Kent State: 50 Years After the ShootingsRoundup
tags: polarization, Kent State
Thomas M. Grace is the author of Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties (2016).
Within days of the shootings, Vice President Spiro Agnew went on television to discuss the killings. Agnew maintained that the guardsmen’s youth, “18-, 19-, 20-year olds,” helped to explain their actions. Years later, former Joint Chief of Staff chairman Thomas Moorer made them younger still. “And here you had 17-year-old boys at school and 17-year-old boys in the National Guard,” he assured his interviewer. In his telling, the guardsmen, a bunch of inexperienced teenagers, were frightened, too.
In reality, the guardsmen whose actions triggered the killings, and launched unintentionally the largest student strike in American history, were not adolescents. No state mobilized its guard units during the 1960s as often as Ohio. A half dozen of the part-time guardsmen involved in the shootings were employed in the law enforcement field. Two of the eight guardsmen indicted by the US Justice Department in 1973 were police or deputy sheriffs. The guard captain who testified falsely of finding a gun on the body of slain student Jeff Miller worked as a police detective.
Enlisted men were in their mid-20s, officers a decade older. The sergeant who many believe prompted the shootings, was 39, the same age as the lieutenant colonel. Their general, whose poor decisions contributed to the day’s fatal outcome, was 55. If an order to fire was given to the troops, as the latest evidence shows, the officer most likely giving the command was 43.
What of the protesters? The growth of the university following World War II attracted working-class enrollees from the industrial cities that bordered small-town Kent. Many had grown up in labor families with parents loyal to the New Deal. College-bound students were part of the demographic cohort that comprised the majority of US forces in Vietnam. When the guardsmen shot into the students, dozens of veterans came under fire.
Kent State was the culmination of a dialectic of radicalization and repression preceded by a longer arc of activism on the campus, where a sometimes biracial movement had been gaining momentum throughout the 1960s. Protests at the decade’s outset focused on supporting Southern civil rights sit-ins, integrating public accommodations and eliminating racial segregation in off-campus student housing. A few Kent State students went south. One joined the Freedom Riders in 1961; another registered voters during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer; a third marched in Selma. The struggle to form a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality became the subject of bitter campus debate in 1964, as did the first protests against the Vietnam War. Alongside anti-war activity, biracial activism moved to the forefront in 1968. In solidarity with Oakland’s Black Panthers, members of Kent’s Students for Democratic Society chapter, along with Black United Students, impeded Oakland Police representatives from recruiting on the campus.
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