The Kent State Shootings and the "Move the Gym" Controversy, 1977

(In Progress)

By 1977 I'd been fascinated by history for years.  But until then I thought of it as something that had happened in the distant past.  At seventeen, though, it occurred to me that at least one piece of history had occurred within living memory and only about two hours' drive from my home:  the May 4, 1970 Kent State Shootings.  I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the people who had been there.  I wrote several of them requesting an interview.  Only one responded:  Prof. Glenn Frank of the Geology department.  I still have the letter.  He wrote that although he wanted to talk with me, he found it painful to revisit the event.  He also found that people tended to believe about it whatever they wanted to believe.  People on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum tended to view the shootings through the lens of their own a priori assumptions.  Still, he was willing to meet with me if I wished.

We did so one morning in mid-May, 1977.  Although I encountered him on only two occasions--that day and another one five years later--he made an indelible impression on me.  He is one of the few people in my life I've met who was not only available to reason, but who also habitually tried to get people on one side of a controversial issue to understand the other side, and vice versa.

The fatal weekend at Kent State University began on Friday, May 1, 1970, with the trashing of Water Street, where the campus bars are concentrated.  It had nothing to do with politics, but in the charged atmosphere of the time--Vietnam had become an unpopular war, Nixon had just invaded Cambodia--it seemed that way.  (People often begin the chronology with a symbolic burial of the Constitution that occurred earlier in the day, but this was just one of those self-dramatizing little gestures of which activists seem so fond.  Without the trashing of Water Street by essentially apolitical students out on a lark, the chain of events would not have been set in motion.

The Friday night incident led Kent's mayor to request help from the governor.  Gov. James Rhodes authorized sending the National Guard.  On Saturday night a distinctly political disturbance did occur.  A mob of students--probably sprinkled with a few outside agitators--burned the ROTC building, which was nothing but a World War II-era quonset hut.  When the fire department arrived, some students cut the hoses so that the firemen would be unable to douse the flames.  The ROTC building was in ruins by the time the National Guard rolled in.

Prof. Frank was a "faculty marshal" that weekend.  He did what he could to keep the university on a more or less even keel.  He didn't get much help from the Gov. Rhodes, who was running for the U.S. Senate that year and trying to get as much political mileage as possible from the disorder at Kent State, Ohio State, and other Ohio universities.  Positioning himself as a strong "law and order" man, Rhodes used a lot of incendiary rhetoric.  Many students did the same thing, but to me there's a difference.  The students were kids.  Rhodes was an experienced politician from whom one had a right to expect better judgment.  Although arguably quite right to send in the Guard, he was wrong to talk in ways that only inflamed the situation further.

Sunday, May 3, was mostly calm.  The Guard kept order, the students' attitude toward them was more one of curiosity than hostility.  Hell, the Guardsmen were mostly students themselves; certainly they were about the same age as the students.  But on Monday, May 4, hundreds of students demonstrated against the presence of the Guard on their campus.  (Note:  Most U.S. history textbooks claim that it was a demonstration against the Vietnam War, which was, at best, only indirectly the case.)

Around noon, Brig. Gen. Robert Canterbury decided to disperse the demonstrators.  A jeep containing an officer with a bull horn rolled forward slowly.  The officer read them the riot act, a legal requirement before further action could be taken.  Predictably, the students failed to comply with its demand to leave the area.  Canterbury then sent a skirmish line of Guardsmen, equipped with .30 caliber M-1 rifles (with fixed bayonets), M-79 grenade launchers (to fire tear gas canisters), and gas masks.  Starting from the burned-out hulk of the ROTC building, the Guard swept eastward, up and over Blanket Hill and ultimately into a practice field on the far side.

As a riot control measure, the maneuver was completely ineffective, even counterproductive.  The students simply gave way on either side, shouted slogans and obscenities, and in some cases lobbed the tear gas canisters back at the Guardsmen.  Worse, the practice field was fenced in on three sides, so that the Guardsmen in effect trapped themselves there.  The students swept in behind, surrounding them.  The Guardsmen responded by dropping to one knee and taking aim at the students.

Fortunately they did not open fire.  But on the return trip to the ROTC building, one Guard contingent neared the southwest corner of Taylor Hall, KSU's journalism building.  At that point, near a concrete pagoda recently built by engineering students as a class project, some Guardsmen suddenly turned east and fired into a nearby parking lot.  The volley lasted thirteen seconds.  Many Guardsmen fired into the air, but some did not, and at the end of the fusillade nine students lay wounded--one would be paralyzed for life--and four were dead.  Of the four, only two--Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause--had participated in the demonstration.  Sandy Scheuer was on her way to class.  So was Bill Schroeder, an ROTC cadet.

Prof. Frank was having lunch at the campus commons when the firing occurred.  Within minutes he reached the parking lot and began giving what aid he could.  The photo at right shows him begging students to leave the scene.  (The black line near the curb in the back is the flow of blood from Jeffrey Miller's shattered skull.)  Subsequently the students, enraged, went boiling down the western slope of Blanket Hill to confront the Guard near the ROTC building.  Several KSU faculty marshals, including Frank, tried to negotiate with Gen. Canterbury to prevent more violence, but Canterbury insisted that the students must disperse.  At that point, it looked more than ever as if another shooting would occur, because the students were out of their minds with grief and fury and Canterbury was locked into a very rigid pattern of thought.

Prof. Frank went to the students and, in an emotional plea, said:  "I don't care whether you've never listened to anyone before in your lives.  I am begging you right now.  .  If you don't disperse right now, they're going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter.  Would you please listen to me?  Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this . . . !"  A transcript doesn't begin to convey the effect of Prof. Frank's words.  Fortunately you can hear them for yourself by clicking here, which will take you to an award-winning half-hour documentary by WKSU Radio.  Prof. Frank's plea begins at the 25-minute, 30-second mark.  (The fusillade is at the 19-minute, 56-second mark.)

Something in Prof. Frank's voice got through to the students as nothing and no one else had.  Slowly, by two's and three's, they left the area.  In a few instances they bodily picked up their friends and took them away.  I'm convinced that it was the sheer humanity of Prof. Frank's plea that prevented a further tragedy that day.