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Looking Back On Kent State University Shooting 5 Decades Ago


Fifty years ago today, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University. Four people were killed, nine were wounded. This event helped bring home the impacts and divisions of the Vietnam War. Jeff St. Clair from member station WKSU looks back.

JEFF ST CLAIR, BYLINE: Even now, 50 years later, there's a lot we don't know about what happened on May 4.

JOHN BACKDERF: I think the perception is that, well, you know, there was a protest. It got out of hand. There was some accident and some kids got shot, and that is not the story.

ST CLAIR: John Backderf is a comic artist in Cleveland who recently published a heavily researched graphic novel about the shootings.

BACKDERF: There are so many threads to this thing and these great forces of 1970 that just all came crashing together inexplicably on that grassy hillside.

ST CLAIR: We do know that in 1970, President Richard Nixon believed that expanding the war in Vietnam was the way to win it. But widening anti-war protests, including the small town of Kent, Ohio, revealed deep rifts in the country. The month of May began in Kent with drunken rioters smashing shop windows. Protesters on campus burned the ROTC building. Frightened authorities called in the National Guard. But on May 4, it wasn't the war that drew 18-year-old Joseph Lewis Jr. out of his dorm room.

JOSEPH LEWIS JR: My main reason for participating in the noon rally was to object to the invasion and occupation of our campus by the Ohio National Guard.

ST CLAIR: Moments later, the Guard started shooting.

LEWIS: They were 30 caliber steel-jacketed rounds.

ST CLAIR: One tore through Lewis' groin, another through his leg. Four students lay dead. Lewis and eight others were wounded. One bullet shattered freshman Dean Kahler’s lower spine.

DEAN KAHLER: For a moment, I was stunned. And I remember thinking, oh, my God. They shot me.

ST CLAIR: Permanently paralyzed by the shooting, Kahler says another source of lasting pain was the scorn and hatred heaped on the victims.

KAHLER: You know, there was still that sentiment out there that they should have shot more students, they should've killed more people.

ST CLAIR: That sentiment permeated the legal recourse. An Ohio grand jury indicted 24 students and one professor. Those charges were thrown out, as were criminal charges against the Ohio National Guard. But on the civil side five years after the shooting, the survivors and parents of the killed students finally had their day in court. The U.S. Supreme Court decided they had the right to sue Governor James Rhodes, the university, the Guard commanders and 38 soldiers for damages. Historian Lesley Wischmann helped the families in their legal fight.

LESLEY WISCHMANN: There was nothing that promised that it wouldn't just end with four dead kids in that parking lot and everybody saying, hey, the kids did something wrong. And it's really only because you had some people who just refused to let that be the end of it.

ST CLAIR: But after four days of deliberation, the jury sided with the Guard. The families appealed, and four years later, the state finally settled the case. The parents of the four dead students received just $15,000 each. And the former head of the Ohio National Guard, 26 guardsmen and Governor Rhodes signed what was called a statement of regret. It acknowledged that better ways could have been found to resolve the confrontation. For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair.


CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: (Singing) Tin soldiers and Nixon coming... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff St. Clair