“Four dead in Ohio.” The lyrics to popular Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Ohio” weren’t just words to many. For witnesses of the May 4, 1970, Kent State shootings that left four students dead and nine wounded, it was reality.
Forty years later, two then-students, Carole Barbato and Laura Davis, and a young then-professor, Jerry M. Lewis, have made their alma mater their home once again and are professors at Kent. They have all been involved in educating students about the events of May 4, 1970, as well as working on various initiatives, including co-authoring, along with Professor Mark Seeman, an application to have the 17-acre site where the shootings occurred added to the National Register of Historic Places. They shared their stories of May 4, 1970, with us.
Q & A with Carole Barbato
Now a communications professor at Kent State, and co-professor of the May 4 course at the school, Barbato was a junior at Kent during the shootings. Since then, she has been active in developing the May 4 Visitors Center and was one of the four co-authors of the application to add the May 4 site to the National Register of Historic Places, which was approved in February.
Were you a witness to the shootings?
“I was present for the Friday rally after the announcement of Richard Nixon’s excursion into Cambodia the evening before, but not at the shootings. I had every intention of attending the rally, but my communications professor spent the whole 50 minutes of class convincing those of us who raised our hands saying we were going not to go. It must have been something in his voice and his persuasiveness, so I decided not to go.”
How did you find out about the shooting?
“A professor came into our 1:10 (p.m.) class and said students had been shot and some were killed. (Later,) I was on the campus bus when a young man came in with a flag draped in the blood of the students who were wounded or dead. I immediately got off the bus and ended up walking for quite a while before I got back to my off-campus house and waited for my roommates to come (home). We knew at that time students had been killed, but couldn’t get out on the telephone. The only thing you could do was sit and wait, but eventually all of my roommates did come home.”
What was the scariest part of the whole day?
“There were a lot of scary things. I think that rifles were loaded and used on college students was a horrible shock, and to think that people were wounded and dead. Not being able to get accurate information was kind of a horrible thing. (We were also) yanked out of the safe environment of the university and taken home, where you couldn’t talk to people who had experienced the same thing you had that weekend. That was probably the most difficult thing to deal with.”
What was the atmosphere like on campus when students returned that fall?
“It was a bit oppressive, I have to say. We were all told to display our student IDs so they knew we were official students on campus. I think there was a lot of anger that had been pent up over the course of the summer, and the trials were starting to commence in September. There was a lot of anger and frustration over what many people knew was misinformation that was being communicated through the media and translation of what was going on in the trials. It was a pretty tough time.”
Why did you later return to Kent to be a professor?
“It wasn’t anything the university did to me; it was a very unfortunate circumstance, and I had a lot of fond memories (at Kent). Dean Kahler, one of the students who was paralyzed, said, ‘I only had one bad day at Kent.’ I had a lot of really fond memories of Kent and had the opportunity after I graduated to come back to graduate school (at Kent). I did so, then I got a job at one of the regional campuses and have been there ever since.”
Why did you get involved with co-authoring the application to have the May 4 site added to the National Register of Historic Places?
“I think there’s several reasons. I know, as a student and a professor at Kent, (it) has become a place where people all over the world actually come to see what happened. It was a historical event and recognized as a historical event by the Department of the Interior. The other (reason) is to make sure that we do tell the story of Kent State and what happened here to have that go (on) long after we’re gone. It’s been 40 years, and not all of us will be around to tell the story as we are now. It’s important for this to be a part of the national historical record of our nation.”
As someone who was present on campus during the incident, what is it like teaching current students about the day?
“It’s wonderful. The students are so curious. (The course: May 4, 1970, and Its Aftermath) is an elective for them; they don’t have to take this course. They are curious and engaging; it’s just invigorating. It’s a horribly difficult subject to teach, but so rewarding because these students learn so much. After our first year of teaching, one of our students turned to us and said, ‘Why didn’t you just leave when they told you to leave?’ (We thought), these kids have such different experiences than we did in the ’60s. We saw protests all over the place. We immerse our students in the culture of the 60’s, so they understand the environment where it took place.”
Q & A with Laura Davis
Davis, a professor of English and faculty coordinator for May 4 initiatives, was a freshman on campus during the 1970s. Currently, she is the co-professor with Barbato for the May 4 course, and also participated in the co-authoring of the National Register of Historic Places application. Davis has also coordinated and co-led the creation of an audio-guided walking tour of the historic site, to be dedicated on this May 4, which is the 40th anniversary.
What did you witness that day?
“Shortly after noon the guards started dispersing the rally on the commons. Nothing in particular was happening. I know now from having studied the event, guardsmen had decided earlier in the morning to disperse the rally. Dispersal wasn’t done because of anything that was happening. (At that point), the rally was a crowd of people standing by the victory bell at the commons, the usual gathering point for demonstrations. People were chanting occasionally, giving the finger to the guard. The guards started dispensing tear gas from their end, 500 feet away, so it was easy enough for most people, and for me, to walk out of the path of the tear gas. It was a large, open area and a windy day, so the tear gas didn’t necessarily affect a large number of people.
Guards started advancing, holding their rifles straight out, and when they started advancing across the field, people, of course, moved up the hill, away from the direction that the guard was coming from.”
What were you thinking at that point?
“Basically, to leave the area, you had to go either around one side of the building or the other. I went through the corridor that most of the people who dispersed from the rally went through. I didn’t want to stay out in front of the guards; I didn’t know how long they’d keep marching. I went down the hill to the right, and the guards came up and over the hill and kept marching straight, out to a practice field. I was thinking they’d probably keep marching for a certain amount of time and then turn around and go back. I assumed the rally would reconvene for a while and naturally break up; people would leave to go to lunch or class or whatever. After 10 minutes I saw the guards marching up the hill again and I thought – what I assumed was true – (that) they were marching back. What happened instead was I saw the line of guards turn in unison and the front edge of the guards lowered down, lifted rifles in unison and then began to fire, in the opposite direction from where I was standing.”
Did you expect the guards to shoot?
“No. I’ve never met anybody in my life who thought the guns were loaded and expected shootings to take place.”
What was the scene like immediately after?
“I just curled over and started screaming, ‘They’re shooting their guns!’ A friend pulled me into a nearby residence hall, then someone came in and said people had been shot. We went out into the scene. I got close to where Jeffrey Miller was lying. I remember seeing him lying there, and I didn’t process the fact that he was probably dead; just remember being struck by how still he was. I also kept a certain amount of distance; (I had) an innate sense that it wouldn’t be respectful to go up and stand over him and gawk at him. From there, I walked over from the direction of where another person was lying on the ground, looked, and from that spot, looked at the whole scene of 10 acres. I saw people standing in clusters and realized they were looking at other people who were lying on the ground. From there, (I) went back down to the commons where other people had gone back to the commons basically just to say a silent protest against what the guards had done.”
When did you ultimately leave?
“After people gathered at the victory bell, the Ohio National Guard had marched back from where they came from. It was clear that they were determined that people not be assembled at the victory bell. We staged a sit-in by the slope, and Professor Glenn Frank was seated with us and was crying. (He) convinced us that we had to leave, so the people that were sitting around me decided (we would) do what he was asking and follow him across the commons. People dispersed from the commons at that point, went back to the residence halls and were made aware of the order to evacuate the campus within three hours.”
How has May 4, 1970, affected your life and career path?
“My experience on that day has been very related to the path I’ve always followed in my teaching. I would say the main thing I’ve always tried to do, and this hasn’t necessarily been a plan, (but I’ve) always tried to talk with students about being critical readers. Not critical in the sense of negative, but critical in the sense of discerning, by listening to words and perceiving images and thinking about those images, which are forms of how people communicate with one another. I think that it’s all about communication, and it’s going to be helpful to the future of the word if people are as discerning as possible in how they understand and deconstruct the way others are. Learning language, understanding the truth and significance in what others are saying and messages coming from government and politicians is related to what I think is a major lesson of May 4 – that we have to keep talking to one another and keep communicating. (We) have to respect difference of opinions and overcome the barriers and difficulties that come up. There has to be a way of working out difference and it comes primarily from keeping lines of communication open.”
Q & A with Jerry M. Lewis
Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent, was a faculty marshal on May 4, 1970. As a witness to the shootings, he has devoted time to researching the event as well as co-authoring a book and participating as a co-author in the application for the National Register of Historic Places.
What was the role of the faculty marshals on May 4?
“We saw ourselves as a calming presence. We basically felt, really, across the board in terms of discipline, that when students were protesting, there should be a faculty presence. In many cases, we could talk to police and to the students. The best way to explain is that we were a calming presence. We weren’t trying to stop nor encourage (the rally). We were just a presence.”
What did you do that day as a faculty marshal?
“Not much before (the shooting). I got out there a little before noon, and we were observing the crowd, who was basically chanting – pretty vulgar chanting – and giving the finger. The guards were over 100 yards away and neither group was moving. The guards started coming across the commons, got halfway across and started tear gassing. We followed the students as they tried to get away from the tear gas. The guards were moving up toward the pagoda, and just as they got up to the top, they turned and fired. I dove for cover and was on the ground long enough that bullets were still flying. I got up and said, ‘What should I do?’ Then a student came up to me and said, ‘Those were blanks, weren’t they?’ And I pointed to (one of) the bodies.”
What was the role of the faculty marshals after the shooting?
“After the shooting we became very active in marshaling, trying to convince the students to leave. We took the lead from the senior marshals and convinced the students to leave. The guards had said they were going to come again, and the fear was not so much the weapons, but the bayonets, which were 8 inches long. Glen Frank, a senior marshal, gave a very emotional speech, saying, ‘You must leave; it’s very dangerous.’ (The students) didn’t want to leave; they wanted to stay and protest. They kept yelling, ‘Who shot? Who fired?'”
What was the scariest part of the experience?
“By far, when the guards were getting ready to come again. I was terrified. I knew about the bayonets. The students were so angry, and I was fearful for a clash between unarmed students and armed guards. Thank goodness the senior faculty marshals were crucial in convincing the students to leave.”
Did you think the National Guard would use force?
“Well, sure, but not the kind of force they used. I felt the students should keep separating themselves away, but had no concept they would fire and no reason to fire. In all crowd situations, (guards should) warn the people that you have loaded weapons, and there was a lot of bitterness about that. A couple people in the administration knew the weapons were loaded.”
Why did you get involved with the National Register?
“I think survivors’ guilt is one driving force – the fact that I survived; and as a student of crowd behavior, it’s an important (event) to study. Really, after the 20th anniversary, I began to realize how important May 4 was to people nationally and internationally. If we were going to tell it, we had to tell it right.”