May 4, 1970. Never forget.

The most enduring image of the tragedy is the photograph captured by student journalist John Filo, which depicts 14 year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio screaming in horror over the body of fallen Kent student Jeffrey Miller. The photograph (above), which ultimately appeared in Time Magazine and later won the Pulitzer Prize, remains today the image of the May 4 Shootings for many Americans.

Leading up to the Event

The Victory Bell served as a meeting place for the campus protests of the Vietnam War, and students would gather around the bell on Blanket Hill to the southeast, near Taylor Hall, and the Commons, a large grassy area:

Protests began on Kent’s campus on Friday, May 1, immediate following Nixon’s April 30 announcement of the illegal invasion of Cambodia. More than 1,000 students ultimately gathered around to listen to speakers.

On the evening of May 1, violent disturbances in downtown Kent between students, officials and residents were the first sign of a tense campus.

With a second, even larger protest student protest on Saturday, May 2, Kent mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency and Ohio governor James Rhodes mobilized the Ohio National Guard, sending 1,000 troops into the city.

Rhodes used his press conference announcing the deployment to call the protesters “communists,” and “the worst kind of people in this country,” explaining that the Guard presence would “eradicate the problem.”

On the evening of May 2, the student ROTC building, having been emptied for demolition, was burned by an unknown arsonist. As Kent firefighters attempted to extinguish the blaze, protesting students surrounding the building cheered its burning and interfered with the fire department’s attempts. At 10:00 pm, the National Guard entered the Kent State campus for the first time, dispersing the cheering students with tear gas.

On May 3, another protest was held in the Commons at 8:00 pm. Within 45 minutes, the protest was dispersed. Attempting to reassemble elsewhere on campus (including a sit-in at the corner of Main St and Lincoln St):

the students were informed of a 10:00 pm curfew and sent back to dormitories.

Another larger protest was scheduled for Monday, May 4 to be held at The Commons at noon. The university attempted to thwart the protest by distributing nearly 12,000 leaflets declaring the protest cancelled. Nearly 2,000 students showed up, despite these measures.

Fearing another violent escalation, the Ohio National Guard dispersed the students, with bayonets fixed, from The Commons up Blanket Hill to behind Taylor Hall, effectively seizing The Commons. To ensure that the students dispersed, the guardsmen marched to the south of Taylor Hall toward the Pagoda.

When the guard crested the hill, they continued into the athletic practice fields, finding themselves trapped by a chain-link fence.

At this point, only a hundred or so students remained in the area, most of who were in the Prentice Hall parking lot. Unsure what to do next and unwilling to give the appearance of retreat, the guardsmen waited ten minutes in the fields, then slowly returned up the hill.

Here, the details are fuzzy and contested. For some unknown reason, a small contingent of approximately 28 guardsmen stopped at the top of the hill near the pagoda.

The remaining students near Taylor Hall barraged the guardsmen with insults and perhaps rocks. At 12:22 pm, the guardsmen abruptly turned and fired toward the small crowd of students a volley of 67 shots lasting approximately 13 seconds.

The shots killed four students and wounded nine.

The four martyrs:

Filo’s photo, the most enduring image of the shooting, shows the victim Miller and mourner Vecchio in front of a flat and grassy area used for athletic practice:

In the background is the Tri-Towers residential complex. Today, the area is one of abruptly rolling hills, partially created as the Gym Annex encroached upon the area. In a paper I’ve been working on (I’m an academic geographer), I argue that for a time, Kent State actively worked to eliminate spaces of the shootings by building the gym, etc.

May 4 on KSU Campus today

The memory of the event is an interesting phenomenon on the Kent campus. Every year on May 4 they let the students out from 11-2 so they can attend various events about the commemoration. Few actually do, in fact, May 3 is a big party night since many classes don’t meet on the fourth.

Lemme give you some visuals:

See the little inverted pyramid marked “May 4th Memorial”? To the left of that is a treecovered hill (“Blanket Hill”) sloping downward into a wide grassy area called “The Commons.” The Commons was kinda Ground Zero for protests after the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. There was a big demonstration on April 30 at the Victory Bell at The Commons, at which they buried the constitution, among other things:

(looking west down Blanket Hill to the Victory Bell from the May 4 Memorial)

The next day, May 1, someone (no one knows who) set fire to the abandoned-for-remodelling Englemen Hall, home of the campus ROTC which is north of The Commons. Since the ROTC building was torched after protests, the governor assumed that Kent State students were out of control and sent the National Guard.

May 4 was the next scheduled protest. National Guard troops assembled at Taylor Hall (journalism building), which was at the top of a hill, overlooking Blanket Hill and The Commons. Students assembled at the Victory Bell and marched east toward the assembled National Guard troops.

There was obviously some sort of confrontation, and ultimately the Guardsmen shot. New evidence says they were ordered. The shootings occurred between the journalism building Taylor Hall and Prentice Hall, a dorm. For a number of years, there was absolutely no commemoration of the places kids died. Only a VERY small granite gravestone-like marker was placed there:

The second marker… the original marker was destroyed by vandals. This was a replacement funded by the KSU faculty.

In fact, they put in an annex on the nearby gym (the yellow blob on the southern edge) and changed the landscape to “erase” any evidence of the shootings. The marker was moved to a median within the parking lot. Remember, Kent State really struggled with the implications of the shootings. Still, no excuse for erasure of space.

An unofficial memorial/place of note was this massive modern metal sculpture on the Taylor Hall hill that was caught between the Guardsmen and the students. One bullet put a hole in the sculpture, and within a day after the event the government had drilled out the hole to keep the direction of the firing unknown. Basically, they wanted to say that the students had shot first. It’s quite symbolic for the local peace community, and there are often chalk statements and little trinkets left there:

The hole in the sculpture.

Along with these markers in 1990, they also installed an official memorial on Blanket Hill. Critics said they did this to also erase Blanket Hill, which had been named because students “used” blankets there for various activities. The Memorial says absolutely nothing about the event, the students who died, or anything else. It includes four slabs of granite arranged in the triangular format shown on the map. It has some sort of PR-person contrived statement (“Inspire, Learn and Reflect”” or something bullshit like that) and the date of the incident:

The edge of the official memorial.

Finally, in 1996, they established lighted blockades in the parking lot around the spots where the four killed students fell, and marked each of them on big slabs of granite with the names carved on them. Before this time, the places of death were simply parking places. All of these markers are frequently covered with pebbles, as at least one student was Jewish and many mourners/commemorators (as by Jewish tradition) leave them on all of the markers:

One of the markers, in the parking lot.

So, up until 2003, there was nothing REALLY explaining what happened on May 4 on the public spaces of campus. That’s when the university FINALLY allowed the Ohio Historical Society to put in a marker. To explain the events, it takes both sides:

The remembrance is still a tricky concept for Kent State but they are working on it. They are working to FINALLY establish a May 4 museum and have just this week dedicated an auto walking tour. And every year, there is a campus-wide commemoration held. Though the entire campus is dismissed for the period of the ceremony, it’s typically poorly attended. These photos are from the 2009 ceremony:

The main commemoration is held on The Commons near the Victory Bell each May 4 at noon.

It’s run by the May 4 Task Force, which runs the commemoration and the May 4 Collection of artifacts and such.

Alan Canfora. Democratic party activist (Barberton, OH) and May 4 Victim (shot in the hand).

Each year they have various speakers, survivors, bands on a temporary stage on The Commons. People, usually a couple thousand or so, sit in The Commons and on Blanket Hill. The attendance shrinks every year. Supposedly for the 30th anniversary back in 2000, Crosby Stills & Nash came and gave a secret impromptu concert of like five songs. Many people said that the 30th year was probably the “last” year of the true commemoration.

There are also your standard tables of merchandise, literature, etc. Many activists groups come out.

North of the event, behind the stage and well in view of the entire crowd is Englemen Hall, long since rebuilt and still the home of the ROTC. A couple years ago, the ROTC guys held a “Hamburgers, not Hippies” barbecue and they all stood on a back patio on Englemen, just staring at everyone at the commemoration. This past year, their counter-protest was supposedly that they played football in the background:

Obviously, some people are still in denial about the oppressive, police-state tactics used on May 4, 1970.

There are more photos from the 2009 commemoration I took in this facebook album (opens without login).

It’s an interesting thing, the May 4 Commemoration. Even as I took the normal-day (non-May 4) photographs that are in this entry, a number of tours passed this part of campus. Each time, the guides avoided the formal memorial. Each time, the student guides mentioned the events of May 4, spending less than 30 seconds to explain that four students died at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. It has mostly been forgotten, been erased from the younger generations.

We can never forget that the military fired upon citizens exercising their right to peaceably assemble. We can never forget that protest was silenced.

We can never forget May 4 ,1970, and on this, the 40th anniversary of the Kent State massacre, I encourage you to remember in your own way.

We can also never forget the events of Jackson State University just a few days later, when students were again fired upon for peaceably assembling.

Because, next time:

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.