A brief write-up of Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience at Kent State, 1970. (Kent State University Press: 2019 ($34.95).
Howard Ruffner did something very clever in his just-published collection of photographs taken at Kent State just before and during the May 4, 1970 killings. Ruffner, a photographer and stringer for Life magazine (where some of his photographs originally appeared), enhanced his famous photograph of the Guardsmen turning and preparing to fire on the students. As Ruffner notes, his enhanced photographs show a complete absence of rocks by the feet of the Ohio National Guardsmen.
For those who are old enough to remember the campus killings, Ruffner's photographs just demolish the Ohio National Guards' claims that they were pelted with rocks and other objects before they fired to protect themselves from a lemming-like crowd of crazed students. Ruffner's photographs may be the most damning evidence that the Guardsmen did not tell the truth and the four fatalities did not deserve to be killed.
The rest of Ruffner's photographic memoir consists of a brief retelling of his background, a review of how he became one of the most important witness for the victims during both the criminal proceedings and a civil trial alleging wrongful death and injury. He also provides other photographs taken both before the shootings, and in its immediate aftermath, and in the four days following President Richard Nixon's announcement that he was sending combat troops into Cambodia, which many students considered to be an expansion of a hated war.
Ruffner’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the tragedy, and reminds us that while there might be plenty of "moments of truth," we still do not why a faraway war came home to America's campuses.
Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties, Thomas Grace, University of Massachusetts Press, $90 hardcover/$19.95 paperback
Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings, Craig S. Simpson and Gregory S. Wilson, Kent State University Press, $28.95
67 Shots: Kent State and The End of American Innocence, Howard Means, da Capo Press, $25.99
This spring three new books will revisit the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State. Two of these books were written mostly for academic audiences, while the third was written by a professional author.
The first study was written by Thomas Grace, a KSU alumnus who was severely wounded when an Ohio National Guard bullet shattered his left ankle, leaving him with a limp. Grace is now an adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College in College in Buffalo, NY, and the only one of the nine wounded survivors I have never met. I had plenty of opportunity, but had no desire to, after he told a friend “the only way you get justice is to pick up a gun.”
It is not clear whether Grace still subscribes to that view, but his heart and mind still belong with sixties militants. His book is mostly an academic history of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and antiwar protest at Kent and throughout the United States, followed by a detailed recounting of the events of 1970, which culminated with the four unnecessary deaths on May 4, 1970. Grace devotes a good 200 pages to this pre-1970 history, but never adequately explains why he joined the SDS. Nor does he try to connect the dots between the behavior of former SDSers (which, as a group, had been officially banned from campus) and the May 2 destruction of the university's ROTC building and the killings on May 4.
In fact, Grace removes himself from the equation so completely that you forget he was an active participant in the protests. The Justice Department concluded that Grace, as well as Canfora, waved a flag and encouraged people to throw rocks at the Guardsmen. Grace was also close friends with Thomas "Aquinas" Miller who was involved in the arson of the ROTC building. Grace does not acknowledge what his friend did, and his portrayal of himself as an innocent bystander in all these events struck me as being disingenuous. As knowledgeable as Grace is about the events of May 4, he seems to holding back on everything he knows. His Kent State is definitely not a tell-all book. One is tempted to call it closer to what the Nixon administration used to call (during the Watergate cover-up) "a limited, modified hang-out."
The second book, the bizarrely titled Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings, was co-written by Craig S. Simpson, a former archivist at Kent, and Gregory S. Wilson, a history professor at the nearby University of Akron. Although the title makes it sound like these scholars were in an invisible blimp watching the action below, Simpson explains in his introduction what he really meant: "We, as authors and historians, have sought to stay above the din and present a multitude of perspectives, respecting (if not always agreeing with) the views of the narrators."
The narrators in this case are mostly former students and faculty members who shared their recollections with Kent State's Oral History Project organized some 20 years after the fact. The majority of the statements were collected at least ten years after more than 8,000 pages of FBI reports and a 13,000 page trial transcript became available, making the oral history project redundant at best.
The book at least publishes excerpts from some of the better narratives, while intermittently lecturing on the theories of oral history. I would say that I am not a big fan of this Weenie School of History--where historians are too afraid to weigh in on any controversy--but my wife says I should always find something positive to say about other people's hard work. So I will say this: after four and a half decades and half a dozen books published by the Kent State Press, Kent State has finally found two scholars who will at least acknowledge there was a debate.
Mazel tuv, Kent State. 46 years later, you have taken another baby step!
At least Howard Means, the author of the third book, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, was willing to wade into that debate. His book is the 36th on what is known by shorthand as May 4 (if you count all the children's books, novels, and subdisciplinary scholarly works.)
In telling the story Means, a professional author, relies extensively on the same oral histories as Simpson and Wilson. His book, however, is better written, and he does a better job distilling the collection’s few nuggets and molding them in a mostly chronological narrative.
In an attempt to be fair, Means faithfully reports what all sides claimed. His book may not break any new ground, but the book's real significance is that Means is now the sixth of the eight major May 4 authors to agree that the shootings were deliberate. That in itself is a pretty damning statement against the Ohio National Guard.
Finally, there is one issue that casual readers probably would not pick up on, but which actually is emblematic of the often atrocious behavior quietly taking place behind the scenes. Personally, I found it annoying that even though my own book on the shootings (Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?) clearly influenced Means (Means seconded over 20 major conclusions I reached 26 years earlier), Means refused to mention me once. (For that matter, he refused to credit all the other authors for their original reporting and research.) Both casual readers and scholars who check his source notes might jump to the wrong conclusion that everything Means reports in his book originated from Means himself.
Here’s an example: on page 43 of his book, when discussing the arson of the university's ROTC building two days before the students were killed, Means reports that two previously unidentified individuals (the both now-deceased Thomas “Aquinas” Miller and George Walter Harrington, the brother of another of Grace's friends), were among those who helped set the university’s ROTC building on fire. This information–-specifically, the identities of these two arsonists--did not originate from Means' research. It was actually lifted from the first chapter of the updated e-book version of my book, which was the first book on the killings to identify the arsonists. Despite this, and the almost identical conclusions we both reached--Means never once acknowledged the existence of my book. He even excluded Four Dead in Ohio from his bibliography, while mentioning virtually all the other essential May 4 books. It was almost as if he did not want to anyone to draw comparisons between his book and mine.
Just to be clear, Means does not actually plagiarize anyone; he simply makes all the previous chroniclers of the Kent State tragedy magically disappear.
After a 13-year lull, Alan Canfora has revived his campaign to damage my reputation and dissuade people from reading my book on the 1970 Kent State shootings. Not only is he trying to undermine my expertise, but he is also trying to intimidate me into silence. In doing so, he only succeeds in reminding us that he is his own worst enemy.
My book seems to infuriate him for a number of reasons, including the fact I am not on board with his attempts to wholly rewrite the history of the Kent State murders. As I see it, far from being a hero or a patriot (as he has variously described himself), Canfora was one of the bad actors who stupidly tested the limits of the National Guard's patience. He was the one person who emerged from the crowd of protestors, walked within 100 feet of the Guardsmen, and provocatively waved what his sister has described as a "black flag of anarchy," much like a bullfighter in a ring. While Canfora remains proud of his actions, there is little question that his recklessness put himself and his fellow students in danger. Perhaps not mortal danger (the Scranton Commission, after all, determined the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable"), but he made it much easier for the troops to pull the triggers, resulting in the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others, including Canfora, who received a minor wound when was shot in the wrist.
My book also undoubtedly infuriates Canfora because I do not give a crap about what he repeatedly refers to as "our revolt." Like many college students at the time, I was opposed to the war in Vietnam but I certainly never joined a group advocating violence to end violence like Canfora's Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I believe that if you commit a crime you should be prepared to do the time, and that everyone who committed crimes at Kent State (students and Guardsmen alike) should have been brought to justice.
If new evidence is to be believed, Canfora may have even participated in the destruction of the university's Army ROTC building two nights before the shootings. A new book, Fortney Road, devotes a chapter to Canfora's close buddy Thomas "Aquinas" Miller, a Kent State dropout, local drug dealer, and fellow member of the SDS offshoot "the Kent Krazies." The book reports that Miller told his brother John that he helped burn down Kent's ROTC building. Since Canfora and Miller seemed practically joined at the hip on May 4 (both waved the anarchist flags), it is not unreasonable to ask if Canfora joined his friend in the repeated attempts to burn down the building.
Canfora is no doubt also upset that I've been the first author to expose his four-decades-long record of either outright lying and/or deceiving the press and the public about all kinds of matters pertaining to May 4. No one else at the university dares to challenge or correct him whenever he starts propagandandizing, lest they receive the same treatment he has given me and numerous other people involved in the Kent State case.
In the recently released expanded e-book edition of Four Dead in Ohio I wrote:
“COMPULSIVE, HABITUAL OR PATHOLOGICAL?: Alan Canfora’s disproven claim that the words, “Right here. Get set. Point. Fire,” appear on the tape of the shooting was hardly the only time Canfora misled the public . . .
Another untrue statement Canfora made came under oath at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, when he testified he was never an activist or member of the SDS (Krause vs. Rhodes, Vol. 16, pgs. 3719 and 3727) . Canfora has since proudly admitted publicly that both of these claims are true.
In a January 18, 1982 interview for this book, he admitted to me that he lied to the FBI (again while under oath) when he told them that he was 50-75 feet farther away from the soldiers then he actually was. Canfora told me the reason he lied was because he was worried about being indicted by the state grand jury (which he ultimately was).
He also testified at the trial that he did not participate in the ROTC fire and only watched it from a distance of 400 feet (Krause v. Rhodes, page 3653). Canfora later referred to “our original crowd” (ProActivist.com, June 24, 1999), as if he were a leader, and [wrote] how “we were thrilled that about 2,000 students left their dorms and joined our anti-war march.” In 2000 Canfora was even quoted by Erin Kosnac, a reporter for the the campus yearbook, the Burr, as saying he was in the “thick of things” during the pre-shooting protests, and that he was relieved that he was only indicted for second degree rioting. (“The Human Side of History,” Burr, Spring 2000, p. 41). That admission strongly suggests he is still covering up his involvement in more serious crimes . . .
Canfora’s lack of truthfulness at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial so concerned Arthur Krause, the father of slain co-ed Allison Krause, that he confided to friends that he feared losing the case “because of Canfora’s lying.”
That is not all. Years later, Canfora conned William Canterbury, a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, into writing a front-page story that Universal Studios would, in 1997, make a major motion picture about his life (“Kent State tragedy heads for silver screen,” Akron Beacon Journal, February 12, 1996). It turned out that all Universal did was option the rights to his still unpublished book, which he has claimed to have worked on since at least 1984 and which he has yet to produce. The proposed movie never went beyond the initial development stage and was abandoned by Universal long before Canfora eventually conceded the movie would not be made.
While Canfora had told reporters all he wanted was to find the truth about the shootings, and that he was not interested in revenge, he proved otherwise by establishing a web site, “Kent May 4th Central,” on the 30th anniversary of the killings.
“Kent May 4th Central” was, of course, a play on words of Canfora’s so-called “charity,” the “Kent May 4th Center.” Although Canfora denies any involvement in the establishment of the site, one does not have to be a linguist to recognize that “Kent May 4th Central” used language identical to what Canfora wrote in his other postings. “Kent May 4th Central” also included two telltale links: one back to Canfora’s personal website and the other to his so-called “charity,” the “Kent May 4th Center.”
“Kent May 4th Central” published the names, home addresses, and in some instances the telephone numbers of the Guardsmen who were on Blanket Hill on May 4 and urged his fellow activists to visit these men at their homes, ask them questions, and take their pictures. It was essentially an invitation to harass the soldiers a full 30 years after the fact.
Canfora removed the site after a few days, presumably so the site’s existence would not be traced back to him. However, as most readers know by now, once something appears on the Internet, it never can be completely erased.
Canfora was caught in yet another lie when he told reporters that as the “charity”’s director, he was volunteering his services for free. At the same time he made this declaration Canfora submitted a budget to the IRS (later made available to this author) indicating he intended to pay himself a salary of $30,000 a year.
Canfora also pretended to be a spokesman for the parents of the dead students and the other wounded survivors. While all of the parents wanted the soldiers who killed their children to be held accountable, none of them, as far as I can tell, gave a damn about his “revolt” or his glorification of student protest . . .
Canfora also fabricated out of whole cloth claims that I was “the National Guardsmen’s best friend,” despite the fact I did more than he did to get the soldiers prosecuted. He also falsely claimed on his website that I was in cahoots with the author of another book on May 4, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo (whom I’ve had no contact with). And he maliciously repeats his fabricated claim that I was a disruptive person and was thrown out of meetings between the victims and their attorneys during the 1975 civil trial. It never happened. While it is true that I had attended earlier strategy meetings before the litigation started, I never attended any of the attorney-client trial meetings Canfora referred to. Moreover, I have never been thrown out of a meeting in my life or been involved in a disruptive event. I am simply not that type of person.
The “disruptive” tag, however, fit Canfora himself like a glove, and I have long noticed how he projects his own worst qualities onto others whenever he fights with them.
(End of Part One. Part Two to follow.)
The FBI has finally released a summary of its report showing how it tested the tape of the Kent State shootings, and the summary confirms that the tests used to dispute two audio experts' claims that there was a "prepare to fire" order were based on technology that is "beyond antiquated."
That is what audio forensics expert Stuart Allen told me after I read to him the summary the FBI report made available after numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. The report states that the FBI used RAP-R 2, SoundForge3, AvidPro Tools, AdobeAudition3, and ES-4 as opposed to SoundForge10 and the more advanced Russian S.I.S. Sound Cleaner. Allen's fellow forensics expert Tom Owen similarly dismissed the FBI's tools as "off the shelf vendor stuff" that cannot replicate the results Allen and Owen obtained.
At issue here is whether or not a command "prepare to fire" was issued by someone in the Ohio National Guard shortly before the troops fired into a crowd of protestors at Kent State on May 4, 1970, killing four students and wounding nine others. The soldiers denied under oath at the 1975 civil trial that any such orders were issued, and if Allen and Owen's interpretations are correct, it means at a minimum there was extensive perjury at the trials. Some survivors of the May 4, 1970 tragedy believe that it also proves the Guard committed murder. A presidential commission in 1970 concluded the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
Although most of the contributing causes of the May 4, 1970 killings have been identified, the precipitating cause remains the subject of debate. The controversies surrounding the killings are not acknowledged in the university's new May 4 Visitors Center, which will be celebrated this Saturday, the 43rd anniversary of the killings, with panel discussions and a speech by filmmaker Oliver Stone.
There is a professor at Kent State who has a rather nasty habit of sabotaging anyone he perceives as a professional threat. Although he does not dare say anything publicly, he has been quietly trying to discredit his competitors by claiming their work is riddled with errors.
For example, in 1990, when American History Illustrated published an article he wrote, he vehemently tried to convince Geneva Politzer, the magazine's editor, not to publish an accompanying article by freelance writer Lesley Wischmann. The professor claimed her article contained numerous errors of fact. Politzer then asked the professor to itemize the mistakes. When push came to shove the professor had to back down and admit he could not even cite one single example. Wischmann's article was subsequently published and, would not you know it? Neither I nor anyone else found any errors or problems with anything she wrote.
Word also reached me that the professor emeritus, Jerry M. Lewis, has been conducting a whispering campaign against my book, making the same unsubstantiated charges. Again, he would only talk in generalities and could not cite one single example. It was, of course, deliberate slander, pure and simple.
One of the reasons Lewis' lies infuriated me is that I take great pride in my journalism. In the 22 years since my book was originally published, no one--not a single scholar, journalist, or groupie--has ever identified any error of fact, either significant or nitpicking. No one has ever claimed I misquoted them or did not accurately report what was in any historical documents. No one has ever suggested that I was less than conscientious with the mountains upon mountains of raw material that attorneys deliberately created and preserved for historians to study. And, of course, I am still the only chronicler of this event who has actually studied and written about them.
The failure to find errors in my book is something that cannot be said about most other books about the killings, including books by two Pulitzer Prize winners, James Michener and Philip Caputo. Kent State professors, fellow journalists, and attorneys for the defendants found numerous problems with Michener's reporting, and Caputo committed a few sloppy errors that his more radical critics blew out of proportion because he was not one of them.
I have no problem with people disagreeing with my conclusions. May 4 certainly was not a black-and-white case, and disagreements are to be expected any time a writer tackles a highly controversial cause celebre. But as far as my basic reporting is concerned, I feel I deserve to be commended for treating an enormous body of evidence in such a conscientious manner. Instead, I found myself the subject of a smear campaign, and I do not like it one bit.
A few things need to be said here. First, Lewis has several reasons to be unhappy with my book. Not only did I not praise his scholarship, but I skewered his tortured subdisciplinary reasoning for recommending the main campus memorial be built. While others felt the memorial was needed because four students were killed in a tragedy a presidential commission called "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable," Lewis felt a memorial was needed because it "sensitized America to regimented lines of communication and authority. May 4 changed forever how future demonstrations--peaceful or otherwise--must be perceived, analyzed, understood. and settled nonviolently."
I also ridiculed him and his colleagues for their obstinate refusal to acknowledge the real debate. I also did not feed his supersized ego. One year Jerry, apparently confusing himself with a celebrity, actually gave his students a handout of his schedule of his upcoming TV appearances.
And perhaps most importantly, my book contains some highly embarrassing revelations about the nutty professor. On pages 256 and 257, the book reveals how, in a matter of a few days, Lewis shapeshifted himself from a champion of campus radicals who opposed a federal grand jury investigation, to someone who voluntarily became a secret informant against the victims. Jerry briefed then KSU President Glenn A. Olds about a confidential meeting among the victims in which their legal strategy was discussed. Four Dead in Ohio discloses a document I discovered in the archives which demonstrated this happened at a time when the victims were suing the university. It was akin to someone infiltrating a legal defense. Jerry did this after he spoke out in defense of the radicals who opposed the grand jury investigation, and was roundly humiliated by Arthur Krause, the father of slain student Allison Krause, who exploded: "Jerry, that is the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" Lewis kept quiet for the rest of the meeting, but he later retaliated against Krause by briefing Olds and again later by telling me that Krause was crying on cue during a television interview, as if Krause was faking his grief.
And, of course, Jerry has also been threatened by my research. I did not quite understand why he urged me so strongly to give up seeking publication until the president of a U.S.-Canadian textbook distribution company told me that my book was perfect for classes in "Social Problems." That happens to be Lewis' field of expertise. Incidentally, he assigned his own May 4 textbook in that class. Jerry will not be happy to hear that my book has been adopted for classes at nine or ten universities.
I hope there are a few professors at Kent who are wise enough to challenge Lewis the next time he pulls this crap. As far as I am concerned, he is shamelessly intellectually dishonest. And an absolute disgrace to his profession.
My recommendation for a new word in The American Heritage and other dictionaries:
to "jerrylewis" someone
Definition: To sabotage one's competitor, especially one who has far surpassed his own work.
Yes, he wants to be the leading expert on the Kent State shootings so badly that I am going to oblige him. I intend to make him into a household name.
The Plain Dealer published another front-page story today, and this one threw cold water on the audio experts' claim that they could discern an order to fire on the tape of the Kent State shootings. Apparently the Justice Department quietly asked the FBI to re-examine the Terry Strubbe tape, even though it already closed the case almost two years earlier. The FBI's experts supported Justice's decision by referrng to the previous evaluation of the tape conducted 38 years ago. That earlier analysis concluded that rather than demonstrating a clear order to fire, the voices on the tape were unintelligible. The FBI's analysis also conveniently exonerated FBI informant Terry Norman by claiming the sounds that Stuart Allen concluded were gunfire were actually the closing of doors in Strubbe's dorm room.
Almost immediately after the story hit the papers, Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich asked the Justice Department to release the FBI's complete report on the tape so it could be determined whether the FBI used the same advanced technology that Stuart Allen and Tom Owen used when it reached completely opposite conclusions. Allen denounced the FBI's conclusion as beyond ludicrous and there seems to be some question as to whether or not the FBI, in analyzing the tape, relied on the outdated 1974 study. In other words, we do not know whether the FBI compared apples to apples or apples to oranges.
I will have more on this latest development once the details of this FBI analysis is released. In the meantime, John Mangels' story in the Plain Dealer can be found at:
A Plain Dealer editorial arguing for the need for "a full and proper investigation of the tape's contents" can be found at:
After I wrote the article about Stuart Allen, saying he detected a second and actual order to fire (which no newspaper in the country, including the Daily Kent Stater, covered) I heard from John Mangels, the Plain Dealer's science reporter. Mangels was the author of the three front-page stories that gave rise to the calls for a new investigation. That made him, as far as I am concerned, one of the unsung heroes of May 4. He reminded me that he interviewed Captain Ron Snyder for his initial story on May 9, 2010, and that Snyder (like Captain Martin and Sergeant Matthew McManus) challenged Allen's finding, claiming the preliminary order did not sound like an order someone in the military would give.
That had completely slipped my mind, probably because Ron "Cynanide" Snyder is not a source I ever gave much credence to. That is partially because Snyder was not even among the squad that opened fire that day and thus, was not in a position to know what really happened. His unit was on the other side of Taylor Hall when the shootings broke, and the building completely blocked his view.
Also, I still cannot get out of my head something said about Snyder after he originally told author James Michener, the Akron Beacon Journal, and a state grand jury that he confiscated a gun and brass knuckles off the body of slain student Jeffrey Miller. Snyder subsequently admitted he fabricated this claim because he wanted to make the victims seem dangerous, thereby making the shootings look justifiable. Snyder decided to come clean after the Justice Department started investigating this claim. I saw papers on Judge Frank Battisti's law clerk's desk suggesting the Justice Department seriously considered indicting him for perjury before the original state grand jury.
I once had a beer with the editor who directed the ABJ's coverage, and he told me: "If he told me his name was Snyder, I still would not believe him."
Snyder, incidentally, once guest lectured to my class in criminal justice at Kent in the spring of 1973. In a case of bad timing, I only found out about it afterwards. I had played hooky that day . . .
Another interesting but not exactly earthshattering item: A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Justice Department's Freedom of Information office in response to an appeal I made for any records showing that the Justice Department did anything when they were asked to reinvestigate the new evidence. The Department's appeals division ignored part of my request and claimed they had no records of any such requests for reinvestigation, even though Justice Department officials met with a wounded survivor, other former students, and their attorney in May 2010. The Department's position--that there never were any calls for reinvestigation, and that no records ever were kept of this meeting, sounded highly suspicious to me.
If the Department was telling the truth, that meant that all the public calls for a new investigation were made for publicity purposes, not to get the investigation. The wounded survivor I mentioned used to repeatedly get headlines by calling for additional investigations. Should not have he have made a formal request in writing? And did he and the others already understand that the only statute that still could be used to prosecute the Guardsmen--homicide--is a state, not a federal crime? The truth is there was not anything the Justice Department could have done anyway, save perhaps ask the National Academy of Sciences to review the tape and provide a second opinion . . .
Finally, I recently received an e-mail out of the blue from a former Colorado National Guardsmen. He sharhed that that, after watching a film about riot control just before the campuses blew up in May 1970, "we all agreed that, if faced with a riot, we would set our M-16s on rock & roll (full automatic) and mow the protestors down."
This dovetailed very closely with a story that a then Kent State student, told the FBI a year after the tragedy. The student claimed he hitched a ride from someone who told him he was one of the soldiers that fired at the students and that the troops had discussed shooting students before it actually happened. Unfortunately, the hitchhiker was only able to provide the FBI with very sketchy information about the soldier and his car. The FBI never was able to identify him, and that line of inquiry was never pursued by the attorneys who filed wrongful death claims against the Guardsmemn.
The letter at least reminded me of the mindset of many of those upholding the law--as well as many in the general public--in May 1970. The war and Kent State divided the country more deeply than any other time since the Civil War. As Time magazine reported even a year before the shootings , there was a sentiment throughout the country that when it came to the antiwar demonstrations, "enough is enough."
That is why the case never faded away. There were quite a few people--and not just crazy radicals--who suspected the shooting was the result of a prior agreement or discussion. Quite a few people, including the surviving victims and the relatives of those killed, still want those suspicions confirmed.
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.
This blog is written by William A. Gordon, a Kent State alumnus and the author of "Four Dead in Ohio" and three other books. It offers commentary on the still unfolding developments in the Kent State shooting case.