What was it like to be at Kent State University on May 4, 1970? It’s a rare distinction to be sure, and one that bares a painful dichotomy. Most people who were on campus that day would like to forget what they witnessed, and yet are overwhelmingly compelled to help everyone around them remember and understand it all.
Such is the case for author and longtime Cleveland journalist Michael D. Roberts. A member of the Press Club of Cleveland’s Hall of Fame, Roberts is a former city editor and managing editor of The Plain Dealer, and served as editor of Cleveland Magazine for 17 years. He describes his time on campus immediately following the shooting as “very chaotic, and very much a culmination of the 1960s, in my opinion.”
Co-author of the book “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent” – which he completed in the summer of 1970 with fellow Plain Dealer reporter (now famed screenwriter) Joe Eszterhas – Roberts will share his memories of the day in a panel discussion during Kent State’s observation of the fateful day’s 40th anniversary. He will join other area media professionals at Kent State on May 4 for a panel discussion titled “The Reporters Who Were There.”
Arrival and inquiry
Roberts arrived on the scene at Kent State “about a half hour after the shooting,” he recalls in a recent interview. “And when I got there, the place was in total chaos.
“I didn’t get there until the ambulances had just left. Being there as reporter, the idea was to find out what exactly happened, but in those early hours, that was very hard to find out. The kids gave (me) four or five conflicting stories, and the (Ohio National) Guard just wasn’t talking,” Roberts says.
The first rumor that reached Roberts’ ears when he arrived was that a sniper had caused the gunfire.
“There was an indication later that there was a TV camera man at the top of one of the buildings,” Roberts adds.
“I think the Guard was hoping that there was an outside force, because basically what happened was a mistake.”
Roberts’ reaction when he finally understood what had taken place?
“I was angry at the kids, angry at the Guard and angry at the school leadership,” he says, adding that he felt Kent State’s headship at the time “walked away from everything” related to responsibility.
A protest turned tragedy
So, who decided to ban and disperse the student demonstration that – stoked by the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War – protested a U.S. military incursion into Cambodia?
“I don’t know whether it was school leadership or the Guard or the governor’s office (James A. Rhodes was governor at the time). The meeting had been planned (by the students), and there was nothing they could do or damage on the green,” Roberts offers.
“Instead of leaving the students where they had congregated, someone decided to disperse these kids. When (the Guard) started a skirmish line and began dispersing them, the kids flanked and surrounded the Guard – which changed the situation entirely. The Guard began to retreat, and that’s when the first shot was fired.”
Roberts recalls “something like 72 rounds fired” during the fateful 13 seconds.
“The most amazing thing was that there weren’t more people hurt and killed. It’s a miracle, really … Those M-1 rounds the Guard fired had a range of about a mile. At least two of the girls who were wounded that day were pretty far from the shooting.”
Tears, daze, befuddlement
If it seems like Roberts’ memories of May 4 are still vivid and surreal, it stands to reason. He still bristles at the aftermath.
“I remember a lot of kids crying,” he says. “I remember talking to the Guard’s brigadier general, asking him if they were going to speak to the media. He was dazed, just totally befuddled.
“I said to him, ‘You are going to have to address this. The national media will be here in an hour. You can’t let everyone speculate.’ I think he was going to have a press conference, but that didn’t happen.”
Roberts’ hopes for a real-time confutation by the Guard were dashed when a helicopter landed, delivering legendary Cleveland reporter Dorothy Fuldheim to the scene. He recalls the exchange.
“She arrived and called him a ‘killer,’ which was a total grandstand on her part. That pretty much ended any hope of a rebuttal – especially when you take into account the mood of the nation.
“As a country, we’d had race riots and the Vietnam War; (the shooting) was a culmination of everything happening at the time. The Guard should have just left them there,” adds Roberts after a pause. “And left them alone. But in an effort to disperse them, they created a moment of tragedy.”
“We have a tendency to look at these (incidents) and assassinations and build conspiracies into them,” offers Roberts, suggesting that it helps some in the reconciliation process.
“I think that by and large, this event was an incredible accident, but something that was going to happen somewhere in the country given the mood,” Roberts says. “But I would have predicted it to be at a campus somewhere in the Northeast … and certainly not here.
“I had just come from a year in Vietnam as a reporter and knew something about the military,” Roberts adds. “(The Guard) didn’t have a rifle company in the Guardsmen platoon, and they had never been trained for this. That, to me, was a disaster waiting to happen.”
Roberts adds that the Ohio National Guard had been armed during that weekend, patrolling the Ohio Turnpike because of snipers shooting at the road and a Teamsters union strike at the time. Roberts suggests the Guardsmen were likely “fatigued and nervous when they arrived in Kent.”
The reporter’s biggest lingering question to date arrived with an audio recording of the shootings a couple years ago.
“That recording – there’s one shot, the volley. I’m not certain anyone knows who the first shot was.”
Roberts, like many other authors and historians, considers this a possible “warning shot triggered when the Guard had their backs to the kids. Everything else was blind.”
Ultimately, the situation with the Guard “came down to leadership. They should have acted in a more prudent manner,” Roberts says. “Those soldiers didn’t know who was in charge and, I think, lost confidence in themselves. I think they panicked. But it’s easy to say that now. The times were intense back then.”
Where we are today
Roberts sees the Kent State University shootings “symbolizing a real low point in the country’s history, and something that shouldn’t be forgotten. It was Vietnam being fought on the home front.”
“It marked the end of the 1960s and the country really changed after that,” he says.
Asked if a tragedy like Kent State could happen again, Roberts is skeptical.
“I’m not sure such a protest would occur now. Think about it: Today, there’s no draft; there are two wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no one is protesting,” he says. “The mood of the country has definitely changed – we’re more introspective; individuals are more important than causes.
“I’m not sure Kent State could ever happen again today. We’re past the ‘Me Generation,'” Roberts finalizes. “But at the same time, there’s not a lot of concern about this country, either.”
The Press Club of Cleveland offers a panel discussion on May 4 including, along with Roberts, former Kent State photojournalism student John Filo (Pulitzer Prize winner for his iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of dead student Jeffrey Miller); Chuck Ayers, nationally celebrated cartoonist, writer and former Kent State student; and Janet Leach, assistant professor of journalism at Kent State University and former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. The event is open to the public.