might: It's chilling to remember. But remembering is the only way to make sense of May 4, 1970.


Everyone agrees: The makings of a major disaster converged that day. The point of contention was, and remains, how they played themselves out.

America was a bitterly divided nation. The Vietnam conflict was at its height. Pro- and anti-war factions were growing testier. On Friday, April 30, President Richard Nixon raised the stakes, announcing that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia.

Protesters rallied across the nation. At Kent State on May 1, a crowd of 500 watched as a student buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Riots began in Kent's streets. By 10 p.m. May 2, the school's ROTC building had gone up in flames. The National Guard rolled into town.

On Monday, May 4, the confrontation took place.

Student demonstrators gathered on a field below Blanket Hill for a noon rally. Ninety-six Guardsmen sought to break it up. They lobbed tear-gas canisters and, at bayonet point, pushed the jeering, rock-tossing crowd back. Then they began a retreat up the hill. A handful of students followed at a distance, hurling rocks and insults. As the soldiers neared the crest of the hill, many turned and started firing. In 13 seconds, the shooting was over.

Those are the facts. You can find them in books; perhaps 20 of them now. But facts are less than the truth. For that, you need to talk with people who were there.


Dean Kahler teaches history and government to high school seniors in Athens, Ohio. Alan Canfora is an activist, a teacher and a lecturer who lives in nearby Barberton. Robbie Stamps, a sociologist and writer who teaches college courses on occasion, divides his time between Ohio and his San Diego home. All three were students at Kent State on May 4, 1970. All were hit by gunfire that day.

Jerry M. Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State, was a faculty marshal at the scene. And Laura Davis, now an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was a freshman protester.

It's said that every witness to the Kent State shootings remembers a different story, but these five -- who did not know each other at the time -- tell a story that's shocking in its consistency.

Conventional wisdom says the shootings took place in the heat of the moment, that both sides were angrily out of control, that guardsmen fired spontaneously and out of fear. But all five witnesses agree: The Guard had already dispersed the crowd and was ready to disappear over the crest of the hill.

Another point involves distance. All agree that the nearest student to the guardsmen was 60 feet away. Canfora was 225 feet away; Kahler and two who died were even farther off. "The Guard claimed that students were three feet away from them, that their own lives were in danger," says Canfora. "That's a lie."

All five are equally insistent on another key fact. Just before the Guard reached the top of the hill, the 28 who fired wheeled around in unison and lowered their weapons. "It was calculated, obviously," says Canfora. "Whether it was someone on the scene that day or someone higher up, an order to fire was given." Kent State wasn't a heat-of-the-moment skirmish, he says. It was murder.

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