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Is Kent State in Denial About What Happened There 35 Years Ago?

Next May Kent State will commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the May 4, 1970 killings on its campus by doing what it always does. It will change the subject. The university recently announced it will sponsor a symposium, "Democracy and the Arts," which, like previous years' programs ("Democracy and Religion" and "Media and Profits"), has nothing even remotely to do with the killings of four of its students by members of the Ohio National Guard. Once again, Kent State has decided to play it safe rather than look in the eye of the most important event in its own history.

Had the tragedy occurred on any other campus, I suspect that university would have viewed it as an educational opportunity and would have invited all the leading experts to present their findings. In thirty-fifth years, Kent State has never once brought together the leading experts, and has rarely invited anyone other than their own professors (a.k.a. cheerleaders for the university) to comment on the subject. In fact, the people who probably have the most insight into May 4--the authors of the independent studies--are persona non grata at Kent. The last time the author of any major study was invited to speak at Kent was thirty years ago. That was back in 1975, when Peter Davies, the author of one of the earliest books, delivered a speech on the campus commons.

Kent State's approach to history is to pretend that there were no legal, factual, and historical issues that were of importance, either then or today. Apparently that suits their purposes. The university seems afraid of generating even the tiniest controversy, even though more than a generation has passed.

Of course, the problem with this tack is that by constantly diverting the community’s attention, Kent State actually helps people forget precisely what should be remembered.

Kent State damages history when it consistently sends the message that the tragedy is not worth scholarly attention. It treats May 4, 1970 as if it had no impact on the war in Vietnam or American history, and as if the journalists’ and the victims’ families "search for the truth"--that is, their decade-long search for answers to the questions about what happened and why—were of no consequence.

That attitude has even filtered down to this generation of Kent State students, where reporters for the student newspaper have attacked anyone who tries to keep the memory alive. One wonders if those students would feel the same if there were any reminders on campus of the few salient historical judgments about May 4, including the principal conclusion of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest: that the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."

There are not any reminders, either, about the multitude of funny things that happened during the nine and a half years May 4 wound its way through the courts. Not funny in the “ha ha” sense, but funny because there were so many unusual developments in the subsequent trials.

Although the following statement needs to be heavily footnoted, the bottom line is that not one person--not a single soldier who fired inexcusably into the crowd, nor a single protestor who destroyed property, or otherwise committed a crime--ever spent a day in jail as a result of any of the criminal proceedings. To me, that qualifies May 4 as the one greatest injustices of recent times. How and why this came to be should have been one of the major subjects subjected to scholarly scrutiny.

Footnote: I am not suggesting that Kent State wallow in the tragedy or even hold colloquia every year. I just believe that, thirty-five years later, Kent State scholars should be able to recognize what happened right under their noses. It was not that hard to find the debate. Most of the journalists, litigants, and authors were able to. Why cannot Kent State?

Related Links

  • Kent May 4 Center