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Debra-Lynn B. Hook: The quiet of a shutdown campus resonates on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings

Debra-Lynn B. Hook, Tribune News Service on

Published in Parenting News

KENT, Ohio -- The campus in the center of town where my husband taught, where our children earned degrees, where our family attended countless concerts, plays and sporting events, is eerily quiet now, its well-tended spring lawns a verdant contrast to the 23,000 students who vanished in March.

The COVID-induced silence, echoed in the "Closed For Now" signs on restaurants, bars and shops throughout our little college town, is especially pronounced this first week of May.

This is the week when 3,600 seniors -- including the youngest of my three -- would be gearing up to promenade through the transformed basketball arena to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance."

This is also the week when we would have commemorated an event notorious beyond our borders -- the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, when four students were killed and nine were wounded by National Guard rifle fire after several days of escalated anti-war protests.

The protests, punctuated by chants and taunts, occasional violence with rocks being thrown, the ROTC building being set ablaze and the governor calling in the National Guard armed with M-1 military rifles, had begun several days before, after President Richard M. Nixon announced he had authorized U.S. troops to invade neutral Cambodia.

An event that not only brought lasting name recognition to Kent, but also, as journalist Howard Means writes, "the end of American innocence," the Kent State shootings have been studied, written about, cited, dissected, vilified, glorified, taken to court and formally regretted -- yet never fully understood.


The question that plagued the event and still does for many historians: Did the Guardsmen fire those 67 rounds in self-defense, and therefore the shootings were justified? Or were the Guardsmen not in immediate danger, and therefore the shootings were unjustified? A special, Nixon-appointed commission on campus unrest ultimately denounced the shootings, saying "The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." A grainy audio recording that depicts the Guardsmen being given a full command to fire was unearthed. But a criminal case was dismissed for lack of evidence. A civil case resulted in an out-of-court settlement; the state of Ohio paying families $675,000; and a statement of regret from the Guardsmen that the families say admitted wrongdoing, but that some historians say didn't go far enough.

One clear glimmer lies in the relentless, decades-long determination of students, families, professors and ultimately administrators, that the events of May 4 would not be forgotten.

The Kent State shootings are remembered every day on campus with a physical memorial, a museum, a narrated tour, and each year, with ceremony, with speeches and music, a candlelight walk and vigil and the ringing of the Victory Bell where the shootings took place.

This year's 50th anniversary was to be especially memorable: Organizers had spent nearly three years building a long weekend of panels, films, exhibits, speeches by family, victims, activists and the celebrity appearances of Joe Walsh, David Crosby and Jane Fonda.


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