May 4, 1970: The Darkest of Days

A picture of John Cleary, who was wounded by Ohio National Guardsman while a student at Kent State University in May 1970, fills the cover of Life magazine published a week after the historic shootings at the Ohio campus. Cleary, a retired Pine architect, was curious about the noon rally. Before leaving for a design class in Taylor Hall, the 19-year-old freshman from Schenectady, N.Y. grabbed his roommate’s disposable camera. His photography ended when a guardsman's bullet slammed into his chest. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Kent State University to commemorate deadly clash between students and National Guard 50 years ago

Thirteen seconds of gunfire ripped apart the sunlit afternoon of May 4, 1970, on the Kent State University campus.

It was 12:24 p.m. when Ohio National Guard members fired 67 shots into a group of students during an anti-war rally. The massacre killed four students, wounded nine others and profoundly affected a country already polarized by the Vietnam War, a generational divide and vexing issues of race, class and culture.

In its immediate aftermath, the tragedy spurred 3 million students to strike universities across the country, causing widespread closures while amplifying a deafening debate over the war. And in the following years, the massacre was widely seen as hastening the war’s end, the lowering of the voting age to 18, and changing how authorities handle mass demonstrations.

On Monday, exactly 50 years later and on the same day of the week as the shootings, Kent State will mark the occasion with a virtual commemoration online, the culmination of a nearly yearlong observance of a seminal event in the history of the university and the nation.

Kent State and music

Live campus events planned for 2½ years have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These ceremonies were not always a certainty. For two decades, the university’s administration had little interest in publicly acknowledging and remembering what happened on the campus. So the duty of remembrance fell to students, who formed the May 4 Task Force, which annually commemorated the event.

Only in 1985 did university trustees approve the first May 4 memorial on campus. It took five years after that to dedicate the site.

But, in the years since then, the university gradually came to embrace the school’s May 4 legacy, honoring its context and meaning in a variety of ways on campus, in the classroom and online.

Rod Flauhaus, 50th commemoration project manager, said the lessons from a half-century ago still resonate. “Today’s society is a great reminder of polarization in our country. May 4 reminds us of the need for peaceful conflict resolution.

“For me, the greater lesson of May 4 and why it is relevant today is that four students died and nine others were wounded while exercising their First Amendment rights. We must never forget that.”

A campus invasion

Ohio National Guardsmen patrol the empty Kent State University, Ohio, campus after a three-day riot with students in this May 6, 1970, photo. (Associated Press)

On May 1, 1970 — a Friday — Kent State students held an anti-war rally at noon on the campus Commons to protest President Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Another rally was called for noon Monday, May 4.

On Friday evening, in downtown Kent, events quickly escalated into a confrontation between protesters and local police. Bonfires were built in the streets, cars were stopped, police cars hit with bottles and some store windows broken.

The town’s mayor declared a state of emergency, ordered all bars closed and contacted Ohio Gov. James Rhodes for assistance. Using tear gas, police eventually moved students back to campus by 2:30 a.m.

On Saturday, students assisted with cleaning up downtown. But rumors were rampant of threats to merchants, confirming the fears of townspeople and widening the rift between town and gown.

National Guardsmen surrounded the wreckage of the ROTC class building at Kent State University following a violent confrontation with protestors the previous day. (Associated Press)

Shortly after 8 p.m., more than 1,000 people surrounded the wooden ROTC Building on campus. Someone set it ablaze. Firefighters’ hoses were cut and the building burned to the ground. About 1,000 Ohio National Guard troops arrived about 10 p.m. and by midnight cleared the campus.

On Sunday, the National Guard invoked the so-called Ohio Riot Act, a law banning disruption of order on college campuses, and then fired tear gas. The demonstrators reassembled and blocked traffic.

On Monday, classes were held as usual.

The noon rally also went on as planned. But now, the protest was not just about the Cambodian bombing but also the campus occupation by armed National Guardsmen. It is estimated that about 500 students were actively participating in the rally and another 1,500-2,500 were watching it or on their way to classes.

Guardsmen are firing tear gas in this scene on campus. The burned-out ROTC building can be seen in the background just above the line of guardsmen. (United Press International)

Among those observing were freshmen Joe Lewis and John Cleary, ages 18 and 19, respectively. They were not far from each other near Taylor Hall, on a steep hill known as Blanket Hill.

Mr. Lewis, then of Massillon, Ohio, wanted to “lend a presence on the side of the students. I wanted the Guard to leave and let us go about our business.” Mr. Cleary, then of Schenectady, N.Y., had no position on the war but was curious about the rally and brought a camera.

The guard deploys tear gas into the crowd of demonstrators around the Victory Bell. (University News Service)

Both young men were transfixed as a Guardsman using a bullhorn declared three times, “Students of Kent State, this is an illegal assembly. Return to your dormitories.” When that had no effect, the soldiers fired tear gas across the Commons, but a breeze diffused it and students tossed canisters back at the Guard, who were wearing gas masks.

More than 70 National Guardsmen fixed bayonets to their M1 rifles and moved toward the students, forcing demonstrators up over Blanket Hill, past Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cleary and a Pagoda sculpture. The Guard forced students down the other side of the hill onto the Prentice Hall parking lot and an adjoining practice football field with fencing on three sides.

After about 10 minutes of the Guard firing tear gas and students hurling rocks and epithets, some soldiers knelt and aimed their rifles at the students. Guard officers huddled and then the soldiers appeared to be retracing their steps in retreat.

Upon reaching the crest, 28 guardsmen turned toward the parking lot and fired upon demonstrators. (Associated Press)

“I was thinking they were leaving. I was silent as they came by me,” Mr. Lewis recalled. “I was so close to them I could hear their equipment jostling. Many of them were looking back over their shoulders toward the Prentice Hall parking lot.”

When they got near Taylor Hall by the Pagoda, the Guardsmen abruptly turned and aimed their rifles back at the students, including Mr. Lewis, who was standing still about 60 feet away.

“When they gestured with their guns, I gestured with my finger. I was frustrated and just wanted them to leave,” he said.

“I never thought the guns were loaded. The ground in front of me puffed up in a couple of spots. That’s when I realized there were bullets in their guns.” He was struck with a bullet in his abdomen just inside his right hip. While on the ground, he also was shot above his ankle.

Just before that, Mr. Cleary — standing next to the sculpture “Solar Totem #1” outside Taylor Hall — likewise felt things were winding down, but he wanted one last photo of the Guardsmen, who were 110 feet away away. And then he was struck. A bullet also pierced the metal sculpture.

“I didn’t think they had ammunition,” he recalled. “It was pretty instantaneous. It felt like I was hit in the chest with a sledgehammer.”

Some students ran for cover into Taylor Hall when the shooting started. (Associated Press)

Mr. Lewis remembers “this crazy noise and then suddenly it stopped. There was just a heartbeat of silence and then all hell broke loose. People were yelling and screaming.” Mr. Cleary doesn’t remember anything else until he was on a gurney in the hospital.

Students rushed to aid the 13 wounded students. In an iconic Life magazine cover photo, Mr. Cleary lies wounded, mouth agape, barely clinging to life as other students try to stanch bleeding from the left side of his chest.

“I don’t remember the pain,” Mr. Lewis said. “I remember not being able to breathe and thinking ‘I’m going to die. This is it. I haven’t done anything too horrible.’ I was prepared to die but just to be sure, given my Catholic upbringing, in the ambulance I said an Act of Contrition in case that helped.”

Students try to aid John Cleary after he was struck by National Guard gunfire. Cleary was in the line of fire because he had taken his camera out to photograph the guardsmen. (Post-Gazette archives)

Following surgery, Mr. Cleary and Mr. Lewis shared a hospital room with fellow wounded student Dean R. Kahler, who was struck in the back and paralyzed. Both men are retired — Mr. Cleary, 69, now of Pine, as an architect, and Mr. Lewis, 68, now of Scappoose, Ore., as supervisor of that city’s drinking water treatment plant. Mr. Cleary graduated from Kent State. Mr. Lewis did not.

Of those shot, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cleary were the closest and second closest to the Guard. The other 11, including those who died — Allison Krause, 19, of Churchill; Jeffrey Miller, 20, of Plainview, N.Y.; William Schroeder, 19, of Lorain, Ohio; and Sandra Scheuer, 20, of Youngstown, Ohio — were between 225 and 750 feet from the Guard.

This photo by John Filo won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography. It shows 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio by the body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. (Associated Press/John Filo)

Those wounded — two have since died — and the survivors of those killed have bonded as family. But Mr. Lewis noted, “You didn’t have to be shot to have been wounded at Kent State on May 4, 1970.”

Honoring a legacy

A student walks past a gravestone commemorating the four dead students at Kent State 50 years ago at Kent, Ohio. (Associated Press)

The centerpiece of the commemoration Monday will be a video tribute to air at noon. The video will include footage from past commemorations as well as newly recorded messages from Mr. Cleary, Mr. Lewis and fellow wounded student Alan Canfora, who appears in a famously emblematic photo waving a black flag at the Guard moments before being shot.

Allison Krause, of Churchill, was one of four killed that day. (Post-Gazette archives)

Flowers and memorial stones are spread around the marker for Allison Krause at Kent State University. (Associated Press)

Also included will be messages from musicians affected by that day, including David Crosby and Graham Nash, Kent State alumnus Jerry Casale from Devo and Jesse Colin Young from The Youngbloods.

At 12:24 p.m., the exact time of the shootings will be acknowledged. Other special content is already available on the website.

“We know how important it is to the family members of those killed and wounded, to those who were on campus that day and witnessed it, as well as so many across the country who experienced this,” Mr. Flauhaus said. “Even though there’s so much going on in the world right now, it’s important to remember the events of May 4, 1970.”

Mr. Flauhaus has been involved with the massacre’s legacy since the mid-1980s when, as student president of the May 4 Task Force, he led the 15th commemoration during the time the university did not participate. He was instrumental in persuading the school’s trustees to agree to the original campus memorial.

John Cleary's 1969 high school graduation portrait.

John Cleary at home last year. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

He said the university’s gradual and now full embrace of Kent State’s place in U.S. history is reflected in all that has occurred since the memorial was dedicated — May 4 classes being taught on campus, permanent markers in the Prentice Hall parking lot where the four slain students fell, creation of the May 4 Visitors Center in Taylor Hall, and dedication of 17 acres of the campus as a National Historic Landmark.

And the university had planned during its 50th commemoration to dedicate markers where Mr. Cleary, Mr. Lewis and the seven other men were wounded. That has been postponed.

Joe Lewis' 1969 high school graduation portrait.

A selfie of Joe Lewis today.

Mr. Flauhaus said the passage of time allowed Kent State to accept its obligation to maintain the legacy of May 4.

“We have a responsibility to educate for the future, to make sure people remember what happened and learn from it,” he said.

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com

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