KENT, Ohio -- It's a brilliant day on campus: the sky is bright, the landscape green, the air a little chillier than you'd like. As you head for the memorial on the hill, you zip your jacket to the top. Here in northeastern Ohio, spring just can't make up its mind to settle in.
But you're here to remember, not take leisure. And as anyone at Kent State University can tell you, remembering brings anything but comfort.
Thirty years ago today, 28 members of the Ohio National Guard, called to this campus by Gov. James Rhodes, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine. Scholars agree the shootings were a seminal moment in American history, helping turn the public tide against the war in Vietnam and the president who escalated it. But the deepest wounds may have been the personal ones.
Three decades after the fact, the victims and witnesses of the Kent State massacre still can barely speak of those events without horror, grief and dismay. What plagues them most, it seems, is that even 30 years later, no one knows exactly what happened that day. Mourning can be long and painful; mourning in the absence of facts can go on forever.
You bring these thoughts with you to the crest of Blanket Hill, to a 70-foot plaza of carnelian granite. To your right, four coffin-like structures call to mind the students killed. At your feet, three simple words etched in stone speak their own truth: Inquire, Learn, Reflect.
The Ohio wind stiffens, and well it might: It's chilling to remember. But remembering is the only way to make sense of May 4, 1970.
Everyone agrees: The makings of a major disaster converged that day. The point of contention was, and remains, how they played themselves out.
America was a bitterly divided nation. The Vietnam conflict was at its height. Pro- and anti-war factions were growing testier. On Friday, April 30, President Richard Nixon raised the stakes, announcing that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia.
Protesters rallied across the nation. At Kent State on May 1, a crowd of 500 watched as a student buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Riots began in Kent's streets. By 10 p.m. May 2, the school's ROTC building had gone up in flames. The National Guard rolled into town.
On Monday, May 4, the confrontation took place.
Student demonstrators gathered on a field below Blanket Hill for a noon rally. Ninety-six Guardsmen sought to break it up. They lobbed tear-gas canisters and, at bayonet point, pushed the jeering, rock-tossing crowd back. Then they began a retreat up the hill. A handful of students followed at a distance, hurling rocks and insults. As the soldiers neared the crest of the hill, many turned and started firing. In 13 seconds, the shooting was over.
Those are the facts. You can find them in books; perhaps 20 of them now. But facts are less than the truth. For that, you need to talk with people who were there.
Dean Kahler teaches history and government to high school seniors in Athens, Ohio. Alan Canfora is an activist, a teacher and a lecturer who lives in nearby Barberton. Robbie Stamps, a sociologist and writer who teaches college courses on occasion, divides his time between Ohio and his San Diego home. All three were students at Kent State on May 4, 1970. All were hit by gunfire that day.
Jerry M. Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State, was a faculty marshal at the scene. And Laura Davis, now an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was a freshman protester.
It's said that every witness to the Kent State shootings remembers a different story, but these five -- who did not know each other at the time -- tell a story that's shocking in its consistency.
Conventional wisdom says the shootings took place in the heat of the moment, that both sides were angrily out of control, that guardsmen fired spontaneously and out of fear. But all five witnesses agree: The Guard had already dispersed the crowd and was ready to disappear over the crest of the hill.
Another point involves distance. All agree that the nearest student to the guardsmen was 60 feet away. Canfora was 225 feet away; Kahler and two who died were even farther off. "The Guard claimed that students were three feet away from them, that their own lives were in danger," says Canfora. "That's a lie."
All five are equally insistent on another key fact. Just before the Guard reached the top of the hill, the 28 who fired wheeled around in unison and lowered their weapons. "It was calculated, obviously," says Canfora. "Whether it was someone on the scene that day or someone higher up, an order to fire was given." Kent State wasn't a heat-of-the-moment skirmish, he says. It was murder.
If that's the case, at whose behest? We may never know. Lewis, who teaches a course every year that focuses on May 4, says there are two options. "You're talking about either a narrow conspiracy or a broad conspiracy," he says. "Either the order was given on the campus that day, by an officer in the Guard, or it was given at a higher level." Perhaps, he says, Gov. Rhodes "or even, as some think, Nixon."
Kahler won't speculate on the matter. Davis, Stamps and Lewis strongly suspect Guard officers. Canfora is adamant it went to the top. Later legal testimony showed that Rhodes had twice spoken to Nixon the weekend before the shootings, giving the president the opportunity to issue orders.
Few members of the Guard have ever given interviews. The witnesses hold out hope that someday this will change. But all five point out that at the time of the shootings, Rhodes was seeking a U.S. Senate nomination. The election was scheduled for May 5, and Rhodes was eight points behind in polls. Two days before the shootings, he had branded the protesters as "the worst sort of element we harbor in our society."
He would lose the election, but only by half a point.
It may be the lack of answers to such basic questions that weds these five to May 4. Each works through his emotions in an ongoing way.
Kahler, whose injuries left him a paraplegic, sees the incident as an opportunity to educate. Hate speech like Rhodes', he says, set a tone that made tragedy more likely.
These days, Kahler makes clear to his students the importance of respectful discourse in a civilized society. On the personal side, he doesn't waste time in bitterness. "This is a wonderful university," he says of the place he visits on May 4 most years. "I always say I only had one bad day at Kent State."
In his writing and his teaching, Stamps remains a passionate and eloquent spokesman for the left.
"The legacy of the '60s is not being handed down properly to our young people," he says. "People say that if you remember the '60s, you weren't there. There are those of us who remember that era very well, thank you."
Disillusioned by current politicians who he says masquerade as liberals, he feels the essential messages of the student protest movement are lost in modern discourse. He has taught radical leftist sociology at Cleveland State University, Kent State and the College of San Diego, offering students a chance, he says, to wrest control of their own lives from power centers such as Madison Avenue and Hollywood.
"Let me at them for a semester," he says with a devilish grin, "and they're mine."
Among the shooting victims, Canfora is easily the most involved in keeping the May 4 legacy alive. He's a charter member of the May 4 Task Force, a student organization founded a quarter-century ago. The Task Force has taken responsibility for putting on commemorative events -- vigils, seminars, speeches and artistic performances -- every May 4 since the shootings occurred. Canfora also feels a personal obligation to the four slain students. "I keep speaking out for those who have been permanently silenced," he says.
Davis, who grows visibly anguished when she reflects on the shootings, has never strayed far from the Kent State orbit: she earned a bachelor's degree and two graduate degrees here. Dealing with what she saw that day is a continuing process. She went to the shooting site on the 25th anniversary and stood where the Guard lowered their weapons.
"I'd never realized it before," she says, "but the place they stopped and turned is the ideal spot to shoot from. They gave themselves the perfect view."
Kent State University has gone through its own evolution on the shootings.
For years, whether by design or by force of institutional inertia, denial prevailed. It was Lewis, acting in consort with students, who initiated the candlelight vigil for the dead that has been observed each year since 1971. In 1977, in what many felt was an act of gross insensitivity, Kent State built a new gym annex on part of the shooting site.
"Out of sight, out of mind is what they felt," Canfora says. "They wanted to forget the past and bury it."
Shortly after the tragedy, university publications began avoiding the term "Kent State" whenever possible. A new university logo spotlighted the word "Kent."
No memorial of the event was commissioned until 1986; it was dedicated in 1990. Canfora and his task force pushed for almost three decades to get memorials to the dead installed. All four died in a parking lot, and until 1999, cars drove and parked over those sites. Now each of the four sites is set off by six black stanchions, each topped with a light that turns on automatically at sundown.
"I call it a permanent vigil," says Lewis.
This year, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary, Kent State has deliberately and consciously embraced its own past.
University President Carol Cartwright says that three major studies had suggested the institution was far too ambivalent in its acknowledgment of the tragedies, and she agreed. The 30th anniversary is Kent State's way of "remembering the past so that we can move to the future with meaning," says Cartwright. Included will be an academic symposium that explores the "boundaries of freedom of expression in a democracy," poetry readings, dance, jazz and orchestral music performances, and speakers such as Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma K. Gandhi.
On the Friday morning before the commemoration, you take a stroll around the site of tragedy. The weather is warming. You strain to picture this peaceful hillside as a scene of chaos. All that really remains of that long-ago day is a bullet hole in a metal sculpture nearby. Around it, a quote from one of the slain is etched in chalk: "Flowers are better than bullets."
You walk around the corner of Taylor Hall and seek out the memorial. There, on the long, low granite bench, a workman leans on an electric buffer. The air is filled with noise. He looks at you and stops for a moment.
"Kids skateboard across this thing," he says with a wave of the hand. "Gotta get the scuff marks off."
May 4 was 30 years ago, you think. Its legacy is a work in progress.
More information about Kent State is available online at www.may4.org and www.library .kent.edu/speccoll.