Why four died in Ohio

October 24, 2017

Guy Miller reviews a book that sets the killing of four Kent State antiwar protesters by the National Guard in 1970 in the context of the wider movements for social change.

29, 67, 13, 4.

Those are the numbers. Twenty-nine National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of ammunition, in 13 seconds, leaving four young people dead in the Prentice Hall parking lot of Kent State University.

Thomas Grace begins the story in the prologue of Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties, where the action unfolds in slow motion. His newspaper-like account is told in hard chiseled prose, frame by frame. Even though we know the outcome, we are transfixed. It recalls watching the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. We want to stop the action and rewrite history, but we are powerless to do so.

Although Grace was one of the nine wounded survivors of the shooting, he rarely injects himself into the story. But when he does, it adds to the cinema verité nature of his description.

Grace takes up the story of May 4, 1970, early in the prologue, and then resumes it over 200 pages later. In those 200 pages, the book makes an invaluable contribution to the history of the 1960s. When the story of the massacre is taken up again, we know many of the activists, some of the administration and a few of the Ohio National Guardsmen involved.

National Guard soldiers massacre students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State
National Guard soldiers massacre students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State (John Paul Filo | Wikimedia Commons)

FOR GRACE, the long sixties of the title began in 1958. Since he is telling a large story through the small prism of Northeastern Ohio, 1958 was well chosen. In that year, a major class struggle battle broke out in the state.

From the time of the Civil War, Ohio was the bastion of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, while Northeastern Ohio was also the heart of the heartland of mid-century industrial America. The battle lines were clearly drawn.

The powerful Taft family dominated Republican Party politics in the state. Unlike the Rockefeller/Eisenhower wing, the Taft brand of Republicanism never reconciled itself to the New Deal or its later expansion, the Fair Deal. Rolling back those earlier reforms was never far down the agenda for these conservative Ohio Republicans. They saw their chance to reverse the power of organized labor, and they went for it.

Thus began a hard-fought attempt to impose mandatory right-to-work legislation on the workers of Ohio. Labor mobilized and defeated the attack. The parents of many of the students of 1970 were part of that defining struggle.

The early 1960s was a time that had one foot in the McCarthyite, Leave it to Beaver 1950s, and one foot in the archetypal 1960s of protest and rebellion.

Tracing how Kent State and the country made the transition from one era to the other is what Tom Grace does better than many more heralded historians. He charts individuals, groups and culture through the long decade of the title, a decade that remade the American political and social landscapes. How it happened on one public campus is essential reading for anyone doing political work at colleges and universities today.

THE CIVIL rights movement jump-started the campus radicalization of the 1960s. Eventually, even a relative backwater like Kent State was affected by the sea change in American race relations.

For Kent State, the beginning was modest enough. Its first organized action took place in a downtown tavern. The aptly named Corner Bar was a hangout for both locals and students. It was also notorious as a place where the university's African Americans were not welcome.

On October 28, 1960, 11 Black students decided to integrate the Corner Bar. First, they sent a trusted white student, John McCann--later a campus leader and member of the Young Socialist Alliance--to scout out the bar and save a few stools.

When the 11 Black students entered, they were refused service, and they in turn refused to leave until they were served. After a tense standoff, the police were called, and reluctantly, the students were served. It was only a token victory, but at the same time, it proved an important first step.

It was only fitting that the long fuse leading to mass student involvement was lit by Kent's Black students. The Corner Bar "drink-in" opened the door to off-campus demonstrations and organizing over racist housing practices. It also led to a several years' long battle for the Congress of Racial Equality to gain official recognition on campus.

After much red-baiting and opposition from the town of Kent, and from the university administration, CORE squeaked out a 19-to-18 vote on the student government and gained the status of an authorized student organization. Later recognition battles would be won by the Young Socialist Alliance and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Change came to Kent State, but it came slowly.

The nascent Black student movement at KSU eventually coalesced into the Black United Students (BUS). The interplay between the BUS and white leftists played out in a back-and-forth of cooperation, alternating with avoidance.

This interaction is one of many that Thomas Grace spotlights in his book. Among the binaries he chronicles are: Old Left and New; town and campus; the counterculture and youth politics; mass demonstrations versus direct action; and the internal contradictions of the Students for a Democratic Society.

HOSTILITY TO the war in Vietnam did not appear full-blown as the default sentiment at Kent State. As late as 1967, a poll of the student body showed support for the war in Vietnam was still a four-to-one preference over opposition to it. The infant antiwar sentiment was first nurtured by small marches and vigils.

One early example occurred shortly after the February 1965 escalation of the war. Following a National Liberation Front attack on the American airbase at Pleiku, Lyndon Johnson ordered retaliation: Operation Flaming Dart.

In response, eight members of the Young Socialist Alliance--the entire KSU chapter--marched in tight formation at the top of the stairs of Bowman Hall. They were greeted by catcalls from the dorm windows and a cascade of rotten fruit and vegetables, as well as the occasional rock. Much to the demonstrators' surprise, one additional brave student joined them in protest.

The Kent Committee to End the War in Vietnam (KCEWV) began the practice of weekly "peace vigils." A dozen or so committee members made antiwar signs and stood silently along a pedestrian walkway connecting Bowman Hall and the Commons. The first attempt to hold such a vigil was broken up by counterprotesters, but the Wednesday ritual was soon back to stay.

Gradually, a few faculty members and more students joined the protest. A young student named Bill Whitaker tells how the silent protest affected him: "I looked upon the people who were demonstrating...as different...How could these people have any effect? They would be jeered. The jocks, the guys in the frats made fun of them. Before the end of the school year, I was joining them."

While small local protests were making incremental gains, April 1965 moved the antiwar movement onto the national stage. SDS took on the task of building a national mobilization in Washington, D.C. Half a century later it is hard to grasp the audacity of that action. Up to that time such a thing was unthinkable: a large demonstration, during a time of war, challenging the government's prerogative to wage war. It was a new weapon in the arsenal of dissent.

The gathering of 50,000 who gathered in the nation's capital to say "NO" to the Vietnam War was, at the time, the largest such action in American history. It was another important break from the McCarthy consensus. Over 50 campuses sent contingents to Washington, including two dozen students from Kent State University. It was a major coup for the fast growing SDS, but unfortunately, it was to be its last foray into organizing mass actions.

THE STORY of the 1960s radicalization cannot be told without recounting the story of the rise and fall of SDS. For several years, it was where the action was.

SDS had the style and politics that captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Organizationally, it subscribed to the practice of "participatory democracy" and a certain "do-your-own-thing" ethos.

This freewheeling approach allowed for a spirit of freedom and creativity, and a welcome departure from the regimented 1950s. Politically, SDS's approach was more marked by what it was not: It was not the old left. Both the organizational looseness and the lack of political mooring transformed from a positive to a negative before the organization's split convention held in Chicago in 1969.

Starting with the Tet Offensive, the traumas of 1968 accelerated the size and tempo of the student movement. During the next two and a half years, a cycle of repression and radicalization took hold.

With the draft digging deeper and deeper into the Baby Boomer cohort, opinion on the Vietnam War flipped. Among Kent State students, it went from four-to-one in favor in 1967 to seven-to-one against just two years later.

From the March on the Pentagon in October 1967, to the millions who took to the streets in October and November of 1969, busloads of Kent students participated. Many were also radicalized by the police riot during the Chicago Democratic Party convention in August 1968.

These growing confrontations had an effect among activists on the campus. As frustration with the war mounted, tensions and rifts began to appear on the student left. Losing patience, many young militants began to urge the need to "Bring the War Home."

This could be accomplished, many thought, through direct actions, sometimes violent, aimed at the "war machine." This sentiment was captured by SDS leader Mark Rudd, who said contemptuously, "Organizing is just another word for going slow."

The other pole in the antiwar movement was represented by the often-ignored Student Mobilization Committee (SMC). If the SMC was the glue that held the KCEWV together, then the Young Socialist Alliance was the glue that held the SMC together.

The SMC was built on three principles: one, independence from political parties; two, non-exclusion (anyone against the war was welcome to participate); and three, the demand for immediate withdrawal (no compromising with "negotiations"). While the SMC could be rigid and predictable, it also had the virtue of being consistent.

PARALLEL TO the growing student upsurge, the Black liberation struggles continued apace. In addition, labor seemed poised to break out of a decade and a half of stasis. In 1970 alone, there were 381 work stoppages of 1,000 or more (for a frame of reference, there were 15 strikes of that size in 2016).

In March 1970, a wildcat postal strike shook the nation. Nixon called out the National Guard to deliver mail. How many dogs were shot as a result remains unknown.

April 1, 1970, witnessed another national wildcat strike. This time, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' (IBT) members decided to stop work and take to the picket line. Acting IBT president Frank Fitzsimmons ordered the rank and file back to work, but the members ignored him.

Four weeks into the strike, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes called up the National Guard and deployed them to Akron. (Grace gives us insight into the Ohio guardsmen, who they were and where they tended to come from.) Included in the leadership of the strikers in Akron was Bill Whitaker, a veteran of SDS at Kent State.

Several of the Guard units--including the 145th Regiment sent to Akron-were deployed just days later to the campus at Kent State.

Gov. Rhodes fanned the flames in Akron, just as he was to do at the university. He railed against "unlawful assemblies," made up of "roving bodies of men acting with intent to do violence to persons and property,'" and he ordered the troops to "take whatever action necessary to the restoration of order."

The election of Nixon-Agnew added a confrontational rhetoric to the already volatile late 1960s. Grace quotes historian Thomas Powers, who observed, "The violence in Vietnam seemed to illicit a similar air of violence in the United States, an appetite for extremes; people felt that history was accelerating, time was running out, great issues were reaching a point of final decision."

The critical mass turned into a chain reaction when Nixon ordered troops into Cambodia on April 30, 1970. Nixon was elected on the promise of a "secret plan to end the war." It turned out his plan was simple: more war. The invasion should not have come as a surprise. Newspaper accounts told of more and more troop action near the border.

Nonetheless, it was a bombshell for the nation's youth. George Hoffman, an off-campus student living in Kent, expresses what many felt: "We had just had enough. After all the antiwar speeches, all the days spent at literature tables, all the demonstrations, and now the war was getting bigger. This was the last straw."

That Friday night, the town of Kent was rocked by young demonstrators pouring into the streets. Kent, like many college towns of the period, was a mecca for high school students and other young people looking for a taste of the counterculture. Consequently, their numbers swelled on weekends.

By the spring of 1970, the counterculture and radical politics fused. Now there was one large, united mass of American youth ready to challenge the powers that be.

The next morning, the focus shifted to the campus, where the ROTC building was the logical target. It was burned to the ground. That evening, over 1,000 heavily armed National Guardsmen began rolling onto campus. At this point, Thomas Grace comments, "The grounds of Kent State become a battleground of the expanded Southeast Asia War."

Four Kent students would soon be added to the casualty list that included over two million Vietnamese and 58,220 American soldiers. They were victims of a war that was not an accident--Ken Burns' PBS documentary notwithstanding--but a deliberate policy of destruction unleashed in the service of a global empire.

MY WIFE Linda and I visited Kent State in early September. The campus was filled with students just starting the fall semester. Young people were bustling from class to class in the late summer afternoon, filled with the hope for a happy life and a peaceful future.

The nearly full Prentice Hall parking lot, little changed in 47 years, had four spaces that could no longer be used. These spaces marked the spots where the four young people were senselessly murdered. Each of the four spots was marked off with six waist high columns. Each of the 24 posts were piled high with stones in the traditional Jewish custom of remembrance.

We added our new stones to each of the four memorials, and as we did we spoke their names: Allison Krause (19), Jeffrey Miller (20), Sandra Scheuer (20), and William Schroeder (19).

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