These remarks were prepared for the panel “Witness – The Pivotal Role of Students in Documenting the May 4 Shootings,” scheduled for May 1, 2020, the 50th-anniversary commemoration of May 4, 1970. The event was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The author would like to extend deep thanks to Thomas Grace, Alan Canfora, and Dean Kahler; and to NYU history Professor Robert Cohen for his clarifying remarks.
Fifty years is a big part of a human life. How unsettling that the meticulously planned 50th commemoration of the tragic May 4th, 1970 killings at Kent State was undone by another tragedy, this one an invisible microbe exacerbated by a blundering leadership that those of us who recall the Vietnam era remember so well.
Hundreds of people, many alumni like myself, were expected to participate in a commemoration of our friends’ death at the hands of National Guard troops, and thousands were expected to attend. In addition to many somber events, musicians David Crosby and Joe Walsh were going to play, Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe and activist Jane Fonda were to speak. I was pecking away at this paper when the news arrived in mid-March that the event was canceled with no immediate plans to reschedule.
I want to commemorate May 4th, 1970 now, in year fifty, with some persistent thoughts about memory and representation.
The facts of the killings (shootings, murders, massacre) are well known. Protests in response to President Richard Nixon’s announced invasion of Cambodia had begun Friday night May 1st and continued through the weekend. The Guard had been deployed to the campus two days earlier on orders from Ohio Governor James Rhodes, who broadcast on Sunday May 3 of the students that “they’re worse than ‘Brown Shirts’ and the communist element and also the ‘night riders’ in the Vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. . .It’s over in Ohio.”
At 12:24 pm on Monday, May 4, 1970, 28 Ohio National Guard soldiers fired a 13-second volley of 67 shots from their WWII-era M1 rifles into a scattered array of unarmed anti-war protesters. The photographic record shows fewer than one hundred students within range of the gunmen; none were closer than thirty feet to the soldiers.
M1 rifles can shoot a mile.
Four students were killed and nine wounded. All were Kent State students. One was an ROTC cadet, two had been protesting.
One was walking to class.
Iconic Images and Piecemeal History
The first image that comes to mind to those who remember Kent State at all is John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of an anguished Mary Jo Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller. An image nearly as iconic is of a wounded John Cleary, taken by Howard Ruffner. It was seen across the U.S. on the cover of LIFE magazine, with a weekly circulation of 7,000,000. There is the dramatic image of the guard firing taken by John Darnell, and Filo’s image of Alan Canfora waving a black flag 150 feet from the Guard. All of these images were taken at mid to close-up distance.
Reports of the event were summarized the following day in newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, which ran with the headline: “Troops Fight with Rioters.”Given that there was no “fight” and no “rioters,” and that the closest dead student was nearly a football field away from the National Guardsmen, this headline set the agenda for an initial, and widespread, misunderstanding of the facts about what occurred on May 4.
We should pause on how shocking those facts were, and are. In today’s climate where mass shootings are a weekly occurrence, and where police violence in minority communities is commonplace, it is notable that none of these events involve a platoon of U.S. military shooting lethal weapons at unarmed American students. In this regard, May 4th remains in a class by itself. Yet there were precedents. Black students had been killed by state police at South Carolina State in 1968 and at Jackson State in 1970. The ugly significance of this third massacre was that the dead students were not African-American: in this way, the killing of white middle-class youth at Kent brought the Vietnam war home to Middle America in a new way.
Opening the Frame
Like most Kent alumnae of my generation, I have children and grandchildren who know little or nothing about May 4th. And like most of us I want to pass along the lessons of that historic day, both factually and in its implications for our broader political culture. But where to begin? What tools are at hand to explain the experience beyond a sound bite or that single Pieta image of a girl wailing over Jeffrey Miller’s dead body? May 4th is a day that defined many lives and changed a lot more, including the five million students around the nation who immediately went out on strike.
In fact, the photographs can help us tell that bigger story. In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag wrote that, compared to the power of print, photography has “the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity are in-built. Yet they have, necessarily, a point of view.” Pier Paolo Pasolini insisted that “It is impossible to perceive reality as it happens if not from a single point of view, and thus point of view is always of the perceiving subject.”
But to state the obvious, while there are many photos of May 4th, there is no photographic documentation from precisely the National Guard or aerial point of view. If every shot, every frame, every image, is of something, it is also from somewhere, and by someone. It is from a point of view and an angle: Given that all of the widely distributed images of May 4th are close-up or medium shots, none show the long or wide-angle context of the actual shooting. While the information conveyed in the most recognized May 4th images conveys the pathos and intimacy of death, the information excluded includes the lack of a credible threat from students and the startling firing distances reached by the National Guard’s weapons.
Photographs also do not answer the question: why Kent State? Of course, no campus was immune to the upheavals of the 1960s. In Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties (2016), Tom Grace tells the story of why a little-known college in a fly-over state became ground zero for a momentary reveal of military power by the Nixon administration. Activism was alive and well, if sporadic, at Kent in the late 60s. Buildings were occupied by angry students; bomb threats called in, SDS and Black United Students were confrontational and persistent.
But that week in May 1970 was different. May 4 was the fourth straight day of troubles at Kent. A Friday night melee on Water Street, an absent president and lack of coordination between town and gown, an inflammatory speech by the governor, a burned-out ROTC building, the arrival of the Guard on Sunday. The conflict was escalating, and by Monday morning, May 4th, the stage was set for something very bad.
The shootings were a surprise – and no surprise.
The shootings set the stage for 50 years of conversation and analysis: each one reveals that we do not yet fully know how to tell the story of what happened that day. In 2000 I was invited to talk at the 30th commemoration of May 4th, which I had done almost every five years since 1970. This time, I requested that it be in the form of a public conversation with Tom Grace, one of the casualties who had since become a friend.
In preparing for the talk I reviewed every map of the shooting I could find: I learned that they were wildly different and often inaccurate in both detail and context. For instance, Tom Grace was in three different places in three different maps. Even the “best” map from the May 4th center is unable to accurately depict the narrative of the tragedy, let alone the scale. My early thoughts on this found their way into a book on Vietnam as a chapter “Murder on May 4th: The Case of the Missing Mob.” (2014: 171-200). I could not understand how overlooked the critical information of landscape, timing, distances, and choreography had been. I was flabbergasted that the closest fatality was nearly a football field away from the shooters.
Professor Jerry Lewis was one of the few who knew that fact. One of the most involved faculty on May 4th and after, Lewis writes:
I have taken innumerable people to the May 4 site. Every time people go to the shooting site, stand in the marker places, and look at the place that the guardsmen stood as they fired, an expression of shock or pain comes across their faces. This is particularly true of those standing in Sandy Scheuer’s spot, which is more than 130 yards from the Pagoda – the site from which the National Guard fired. Each of the markers helps visitors to understand the distances that the slain students were from the National Guard when the firing commenced.
This is the heart of the narrative, and like the initial reports of the shootings, it is best told visually.
In fact, an event like the Kent shootings can only be represented, even when all the facts are right. I may be the only person who thinks that James Goldstone’s 1981 docudrama Kent State is the best cinematic representation to date of the events. It doesn’t have talking survivors, slick production values, or a political point to make. It has an annoying 1980 “morning in America” mawkishness, and it looks a hundred years old. But alone among May 4th films, it does have a nearly real-time sequence of the complex movement and ultimate shooting at the May 4 noon rally. I recently went to some length to dig it out of my files and find a VCR to watch it, and I was astonished at its impact and message. It was narrative. It told the story, as only documentary film can sometimes do.
But it doesn’t tell everyone’s story, and this is what I come back to. How would I explain May 4th to my grandsons? How could they understand how one event had such an effect on my life and even on the de-escalation of the American War in Vietnam that incited it?
The recollections of participants vary widely and, not surprisingly, often offer misinformation. I became aware recently that in 2020 an expert panel of historians, surveyors, and others have recalibrated the distances and positions of the shootings. One casualty is estimated to have been 49 feet closer than earlier maps show. But regardless of where they were, what should remain in our memory are the names and what the bullets did to their bodies:
Joseph Lewis, 75 feet (25 yards) abdomen and lower left leg
John Cleary 105 feet (35 yards) left upper chest
Jim Russell, 106 feet (35 yards) right thigh and forehead
Tom Grace, 163 feet (54 yards) left ankle
Jeff Miller, 218 feet (72 yards) mouth; killed
Alan Canfora was 176 feet (58 yards), right wrist
Dean Kahler, 258 feet (86 yards) spine; paralyzed
Doug Wrentmore, 296 feet (98 yards) right knee
Allison Krause, 326 feet (108 yards)left arm into left side; killed
Bill Schroeder, 350 feet (116 yards) shot in back; killed
Sandy Scheuer, 396 feet (132 yards) left front neck; killed
Robby Stamps, 488 feet (162 yards) right buttock
Donald Scott Mackenzie, 603 feet (201 yards) neck
As even the official report noted, the students were trying to get away. “Of the casualties, two were shot in the front, seven from the side, and four from the rear,” a presidential commission confirmed. “Schroeder and Kahler were hit while lying prone. MacKenzie and Canfora were wounded while running away from the line of fire.”
But early images made none of this apparent. The Chicago Tribune headline cited earlier, “Troops Fight with Rioters” could plausibly describe a photo of the early minutes of the May 4 protest in which students appear to be on the verge of overwhelming the National Guardsmen.
What that image cannot reveal, however, is that it was taken at noon when classes were changing, telephoned bomb threats had emptied the dorms, a rally had been rumored, and there was a general sense of curiosity about what was going on. Within ten minutes, ninety percent of these students were dispersed with teargas by the Guard. In the 1970 Tompkins study where I was a research associate, less than one-third of the 225 students interviewed reported they were aware there was “live ammo in weapons” and nearly one-half were not aware that they were not to assemble.
The dangling participle of this story is its lost context and choreography.
One of the things that make us human is the ability to tell stories and pass them along across generations. The most satisfying thing I have been doing in confinement/retirement is writing lessons for my three-year-old grandson in Idaho who is staying at home like everyone else. So far, we have done maps, dinosaurs, the body, and trains. I have been assigned to do “astronauts” next. I spent a career trying with some success to get into the minds of twenty-year-olds. Toddler pedagogy is similar in that is makes you think about how to describe things in terms the listener can understand, find engaging, and remember. A few of our known tools are structure, words, photos, images, sounds, and context.
This experience gives me a road map for reimagining May 4 as well. Telling the story of May 4th to someone unfamiliar with it might be done more effectively with a small collection of images from the personal (dying Jeffrey Miller; wounded John Clancy; firing Guard) to the contextual (parking lot after shooting) to the wide shot (aerial view) to the analogic (football field). The last two – aerial and analogic – are simply not currently a salient part of the visual vocabulary of May 4th narratives. Documentary film interviews are arresting but incomplete. I hope the preceding observations about maps and memory and simulacra help to move us in new narrative directions. As Barthes noted, “Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” (1980:38) There are many ways to represent moments worthy of remembrance. With more means of narrative than ever before imagined, the table is set for all of us to tell the stories we know in the best ways we know how.
Carol Wilder is Professor Emerita in Media Studies & Film at The New School. She completed her Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Communication at Kent State University in 1974.
This essay was revised on May 9, 2020, to reflect corrected information about the location of each casualty.