Banners on the campus of Kent State University commemorating the anniversary of the May 4 shootings. AP Photo/Jeff Glidden

What the 1970 Kent State shootings tell us about universities then and now

In 1997, a student I taught while I was a Fulbright scholar in Turkey came to visit our home in Cleveland. Asked what sites he might want to visit, he immediately suggested nearby Kent State. On May 4, 1970, students protesting the Vietnam War were killed and wounded on the Kent State campus by troops from the Ohio National Guard. He wanted to see the place it had all happened.

The May 4 shootings at Kent State are remembered (and taught) as an iconic moment in U.S. history, yet this was a single shocking occurrence in an era filled with stories and images of violence.

As a scholar of the history of northeastern Ohio, I’ve seen that May 4 is embedded in a broad historical context of changes in higher education and social movements. But as a student during the late 1960s, I also tend to find “myself” in images of the era, imbuing them with a personal connection.

Together, this historical context and the personal perspective call into question the purpose of a university education. What do the May 4 shootings at Kent State tell us about role of the university in today’s climate of student protest?

Ohio National Guard moving in on protesting students at Kent State University. May 4, 1970. AP Photo

A ‘new’ collegiate America

The May 4 shootings occurred amidst two important moments of growth: that of higher education in the U.S. and that of activism in general throughout the country.

During the 1950s, enrollment in American colleges and universities increased by 49 percent and in the 1960s by 120 percent. There were multiple triggers for this incredible change, particularly the postwar “baby boom” and an increase in federal and state support for higher education.

Kent State, which began as a small teacher training school in 1910, was among the colleges experiencing significant postwar growth. By the 1960s, it had evolved into a large research campus in an expanding Ohio state college system.

Protest marchers demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 1968. AP Photo

This new collegiate America intersected with the social activist movements prominent at the time: civil rights, gender equity, the environment and opposition to an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.

These movements found their way to colleges and universities, as social activism became part of the intellectual discourse on campuses. The free speech movement at Berkeley in 1965 and a major protest at Columbia in 1968 were immediate precedents for protests at Kent and other campuses.

Protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the early 1960s rise of Students for a Democratic Society also accelerated protest movements on campus – at Kent State and elsewhere.

By the late 1960s, the Vietnam war was “the” issue on campuses across the nation, though it was undoubtedly linked to other causes including race and economic justice.

May 4, 1970: Reality and ripples

Newsweek’s cover from May 18, 1970 featured a crop of John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. Newsweek via John Filo, Valley News-Dispatch

One could argue that it was a single image – the photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of a slain Kent State student – that lifts May 4 above the ordinary. Like Nick Ut’s iconic image of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack, the image is so powerful that it becomes the story.

The photo’s potency is particularly immediate for those who attended college during that era. It, perhaps, becomes “their” image, placing May 4 into a more personal perspective.

But is it possible to recognize the historical context of the May 4 shootings and escape one’s personal connection to the event?

Thomas Grace does just that in his new book, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.” Grace was a student at Kent State at the time, wounded during the events of May 4. His book, in my view, provides a nonbiased and contextual examination of the tragedy. Though the 1970 protests at Kent must be a very personal experience for him, Grace recognizes that they had deeper roots in American society, including pro-labor demonstrations at Kent itself in the late 1950s.

Indeed, Grace’s book prompts those who experienced the era, myself included, to step back and refocus the lens of our experiences.

May 4 catalyzed protests and strikes at over 400 other colleges and universities. Among them was Case Western Reserve (CWRU), just 34 miles away in Cleveland, Ohio. I was a junior at Case Western at the time of the shootings.

Like the students at Kent, students at CWRU had been protesting the Vietnam War and the presence of student military programs on the campus. Like Kent, activism at CWRU had a longer history: organizing a sit-in the previous year relating to racial inequality, helping campus workers organize for better pay and conditions and protesting the university’s partnerships with companies doing business with the military.

When the news from Kent State reached Cleveland late in the day on May 4, protest at CWRU accelerated. Students blocked a major thoroughfare on campus and formed a strike committee. I stood by the side of the street watching – perhaps vicariously joining those on the street – and, then, with scores of other students, fled when mounted police forcefully broke up the protest.

Defining the purpose of higher education

Case Western Reserve President Robert Morse meeting with students. Case Western Reserve University Archives

Many colleges and universities in 1970 responded to the personal and historical context of the May 4 shootings by contemplating the role of higher education in the U.S. My alma mater was among them.

Robert W. Morse, president of CWRU at the time, sought a balance between open uncensored discourse and closing the university. Central to his actions was his concept of the purpose of a university, something he described in a 1970 speech delivered two months after May 4:

“Let us always remind ourselves that universities are, or should be, radical enterprises: radical because they are based on the proposition that the world can and must be transformed into something better, radical because they are based on the proposition that man through his intellect, his initiative, and his integrity can advance his own well-being. Universities, if they are functioning as they should, are predisposed to question, to debate, to change, to criticize, and to challenge.”

Caught between radical student activists, a somewhat divided faculty and a conservative board, Morse involuntarily resigned later that year.

So what is the legacy of the May 4 shootings at Kent State?

Did it, as some argue, effectively “kill” the protest movement? Or did it help end the draft and, eventually, the war?

In my view, it’s a bit more than that.

Many who lived during the time of the May 4 shootings have a personal take on the events, either through experiences at their own universities or that single photo of Mary Ann Vecchio and the body of Jeffrey Miller.

Still others see only the historical context, with deeper questions as to the core motivation, effect and level of conviction of the anti-war movement.

May 4 does, however, prompt a broader question of what the role of universities ought to be when it comes to student activism and free speech – both then and now. It is in many ways a marker, albeit tragic, to which much contemporary campus activism is compared.

Remember my Turkish student who came visiting? Well, it turns out he had his own radical political leanings – indeed, he ran an anarchist website from his dorm room. I think he would have appreciated President Morse’s remarks at CWRU. Perhaps this view, which centers on universities as “radical enterprise,” is what attracted my Turkish student to visit Kent State nearly 30 years after the shootings.

In my view, this idea of higher education as a place for ushering in change, challenging public discourse and driving mankind through intellect is why universities must remain a center for activism today.

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