KENT, OH: Visiting the campus where four students were killed by National Guardsmen during an anti-war protest, you can't help but recall how divided America was 45 years ago. Strolling the grounds where America's Asian war came tragically home, the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the gulf between political parties appear manageable when contrasted to 1970.
The issues then were civil rights and stopping a war that had gone on for more than five years, each month costing more lives including college age men drafted into the military.
A cultural divide pitted young against old, draft resisters against patriots, free thinkers against straights, militant blacks against entrenched power. Most protesters saw themselves as taking a public stand against injustice.
When President Nixon on April 30th, 1970 ordered American troops into Cambodia protests erupted on scores of college campuses. At Kent State an ROTC building was set ablaze and burned to the ground. Shop windows downtown were broken. A panicked city mayor asked for troops to restore order and Ohio's governor obliged, sending in 700 National Guardsmen who occupied the campus. Governor James Rhodes called the demonstrators worse than Nazis.
Despite the planned May 4th rally being banned, at noon that day some 1,500 students assembled anyway on the university commons. Five hundred feet away stood 100 guardsmen wearing gasmasks and carrying loaded M1 rifles. When the crowd ignored the order to disperse tear gas was fired. Then the soldiers advanced as students fled ahead of them, up Blanket hill, past Taylor Hall towards a parking lot and practice field.
At 12:24 p.m. from atop the hill near the pagoda next to Taylor Hall, several guardsmen opened fire in the direction of the parking lot. In 13 seconds 67 shots were fired. Four students were killed, nine others injured.
This part of the campus is much as it was then. A May 4th Visitors Center is situated in Taylor Hall. There is a memorial to the victims and walking tour. Beverly Warren, the president of Kent State, which today has 28,000 students, writes in the commemorative brochure that, "this learning facility transports you to one of the most turbulent times in American history." It offers," she writes, "compelling evidence of the never-ending need to appreciate and protect the democratic values of free expression, civil discourse and nonviolent social engagement."
The memorial is well done, sticking to the facts as best they are known.
A visit here is sobering, providing an opportunity--as the words engraved on the memorial suggest--to inquire, learn, and reflect.
I departed believing that the tragedy at Kent State 45 years ago could have occurred at any number of campuses across the country.
Should you wish to visit, the small town of Kent is 30-miles southeast of Cleveland, just off the Ohio Turnpike that crosses northern Ohio from east to west.