The Kent State killings are about to pass into history. May 4 will be the 49th anniversary of that shocking 1970 event.
If you live long enough, you watch time do its “thing”— and its thing is to drain all events of intense emotion and replace it with honorary emotion in inked phrases like the “Kent State tragedy” or the “Kent State event” or just “Kent State.” Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau will ink a character who owns a pet cat named “Kent State” and someone will ink T-shirts with a bulls-eye on their back and the words “Kent State” to sell to students.
Ink begins to dilute the blood.
But it cannot replace the blood of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, which I saw pouring from his head on the asphalt altar of a Kent State parking lot. He was dead instantly.
The phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” did not exist in 1970, even though many families were receiving their wounded Vietnam soldiers back home suffering from its symptoms.
In past wars this phenomenon of emotional disability was called “soldier’s heart,” “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.”
There were literally a thousand students milling around after the Kent State shootings, witnessing the dead, dying, wounded and maimed students shot by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State that day, the fourth day of student protest.
I suspect there were many, including the National Guardsmen themselves, who experienced emotional trauma which today would be labeled PTSD.
My own reaction was numbness, and then after waiting a year for an official justice which never came, outrage.
That outrage was translated into political lobbying for a federal grand jury and later into ensuring that a large portion of historical documents related to the Kent State killings went to Yale University’s archives, instead of Kent State University’s archives.
Because Kent State Library was funded by the very entity which the parents of the dead students were suing: the state, which also funded the Ohio National Guard, whose members had pulled the triggers.
That activity kept me busy. If I did have post-traumatic stress disorder gradually, I got over it. And I got over the injustice of Kent State. After I helped create the “Kent State Collection” at Yale University’s library in 1977, I moved to Eugene, Oregon, and then to South Royalton, Vermont, both laid back, healing, green — very green — places.
Yes, Kent State will pass into history like the Boston Tea Party and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
In a way, it is amazing that Kent State as a symbol of injustice and the passions of the anti-war movement has lasted now into the beginning of its 50th year.
On May 15, 1970, two weeks after Kent State, two black students were killed and 12 wounded by state and city police at Jackson State College, in Jackson, Mississippi, where a group of African Americans were demonstrating in response to the Kent State shootings and to a false rumor that the the mayor of Fayette, Mississippi (the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers), and his wife had been assassinated.
Jackson State has never achieved the traction of Kent State as a symbol of official violence of the ‘70s student protest era.
Could that be because white flesh is valued in American society more than black flesh?
In a world where a movement named Black Lives Matter had to be created in 2013 after the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, that sad reality may be the true lesson of Kent State.
Imagine if the Kent State dead had had black skin and dreadlocks. Kent State would have been forgotten in a few years.
While we like to believe all lives matter, the truth is that white lives matter most. That may be changing now as we inch next year toward the 50th anniversary of Kent State.
Paul Keane is a retired Vermont English teacher and a guest columnist. He served as program coordinator (1972-73) for the Kent State Center for Peaceful Change, the university’s official memorial to the students killed at Kent State. In 1977, he co-founded the Kent State Collection at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.