Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Kent State Shootings: As Another Anniversary Approaches, Kent State Does Something Right . . . While Making Another Dopey Move


Recently, when I returned to Ohio and spent half a day in Kent, I was pleasantly surprised to find the new markers for the May 4 walking tour. The markers showed visitors how the events of May 4, 1970 unfolded and acknowledged what the university could not bring it itself to say for almost 40 years: that the killings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." That was the principal conclusion of The President's Commission on Campus Unrest, and probably the most significant piece of information that today’s students and visitors to the campus should know. Previously, that conclusion only appeared on a state of Ohio plaque erected 37 years after the fact. I suspect the only reason that came about was because I wrote a column scolding the university for not previously acknowledging that no one should have been killed.

I also felt the new markers, spread out around the perimeter of Taylor Hall, were a major improvement over Kent State's official memorial, which bears only a platitude: "Inquire, learn reflect." Kudos to faculty members Laura Davis and whoever arranged for the markers to be built. The markers were mostly overlooked during last year's 40th anniversary coverage, and it was about time that the KSU faculty did something worthwhile to preserve the memory of May 4 . . .

Unfortunately, the university appears to be on the verge of committing another blunder by demonstrating that after all these years, it still does not have a very good handle on what the tragedy was all about. When I was in Kent, I saw the tentative plans for the proposed May 4 Visitors Center. Even though parts of it looked promising and well thought through, the university appears to be still ignoring the victims’ decade-long struggle for justice for those killed. I have long felt that the university was trying to negate everything the victims worked for by acting as if the issues of justice, accountability, and getting clearer answers to the central question of why the triggers were pulled, were of little or no consequence. Those issues may not have been important to the university faculty and administration, but personally I think those were the primary reasons to even remember May 4. The tragedy turned into one of the most sustained injustices in modern American history. No one was ever held accountable for the many crimes committed at Kent. 

There is also a room discussing the historical context of the killings, centering around the theme: "Kent State raised awareness about the Vietnam War." That has to be one the dopiest things anyone has ever said or written about May 4. There are professional historians on the Visitors Center committee, and one wonders why none of them pointed out that the war was so unpopular two years earlier, that President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided he could never be elected for a second term. Or that Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy competed for the Democratic presidential nomination, both basing their campaigns on their opposition to the war. Even Richard Nixon ran and won the presidency with a promise that he had a "secret plan" to end the war; which, of course, he did not.

Not only that, the historians must have completely forgotten about the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the huge antiwar anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. in fall of 1969, and all the previous protests on campuses. To say that Kent State “raised consciousness” about the war is to trivialize every single major historical event that preceded it. America did not need Kent State to learn about the war. It was already the front and center national issue for more than two years.

To avoid looking foolish, the university needs to go back to the drawing board. Why cannot it just say "Kent State brought the war home"? At least it has the virtue of being a fact.