Misconceptions and unanswered questions remain 40 years after the May 4, 1970, shootings on the Kent State University campus, according to two faculty members who were there during the conflict.
However, one of the professors thinks public perception has changed during the years, with many more people now viewing the wounded and dead students sympathetically. In addition, lessons learned from studying that 13 seconds of gunfire and the events leading up to them may have prevented future tragedies, according to both men.
Members of the Ohio National Guard responded to the Kent State University campus in May 1970 because of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. They encountered protesters and a blaze that destroyed the ROTC building on campus.
On May 4, the protests culminated in 13 seconds of gunfire from the National Guard’s M1 rifles that killed four students and wounded nine.
Jerry M. Lewis, 73, a professor emeritus of sociology, was a 33-year-old faculty marshal at the time. He was one of the faculty members attending the student rally in an attempt to prevent violence between the students and guardsmen.
“We weren’t trying to stop the protest, but we thought it would be smart to have perhaps wiser heads present during the protest,” Lewis said.
Lewis dove for cover once the gunfire unexpectedly erupted.
“I think they were firing high to bluff force, but nobody’s ever admitted to that,” Lewis said.
There has been debate throughout the past four decades as to exactly what prompted the guardsmen to open fire. Lewis said he doubts an answer will ever emerge that satisfies everyone.
“No, I think that’s disappeared into the silence of the Guard – why they fired,” he said.
The faculty marshals have been widely credited with preventing further violence following the gunfire, as many students were angry and some threatened to charge the guardsmen, who were armed with rifles and bayonets.
Lewis downplayed his role, crediting senior faculty members, including Glenn Frank, with defusing the situation.
“(They) convinced the students to leave the commons because it was quite clear that some of them wanted to stay for a long period of time, and a few wanted to attack the Guard,” Lewis said. “Of course, you could see the Guard had M1s and had bayonets. In my view, they clearly prevented further violence because the National Guard was very aggressive in dealing with this after the shootings.”
The site of the shootings was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February, and the university is opening a visitors center that will address the issues surrounding May 4.
Lewis credits several reasons for why the four-decade-old event continues to fascinate the public. First, the four-day event was a long-running drama that gripped the nation. Lewis compares it to the Shakespeare drama “Othello.”
“Secondly, it’s about excessive force used in a conflictual situation when students had a perfect right to protest and assemble,” Lewis said. “They were, essentially, except for words and gestures, nonviolent. And the third reason, of course, is the famous Mary Vecchio photo.”
Lewis was referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by then-photojournalism student John Filo in which he captured a teenage Mary Vecchio kneeling with her arms extended before the body of Jeffrey Miller. The emotionally charged photograph appeared in newspapers across the country.
The public’s attitude toward the shootings has shifted throughout the years, Lewis said.
“I think there was a great deal of hostility toward the students initially,” Lewis said. “I think that has moderated, and I think the faculty who have written about May 4 get some credit for that by telling the story and showing the distances (between the students and the guardsmen). But initially, it was sort of blaming the victim, and it was very tough.”
Thomas Hensley, a professor emeritus of political science, was also on campus 40 years ago. He agrees with Lewis that the public initially blamed the students for the conflict, but Hensley said he doesn’t believe those opinions have changed much since then.
“You don’t have to go very far from Kent to know there are still very deeply held feelings,” Hensley said, “and there haven’t really been events or publications or movies that have really done very much in terms of changing things.”
However, Hensley and Lewis hope that the creation of the visitors center and the addition of the site to the National Register of Historic Places will help to change public attitudes.
Both believe that law enforcement has benefited from studying the May 4 tragedy and examining ways to prevent similar confrontations during heated demonstrations.
“We haven’t had anything comparable, thank goodness, since,” Hensley said. “To me, that’s probably the most important lesson that has come out.”
Several misconceptions exist to this day about what happened on May 4, Lewis and Hensley said.
“One of the biggest misconceptions, and people are always surprised when I say it, is that not all of the guardsmen fired,” Lewis said. “There were 71 guardsmen on the hill. Only 28 fired. Can you imagine if 71 guardsmen had fired?”
In addition, many of the guardsmen who fired aimed their weapons into the air or shot into the ground, Lewis said.
“So, most of the killing and wounding was done by very few people,” he said.
A second misconception is that all of the students injured or killed were protesters, Lewis said. Some were merely observers or on their way to classes.
“I think the third misconception – and this has been proven with photographs – is that the Guard were under physical attack at the moment of the shooting,” Lewis said. “They were under verbal attack but not physical attack.”
Hensley agreed that numerous misconceptions persist. As an example, he cited a high school history book his daughter was reading that contained a mention of the Kent State shooting.
“These were people who felt the students were right and the guardsmen were wrong,” Hensley said. “It had one sentence on May 4, and it had four factual errors.”
He said the errors included an overstatement about how many students were shot in the back and mistakenly describing the students as trying to run away from the Guard before the shooting occurred.
Lewis and Hensley have co-written a book entitled “Kent State and May 4.”