Back to the Future - Ferguson and NYC Spark Reflection on Kent State and the '70s

As many of us who are (well) over 50 watch peaceful protests and destruction, police kindness and cruelty unfolding on our streets today, we may be thinking back to our own youth and the many levels of protest we experienced. We were a pretty vocal bunch -- anti-war demonstrations, counterinnaugurals, marches for women's rights, voter's rights, gay rights, against tuition increases. We may have learned how to avoid blows from authorities, treat tear gas sprays; we may have watched this all on television. But, pro or anti, we were all involved to some degree. What follows is an excerpt from Fifty Over Fifty: Wise and Wild Women Creating Wonderful Lives, used with permission. It describes Nancy's experience at Kent State the day of the shootings, an event that shaped a career that centers around social justice.

I went off to college, and my senior year of high school, my family moved from New Jersey to Ohio. We were in southern Ohio, and that was quite a culture shock. One, because I was a senior and high school, and two, because of where we were. Southern Ohio was, at that time, ranked like forty-eighth in the country in education, so most people didn't go to college. Anyway, I needed to go to a state school because of finances, and I took a ruler out and picked out the state school furthest away from where we were living in high school, and heading north, getting as close to Cleveland or a big city as I could. I wound up going to Kent State University. And at that time, it was a pretty active place around social justice issues and the women's movement, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement.

When I went into school, the draft had gone to people getting numbers, and I remember my brother getting a high number. I think by then the Vietnam war was a topic of conversation in many families, and the war was escalating and I began to get involved in the anti-war movement. As well as the civil rights and women's movement. On the campus, the same groups of people were involved in all those areas. And then, the Kent State incident happened. I'm either seventeen or eighteen. There were all kinds of protests going on. They had been going on for some time. And then, that weekend in May, we were protesting, and they sent the National Guard on the campus to try to quell the protest. And before you knew it, there were tanks on the campus, troops all over the place, and most of them had these weapons that had bayonets at the end.

It was very scary. But still, I was young enough to be a bit naive about it. I remember one of the days we got locked into the library, so they were trying to control something, and I remember the National Guard locked us in the library. I remember calling my parents in the evening - there were no cell phones or anything. I can't imagine what my parents were going through as I called them up and described these things that were going on, and these huge protests. And it was either by Saturday or Sunday evening, a group had gone, to the bottom of what was Blanket hill, an ROTC building, made of wood. It was probably an old barracks, and somebody burned it down. And what was very eerie was that the fire department didn't come to put it out. So to me, what it felt like was that there was something going on. I certainly don't think the fire department would have been in jeopardy if they had come to put the fire out, but it just felt a bit unusual, for there not to be a response. You sort of had this feeling "What's going on here?"

And then, this was finals. I know I had a final the next morning, at like seven-forty-five or something like that. All this had been going on all weekend, and the campus was still occupied, so I walked to my class. And the professor said if you want to take the test you could, but if you want to leave, you can, acknowledging how uncomfortable everything was. And then, there was a protest forming, so I went and joined in with that group, and then helicopters came in and started to drop pepper gas, and that stuff really stings your eyes. So, people were running from that, and you kind of have to close your eyes or get water in your eyes. It's like getting a bad kind of soap in your eye. So we were running, and it's not far from my dorm and then I heard what I learned were shots. I was standing next to a guy who was a Vietnam veteran, who identified the weapon as he said "get into a building," And he seemed to know more about what was going on. We walked out, and right near there, there were students who had been shot. My dorm was right near the parking lot, where some of those famous pictures were taken. And then they declared martial law.

Again, there's no cell phones. We were told to get onto a bus. They were renting buses. You could only really go back into your dorm to pack up a small bag, but if we didn't have a car, which I didn't, we had to get on to a bus, which were being sent to the major cities around Ohio, and you had to try to call your parents to come pick you up. So that went into the afternoon. In the meantime, we had no cell phones, or anything. My father, coincidentally, was coming to have dinner with me that night, 'cause he had a business trip at Cleveland. So he's in a car, driving up to Kent, and hears what happened on the radio. So he continues on, and by then, I had to get on a bus, but I left him a note. I eventually get home. I had to calm my mother down -- she was crying like crazy -- then my father called and he said that driving into the town, he felt physically sick because there were more troops and ammunition in Kent than in an occupied town in Germany, when he was there in World War II. So, it was pretty dramatic at the time.

So from there, I was fired up. It's so hard to remember what it's like not to have cell phones, but we all used to call each other on land lines. I got involved in the legal defense fund, I did some speaking, I wrote a letter to the editor, then I started to get hate mail. The letter was very benign, as far as I'm concerned.

When the letter was published, it was pretty much, that really, to me, there was no reason to be shooting at students, no matter what. There was never any evidence that rocks were thrown, but even if they had been, you don't use bullets against that. I started to get some hate mail sent to our house, 'cause you also had to put your street address on your letter to the editor, so then everybody knew where I lived. My father knew somebody from his business that had a restaurant, the Jersey shore. So he drove me to New Jersey, and I wound up getting a room in a boarding house and I was a waitress for the summer.

They closed [the campus] down, we couldn't go back and get our stuff. They gave us appointments when we could go back and get our stuff. All the exams were done by mail. When we went back, in September, it was like an armed camp. Not so much the tanks, but every class had a sheriff or a state trooper or somebody in it. So by then, I don't know if I switched major right then, but that was just a turning point, and I just decided OK, I need to work on social justice issues, so I wound up entering into the social work curriculum that they had at the time.
There was a sociology professor who had this experimental program called the Akron Neighborhood Faculty program, and what you could do was register for sixteen credit hours. It was a small group of people, and you were taught by an ex-con, a prostitute -- all street people were our professors. So instead of reading about them, in books, they actually were our professors. In addition to having traditional professors hold seminars. But it was very intensive, I mean we had all day long night sessions, we did things like a protest, but around social issues in Akron. It was quite informative. And we even, one night, were taken by a van, with hoods over our heads, to meet with the Black Panthers in Cleveland.So that was quite phenomenal, 'cause I got exposed to some remarkable, local activists. I don't know if any of them were ever on the national scene or anything, but that was really quite phenomenal.

I wound up going to Universidad de las Américas for a semester. And that was wonderful. So here I was, officially a French major, going to Mexico. That was a little weird. But I actually learned Spanish a lot easier, because of having French, I could really only acquire by reading it. It's very difficult for me to speak it, and Spanish was a lot easier. I traveled around Mexico. That was wonderful; it was a great semester. And then, after that, I then left school. I just couldn't deal with it. And my parents were supportive. I went and got a job, and stayed out for a couple of semesters, and then went back. I knew I needed to finish. I went back, and I wound up taking like, twenty-six credits, every semester, and I wound up graduating on time, so I could get out. And graduated with my bachelor's in Social Work, and came to New York and worked in Westchester County Department of Social Services.

Arlo Guthrie said that one thing he remembers about Pete Seeger is that he showed up at every march for every cause. He didn't care so much what the cause was; he was celebrating living in a country where people were free to protest. Friends once met a woman well into her '80s boarding a bus for a march on Washington who told them, "I'm still doing this so that you don't have to when you're my age." Well, we're still out there.

Nancy's story is more dramatic, by far, than my own - and maybe than yours. Still, those early influences shape who we are. I wonder how. And I wonder how today's events will shape the lives of the younger people influenced by them.

What do you think?