You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A black-and-white image of members of the National Guard firing tear gas at student protestors at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Early on in my career at Kent State University, I wondered out loud, not as the leader of the university, but with my historian’s hat on, when “people,” that is, members of the general public, would no longer know anything about the shootings on our campus in May 1970. I said this to a retired Kent State professor who witnessed the shootings, and her response was rightfully indignant: how dare I suggest the event and its lessons would ever fade from memory.

More recently, a public official in Ohio asked me, “When are people up there going to get over that event?” And by that the person meant, when would anger toward state officials and the National Guard dissipate and disappear? My answer was these feelings would certainly not go away as long as survivors and family members are still with us, and hopefully never in light of the lessons we can draw from our history.

The name Kent State and references to the shootings have recently become ubiquitous as the media cover current college and university protests, and as some call for the use of the National Guard to quell these protests.

My point isn’t to wade into the protests, their structure, demands and organization, nor the opposition to them. Instead, I will simply say this as an historian and as the president of Kent State University: Our history is a bitter and vivid reminder of what happens when division and polarization crowd out peaceful dialogue and the search for understanding. To avoid this division and polarization, we embrace free speech while at the same time encouraging members of our community to practice kindness and respect when debating issues of the day. This is aspirational, we know. The alternatives can be dangerous.

The tragedy of Kent State is that four students were killed and nine were wounded while exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech. Nationally, we reached a boiling point in part because the discourse around the Vietnam War and student protests became so polarized. Student activists across the country demonized politicians and law enforcement to the point of making the latter targets of violence. In the spring of 1970, Ohio governor James Rhodes, a moderate Republican whose 1962 “Blueprint for Brainpower” succeeded masterfully in expanding public universities to meet the Baby Boom enrollment surge, blamed college students and universities writ large for the problems then facing the state and nation. His statements during an appearance in Kent the day before the shootings added fuel to a growing fire that demonized students and student activism. When those who have different positions or backgrounds are made less human, violence can follow.

Today, anti-university rhetoric echoes across the country. Universities, we are told, are what’s wrong with America. University leaders simultaneously are denounced for not doing enough to protect free speech rights and for being too lenient toward those practicing free speech. When an aggressive rhetoric tied to electoral politics demonizes universities, their leaders, their professors and students, violence can follow.

Our history is also a bitter and vivid reminder that when external troops are put in charge of dealing with student protesters, university leaders can lose control over what follows. In the days and hours before the Kent State shootings, members of the National Guard occupied our campus, patrolled our streets, and engaged in confrontations with student protesters, including bayonetting students the evening of May 3. There is great disagreement on whether then Kent State President Robert I. White did enough to avoid violence on this campus. There is also evidence that he wasn’t in charge by the morning of the shootings. When it isn’t clear who is in charge, violence can follow.

At least once a semester, I walk through the parking lot at Taylor Hall on our campus. This takes me past the memorials to the four students killed that day: Allison Krause (19), Jeffrey Miller (20), Sandra Lee Scheuer (20) and William Schroeder (19). Think about this: none of the four lived to reach the then-legal voting age of 21.

My walk then leads me past the discs marking where each of the nine wounded students were shot that day, including Dean Kahler, who was left permanently paralyzed, and Tom Grace: both of them, along with others, tirelessly discuss the lessons to be drawn from our tragedy.

Today and tomorrow, we will gather as we do every year to observe, learn and commemorate, via author and scholarly panels and presentations, a candlelight vigil, and a memorial service timed to begin at the moment the shooting happened, at 12:24 p.m. on May 4, 1970. That we do so year in and year out is a testimony to the unceasing work of the survivors, the relatives of the victims, the professors who were present that day, and the current student members of the May 4 Task Force to keep the memory and lessons of Kent State alive.

This year there is no chance our tragedy will go unnoticed. My hope is the lessons will also be remembered. Collectively, we have the opportunity to replace polarization, demonization and dehumanization with both a full-throated embrace of free speech and a commitment to peaceful dialogue.

Todd Diacon is president of Kent State University. Kent State has produced a new podcast documentary on legacies of the May 4 shootings.

Next Story

Written By

More from Views