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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Remembering Kent State

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Today is May 4th. Does that date ring a bell for you?

While some readers are (no doubt) too young to remember, and others may have blocked it from their memories, it remains for some of us a very important and unforgettable date. Today is the 30th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, and attention must be paid.

Briefly summarized, on this day 30 years ago, Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of student anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio. The kids were protesting President Nixon's decision (announced just four days previously) to invade Cambodia as part of the Viet Nam War. They were also protesting the presence of National Guard troops on campus; a curfew had been established following some trouble in town a couple of nights before, and the Governor had asked for troops to patrol the campus and police a student curfew. Governor James Rhodes (let his name not be forgotten), who was running in a primary election only two days away, claimed that the demonstrators were "the worst type of people we harbor in America, worse than the brown shirts and the communist element." He said that they were out "to destroy higher education in Ohio."

On Monday, May 4th, the troops were trying to disperse a noontime demonstration of students. There was tear gas fired from grenade launchers, the fixing of bayonets, and rock-throwing. Without notice, without a warning shot, without an announcement that they even had live ammunition - and while they were retreating - a dozen Guardsmen turned and fired (on command, it is reported) into the crowd. A total of 67 shots were fired in 13 seconds. When the smoke cleared, four students were dead and nine had been wounded. Once it was over, not a single Guardsman made a move to assist any of the victims.

It was a date that changed the nation's history.

It turned protesting the war from an extracurricular activity to something deadly serious.

It changed the way many of us thought about our government. While many protesters continued to love their country, they now feared their government. After all, that could have been us there - you perhaps or me, protesting the war or merely watching.

More than 350 colleges around the country went on strike. More than 500 simply shut down completely. It was the first real "student strike" this country had ever seen.

In his memoirs, Nixon called the days following Kent State "the darkest of my presidency."

For the first time in anyone's memory, United States military forces had opened fire upon American citizens - at least on middle-class white students.

It took years, of course, for the inevitable cover-up to unravel. Federal and state authorities and special commissions all investigated. In the end, although no one was charged with any crime, some facts became undeniably clear:

The idea that National Guardsmen had "feared for their lives" was a story concocted after the massacre by the Guardsmen themselves and simply wasn't true.

Despite initial claims to the contrary, no one in the crowd even had - much less fired - a weapon. FBI agents combed the scene with metal detectors trying to find even one shell casing from a non-military weapon. There weren't any.

The claim that the student protesters had been "charging" the Guardsmen was equally untrue. Of the students who were killed, one was found 90 yards away from the National Guard's position. Another was 100 yards away (picture the length of a football field), and two were more than 130 yards away - hardly an immediate threat.

Of the thirteen students hit by gunfire, only two had been hit from the front. Seven had been hit from the side and four were shot from behind, according to the FBI.

Six of the thirteen were simply spectators - they hadn't even been involved in the confrontation. Some had been on their way to class.

A Presidential Commission later found that "The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."

What does all of this have to do with the media? Maybe it shows how quickly we can forget a single - even an extraordinarily important - event. Maybe it shows how coverage of one event even hundreds of miles away can affect each of us profoundly and personally, and even change history.

I don't know, and frankly, I don't care.

Thirty years ago today, I made a promise to myself. I promised that I personally would never forget what happened in Ohio on May 4, 1970. And that I'd do my best not to let anyone else forget, either.

Today I'm just keeping that promise.