KENT, Ohio - “I held it in pretty much really well up until Kent State and I just lost it, and actually had to leave the studio and walk around for ten minutes, just to collect myself,” said Dominic Tavella, a re-recording mixer on “PBS Previews: The Vietnam War,” about his experience working on the Ken Burns, Lynn Novick directed film, “The Vietnam War,” which begins airing Sept. 17 locally on WNED-TV.
On May 4, 1970, four unarmed students lost their lives. One, Sandra Lee Scheuer, died despite having “not a political bone in her body,” her father remorsefully proclaimed. Another victim, Allison Krause, raised to be socially active and conscious, had engaged with guardsmen the previous day, asking “What’s the matter with peace?” She reputedly placed a flower in the barrel of a guardsman’s rifle, saying “Flowers are better than bullets.”
Jeffrey Miller and William Schroeder also would perish from the 67 shots fired in 13 seconds. Nine other students were injured, one, Dean Kahler, was paralyzed.
“My God! They’re killing us,” said Ron Steele, then a Kent State freshman from Buffalo whose comment was the headline for a May 18, 1970 Newsweek cover story on the tragedy. Steele said “I thought the soldiers had gone insane or it was some kind of accident.”
The madness of war, particularly evident during the Vietnam war, was felt across America, as “The grounds of Kent State had become a battleground of the expanded Southeast Asian war,” wrote one of the nine injured students, Thomas M. Grace, now a Buffalo history professor in "Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties." Playwright Arthur Miller succinctly posited “The war finally came home that day in May when American troops killed our children on their school grounds.”
To visit Kent State’s May 4 Memorial and May 4 Visitors Center is an opportunity to "Inquire, Learn, and Reflect," the invocations engraved in granite and offered at the memorial. “It’s the only place in the U.S. that interprets and presents the anti-war movement,” Grace said. “There were millions of students enrolled in colleges across the country,” he said. “Many were involved in protests, or there was a protest on their campus, or they attended a vigil after the shootings. For them it wasn’t just another news day. For them it was different. That’s why they remember.”
While there have been commemorations at Kent State since 1971, there wasn’t always much to come to. But from the mid '70s “we’re done with that” sentiment, reflecting the university administration’s attitude, “There’s been a real sea change,” said Kent State Sociology Professor Emeritus Jerry Lewis, who witnessed the incident firsthand. Lewis began teaching “almost immediately” on the event’s repercussions in his sociology classes. Later he taught specific courses through the school’s Center for Peaceful Change, founded in 1971. It has since evolved into the School of Peace and Conflict Studies, and continues to expand, this fall adding two new faculty members.
The memorial was designed by Chicago architect Bruno Ast and constructed of carnelian granite, a material symbolizing time and strength. Its prominent features are four casket like pylons representing the four slain students. Down the slope are daffodils by the thousands. Originally planted were 58,175 in remembrance of the American men and women lost in the Vietnam war, an idea conceived by Kent State artist Brinsley Tyrell. Additional bulbs are planted each autumn to replenish the bank.
Seven trail markers outline the May 4 Walking Tour around the Commons and Taylor Hall, home to the May 4 Visitors Center. The tour is narrated by former Georgia state legislator and civil rights leader Julian Bond.
The center, which opened in 2012, establishes happenings and lifestyles in stark contrast leading up to 1970. The sixties portray a nation divided. A picture shows Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend a previously all-white southern elementary school. Federal marshals protect the young Ruby, yet in another photo white women protest. Offsetting the tension of the times are quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
The generation gap is revealed as members of a hippie commune, the Hog Farm, ride a bus painted in psychedelic colors to a July 4th parade. Rock musician David Crosby with shoulder length hair and an unkempt mustache, wearing a buckskin shirt, stands alongside his conventional looking, sport coat and tie wearing father Floyd. A smiling suburban family takes a spin in a new, 1966 Ford Mustang, whereas across the aisle are record jackets by counter culture rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane.
Into this picture comes the Vietnam war and President Richard Nixon’s April 30, 1970 announcement that American troops would begin operations in Cambodia. Reaction to Nixon’s war expansion was swift, and a map outlines eruptions at 132 colleges and universities across the America.
The events of May 4 are captured on film which contains quotes from injured survivors and from Barry Levine, Allison Krause’s boyfriend, who was accompanying her when she was fatally wounded.
The gallery includes pictures with a timeline of events. Opposite is the iconic Mary Ann Vecchio photograph, a Pulitzer Prize winning picture taken by then student journalist photographer John Filo.
Television brought the Vietnam battlefield into American living rooms. And at the May 4 Visitors Center, archival television footage reports on the battlefield being brought to America, as David Brinkley tells viewers, there were “four dead in Ohio” on May 4, 1970.
If you go
The May 4 Visitors Center is in 101 Taylor Hall, 300 Midway Drive, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio 44242.
Hours are: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Kent State student staff offer outdoor tours from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
The May 4 Visitors Center follows the Kent State University calendar, and is closed for the winter break, spring break, and scheduled Kent State University holidays.