Inquire, Learn, and Reflect: The May 4 Memorial of Kent State University

ProtestorsIn the spring of 1970, the United States was a country sharply divided over the ongoing Vietnam War – and the friction many times showed up dramatically on college campuses in the form of protests. In the majority of cases, the dispersal of college protestors occurred with numerous arrests and minimal harm – but on May 4, 1970 one such event erupted into perhaps the most tragic event of the era. The unpopularity of the war had grown to an even more agitated pitch when on April 30 President Richard Nixon announced the Cambodian Campaign, a military invasion of neighboring Cambodia for the purpose of routing the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (also known as the Viet Cong or “Charlie”), which were using the area as a staging ground for attacks on US troops in Vietnam. One reaction to the announcement came in the form of nationwide student strikes that occurred on both the high school and college level, building in intensity over the weekend of May 1st to 3rd. Such was the case at Kent State University in Ohio, where the mayor requested help from the National Guard to quell the unrest. On Monday, May 4, 1970, around 1000 students of that school converged on the University Commons to protest both the presence of the troops at their school and the recent “escalation” of the war.

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A Display Remembers the Events of May 4, 1970
Photo credit: PapaDunes / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

In response to the raucous gathering of protestors, national guardsmen began to lob canisters of tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd – and faltering in that effort the troops at first appeared to be retreating. However, quite suddenly they wheeled, knelt and unleashed a volley of 67 rounds that killed four students and permanently paralyzed another. In response to the tragedy, high school and college strikes escalated, involving approximately 4 million students who were further motivated by the lyrics of a hit song released by the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – entitled Ohio. Controversy continues to this day concerning the motivation of Companies A and C, 1/145th Infantry and Troop G of the 2/107th Armored Cavalry, Ohio National Guard (ARNG) for unleashing such a deadly volley of bullets, when most critics agree there was no ominous threat to their lives. Did the troops act on their own, or were there specific commander’s orders given to fire on the students? A civil suit filed on the behalf of the mother of Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed that day, led to a federal trial (1979) that eventually exonerated Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes, Kent State University President Robert I. White, and 27 National Guardsmen. When the judgment was later reversed through the process of appeal, the plaintiffs accepted $675,000 in damages. In response to another separate indictment (1974) by the federal government, eight of the guardsmen were eventually declared innocent of depriving the students of their constitutional rights.

The accused guardsmen testified that they fired on the students in self-defense, even mentioning that they heard gunfire that made them fear for their lives. However, recent research revealed in 2010 seems to contradict that claim, providing interesting audio evidence that the troops actually fired in response to an order given by the commanding officers. The same audio recording has revealed that a firearm, possibly a handgun, may have been discharged at a very crucial point prior to when the guardsmen opened fire. At the time of the shootings, the FBI examined the same recording, but came to no conclusion that a firearm had discharged or that the guardsmen had receive orders to fire at the protestors.  At the very most, the Scranton Commission organized to examine college unrest concluded that the “indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” Despite the new evidence, it is very unlikely that the federal government will reopen the investigation, because a “double jeopardy” clause in the Constitution prohibits government authorities from re-trying the surviving soldiers involved in the tragedy.

Often referred to as the “Kent State Massacre,” the 40-plus years since the event have made Kent State University very unique when it comes to memorializing non-violence. Originally in 1971, the school chose to establish a “living memorial” through a Center for Peaceful Change, which was later renamed as the Center for Applied Conflict Management – with an undergraduate program in peace and conflict studies (sponsored by the center) that was established in 1973. Although a sculpture entitled the “Kent Four” was erected near the School of Art, the college seemed reticent at first to erect a permanent memorial – but a formal recommendation finally came in 1984. Designed by Chicago architect Bruno Ast, the May 4 Site and Memorial received its official dedication on the 20th anniversary of the shootings – amongst some controversy. The memorial is essentially a plaza that rests on a 2.5 acre piece of land adjacent to the locality of the famous tragedy, including four black granite disks that lead directly north to four free-standing pylons situated in a wooded area. Near the sidewalk, a plaque bears the name of the four students who died, as well as the nine others that were wounded. Before any visitor can step on to the plaza, they are greeted with a quote engraved in the stone floor – “Inquire, Learn, Reflect.” The memorial is surrounded by 58,175 daffodil bulbs that represent the lives that were lost in the Vietnam War, and recently a May 4 Visitor’s Center (see video above) received its official dedication on the anniversary of the shootings.

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“Inquire, Learn, Reflect” – Click for Larger Photo
Photo credit: jleberle / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

If monuments dedicated to non-violence are intended to be cathartic in nature, there is no better example than the May 4 Memorial at Kent State University. The very history of the memorial, which includes the recent addition of a visitor’s center, is very heavily steeped in the human need for healing and consolation. Whatever your opinion is on the Vietnam War Era, the monument speaks to the heart of matters – including the heavy loss of life that took place on the battlefield. Memorials are more than just inanimate objects occupying time and space without a purpose, since they speak profoundly in a universal language that needs no words. Peace symbols in particular speak outwardly to humanity concerning the inward need within all of us for tranquility. A monument to those that have passed away as victims of terrorism – whether they have died at home or abroad – would speak to this need in a very special way. Such a marker goes beyond simple recognition of those that have died, announcing the universal need for amity amongst the human race. Please join us in our efforts to promote such a statement on peace by clicking the link below and signing the petition to which this website is committed.

You can help promote the establishment of a monument dedicated to all American victims of terrorism, whether they died at home or abroad, by clicking the link above and signing the petition. Nothing is asked but your signature for a good cause.

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About jrcclark

On October 2, 2001, scarcely one month after the horrors of 911, Representative Jim Turner of Texas introduced H. R. 2982 to the House of Representatives, calling for “the establishment of a memorial to victims who died as a result of terrorist acts against the United States or its people, at home or abroad.” The resolution was amended by the Committee on Resources in June of 2002 and eventually approved on September 25, 2002 on a “motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill.” It was sent to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but it has languished there ever since – in effect dead and going nowhere. In 2008, this Senate Committee considered making Dark Elegy, the work of a New York sculptor who lost a son in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as the monument called for in H. R. 2982. However, the committee turned down the touching and thought-provoking sculptures of Suse Ellen Lowenstein – on the grounds that “…as compelling and impressive a proposal as has been made for the memorial in question, that we believe that, for the time being, that it relates to a very specific incident and should be treated as such rather than as a generic monument to victims of terrorism for all time.” Today the resolution seems forgotten, and it is the purpose of this website to promote a petition to the House of Representatives and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, requesting that H. R. 2982 be reconsidered and revisited.
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