A student protest, gunfire from Ohio National guardsmen, and a scream. For four days, students and guardsmen fought over the right to assemble in the streets, and on May 4th 1970, they all came to a standstill. With the thought of facing another war crowding students’ minds, Kent State University demonstrators protested the Vietnam War, the reinstated draft, the Cambodian Campaign, and President Nixon. Students clamored for Nixon to “bring the war home,” missing loved ones and fearing their own draft letters upon invasion of Cambodia. Photojournalism student John Filo captured the most unforgettable image of that day, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph has become an historical icon of the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s.
Pictured is a young woman wailing over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a student who was caught in the line of fire from the Guardsmen’s bullets. Four people were killed that day, only two of which were actually protestors. Anguish contorts Mary Ann Vecchio’s face, her arms stretched out, and one can almost hear her cry, “why?” Yet others in the photograph do not look as horrified as Vecchio. The tragedy that day was not only the dead and wounded, but the firing of the National Guard onto its own people, innocents looking to those same protectors-of-the-people for help from a pronouncement heard across the country: these students were those simply walking past the demonstration, on their way to class or elsewhere. The fate of that day forever changed America, from the nation-wide university protests immediately following, to the legal precedents of ensuing trials regarding the right to free speech and assembly. America had indeed “brought the war home.”
This stirring image captures the horror of the death of a student by the American government, but it does not show the violence, destruction and recklessness of the demonstrators from the previous three days. The mayor of Kent had declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard defends their actions that day, saying they feared for their lives; even if a band of looters posed a threat, they were no match against guns and bayonets. Many recounted stories of that day focus on the death of the students, like this college textbook:
“In May 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen confronted student antiwar protestors with a tear gas barrage. Soon afterward, with no provocation, soldiers opened fire into a group of fleeing students. Four young people were killed, shot in the back, including two women who had been walking to class” (Norton).
The guardsmen were provoked, the students were not fleeing but fighting back and taunting the guards by throwing rocks and empty tear gas canisters, and the students were not shot in the back. The two students who died from the indiscriminate shooting of the National Guard, those just walking past the demonstration, were terribly and tragically wronged, their deaths akin to murder. But the biggest issue apparent in the Kent State massacre was a country so divided that it was at war within itself. Even after the shootings the crowd did not disperse but continued to fight the National Guard:
“Further tragedy was prevented by the actions of a number of Kent State University faculty marshals, who had organized hastily when trouble began several days earlier. Led by Professor Glenn Frank, the faculty members pleaded with National Guard leaders to allow them to talk with the demonstrators, and then they begged the students not to risk their lives by confronting the Guardsmen. After about twenty minutes of emotional pleading, the marshals convinced the students to leave the Commons” (Hensley).
A movement so focused on stopping the war abroad and bringing peace to the United States was adding fuel to the fire on the home front. As a photojournalist, I have no doubt that the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights were violated, but as a human and citizen of this country, I am concerned about our morality. I do not believe that the lives of those who died abroad were any more or less important than those who died at KSU; I moreover find it an incredible tragedy that death incited more death. Less well known is the similar situation at Jackson State University, where, only ten days after the KSU shooting, two students died at the hands of the police. I would have hoped that government and students alike would recognize the heartbreak as strengthening the divide and weakening that which they were trying to build.
Norton, Mary Beth; Katzman, David M.; Escott, Paul D.; Chudacoff, Howard P.; Paterson, Thomas G.; & Tuttle, William M. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Fourth Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1994.
Hensley, Thomas R. and Jerry M. Lewis. The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy. The Ohio Council for the Social Studies Review, Vol. 34, No. 1. 1998.