Written by Amanda Levine for Spring 2020 print issue of The Burr Magazine
After the events on May 4, 1970, the students were ordered to leave campus. They were told to gather as many of their belongings as possible and quickly evacuate. They left in droves — catching the next bus out, carpooling or even hitchhiking on the highway.
Karen Cunningham, a professor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kent State, had a friend who was getting married in the summer of 1970. Her friend left her wedding dress in the residence hall room and did not have enough time to grab it before leaving campus on May 4. Cunningham says she did not know how long it was until her friend was able to get it back.
“They were basically told if they lived on campus to grab what they could and just leave,” Cunningham says.
The following school year, students and parents had mixed feelings about returning to campus. Some people across the country felt the participants in the protest got what they deserved, while others were traumatized by the events and did not return to Kent State.
Those who lived in Portage County reacted negatively, while people who lived farther away from Ohio had more sympathy for the students that day. The University President at the time, Robert White, called the events a “tragedy.”
“Everyone, without exception, is horror struck at the tragedy of the last few hours,” White said after the events on May 4 in an audio recording from the May 4 archives. “Unfortunately, no one yet is able to say with certainty what the facts of the situation are.”
Even though students were sent home, they were given the option to continue their course work. Retired professor Jerry M. Lewis, says undergraduates were offered the option to continue their classes on a pass/fail basis.
Lewis was a professor at Kent State during May 4. In an interview with KentWired, he says “There’s Sandy Scheuer’s spot — that’s the furthest spot away with the lights that come on at night — I was 15 yards behind her, so when the National Guard got up on the hill and turned right to fire, I saw the smoke coming out of the weapons and I had been in the Army and I knew they were real bullets so I dove for cover.”
Professors mailed their students coursework so they could still complete their credits. At the time, Lewis was teaching a class called Collective Behavior. One of his assignments after May 4 was for students to write an essay about “the mood of the campus prior to the shootings.”
“People were worried about the National Guard,” Lewis says. “That was the main thing. And, of course in those days, anything about Vietnam on a college campus quickly went to the draft, (be)cause young men could be drafted. And when I present I would say, ‘Of course it didn’t affect girls, too,’ and they would nod, and I said, ‘Of course it affected the girls. They were girlfriends and sisters and friends and wives.’”
Until 1975, the university held annual commemorations for the students who died that day. After 1975, the university did not hold any other events, and Kent State wanted to forget what happened, Cunningham says. 2020 will be the first time since 1974 the university will be planning the events.
“For years after May 4, the university really just wanted to forget it happened,” Cunningham says. “ …they held the commemorations up till 1975 and then announced, ‘OK, five years is long enough, we’re not going to do this anymore.’ At that point, that’s when the May 4 Task Force, a student group, formed and the May 4 Task Force basically ran the commemorations from 1976 and up through this past year.”
The group was provided with very little funding, she says. For big anniversaries like the 25th, 30th and this year, the 50th, the university provided more money to commemorate the events.
Sophomore political science major Ethan Lower and junior political science major Olivia Salter are student co-chairs for the May 4 Task Force this year.
Lower joined the Task Force because he is related to Glenn Frank, who was there on the day the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters. Frank was a professor at the time who tried to de-escalate the situation and begged the students to leave.
A memorial or a museum was not erected right after the events.The May 4 Visitors Center opened in 2014. In 1971, Hillel at Kent State University donated the plaque to honor the four students who died that day, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder.
Under former Kent State University President Lester Lefton, students involved with the May 4 Task Force worked with Cunningham as faculty adviser to create the museum and the memorial. The Task Force brought the proposal with them the first time they sat down with Lefton, Cunningham says. Lefton supported the idea but said there was not enough money.
Lefton told the members to raise the money for the memorial and proposed the idea of a walking tour. Today, the space is known as the Kent State University May 4 Visitors Center.
“At that point, they convened a number of parties throughout the university, formed a committee to kind of look at, ‘How do we make a visitor center happen?’” Cunningham says. “I was a member of that committee at the time. Again, they did the bulk of all the work that happened and were definitely responsible for transforming into what it is today.”
After May 4, controversies still revolved around who to blame for the events. Some students blamed the university and the administration, while others blamed the student protestors. To this day, the topic of the protest and the National Guard is still controversial.
Despite having the School of Peace and Conflict Studies, which was created as a result of May 4, the Visitors Center and a class solely about May 4, some students are still unaware of the gravity of the event. First Year Experience classes expose students to the historical event by taking them to the museum, but other than that, it is not talked about often in classes, Lewis says.
“To talk about (it) in classes — it means that professors have to be interested,” Lewis says. “I think most professors are not deeply interested in May 4. They may visit the site, they may read a couple of articles, but I think for the most part, you don’t hear professors talking about it. It’s overwhelming. It’s very complex. There’ve been over 40 books written on May 4 topics, and professors come in and they’re studying physics and English and their own topics. So any opportunity to get involved is a personal one, not a structural one from the point of view as a university.”
As the 50th anniversary approaches, there is some disconnect because of how long ago the events happened, Lower says. Students are aware of the events that occurred and what led up to them. However, there is not as much education on the ripple effects the protest and shooting had.
“It comes down to four students were killed for expressing their rights, and they didn’t even have the right to vote to express it elsewhere,” Lower says. “So this was their last opportunity, and they were there and they died for it. And that’s the most important thing.”
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, students were advocates for civil rights and also a part of the anti-war movement. The anti-war movement’s protests were built on the black power movement and the women’s movement. Students began protesting the war in response to the draft. College students were being drafted to fight in a war, but they could not vote. The protests led to the voting age being lowered from 21 to 18 and the end of the draft.
Student activism did not end in the ‘70s. It still has a large presence on college campuses today. Millennials, college and high school students created large social movements like March for Our Lives to end gun violence, national protests in Washington, D.C., the women’s march, protests to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I see a lot of issues involving young people that are extremely important like climate change, like student loans and student debt,” Lower says. “Our futures are really at stake here. We still (have) been involved in the longest-running war that the United States has ever been in, the war on terror, and that has not ended.”
Kent State gives students a platform to voice their opinions. Recently, students on campus advocated for Planned Parenthood, held anti-ICE protests and after President Donald Trump won the election, had a sit-in on Risman Plaza.
At Kent State, students continue to remember those four students who died on May 4, 1970. Protests on campus did not stop. Student activism is still prevalent across college campuses. Universities are a marketplace for ideas.
“Student participation, student voice is crucial to our campus,” Lower says. “And I think that we (university and students) have not squashed voices even though a lot of people have wanted to. We’ve all upheld that. That’s free speech, student speech, and from the ‘70s to today, further, anyone feels a certain way about what kind of speech it is. It’s been upheld, which I think is valuable.”
In 1970, students used their voices to create change and to protest the war. The shooting happened half a century ago, but Lewis says the event is important to history because of its lasting impact.
“It’s relevant, not because it happened on May 4, but because four students were killed and nine were wounded,” Lewis says. “And we have to keep remembering what Elie Wiesel says, ‘The way you deal with oppression is through memory.’ And I think that continually remembering on May 4 is essential to Kent State and to society in general.”