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The 50th Anniversary of the Kent State University Shootings

Ellen Levitt

Posted on May 3, 2020 13:36

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May 4 is the somber anniversary of the KSU shootings in which four young adults were killed and nine injured. What can this date mean to us today?

For the past few years I've noticed the gimmicky greeting for May 4: "May the Fourth Be With You!" which is a pun and homage to the Star Wars motto "May the Force Be With You." This year we'll see plenty of people posting that on social media, but I'd also like you to ponder a different legacy and meaning of May 4; it is the 50th anniversary of the Kent State University shootings. 

Students were protesting the Vietnam War at many schools around the United States, and at Kent State University, a public college in Ohio, there had been deepening tensions between antiwar students and local police, as well as local politicians. At midday on May 4, students protested and were ordered to disperse. Most did, but eventually several members of the local National Guard unit fired a volley of shots at students. In under a minute, four young adults lay dead (two male, two female) and nine suffered wounds. At least one student killed was not even participating in the protest; she was just walking between her classes.

The shootings galvanized both anti-war sentiment and pro-war feeling. It heightened paranoia between political factions and seemed to represent the deep schism between young and old in America. Two lasting testaments to the horrible event were the fabled photograph of a dead student lying on the ground while a younger teen girl mourned him, and the song "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. 

In 2019 we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music and art festival, a mostly joyous occasion and a watershed in American culture. In 2020 we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kent State, the polar opposite in its violence and pain.

How does the Kent State anniversary impact us today? I'd wondered if it would be muted by the horrors and fears of the Coronavirus pandemic, and indeed, the annual memorial of the deaths has been turned into a virtual event instead. 

My younger daughter suggested that a way to look at the Kent State shootings is that it was seen as such a shock to society because it was a school shooting, yet in the past two decades we have endured so many shootings on college campuses as well as at high schools and even elementary schools. In addition the shootings have revealed a heightened schism between people in favor of gun control and people who favor unchecked gun rights. 

Another way in which Kent State echoes today is the paranoia that has grown around various issues of the COVID-19 epidemic, between people who want to quarantine and factions that violently protest stay-at-home restrictions, as well as the many theories of how the virus originated, the possibilities of a vaccine that most people desire and which others detest because they are anti-vaccinations. 

Thematic analysis aside, don't forget the four young adults whose lives were cut short on this date. May our college students be safer today, wherever they are. 

Ellen Levitt

Posted on May 3, 2020 13:36

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