On May 4, 1970, members of the National Guard opened fire on a group of Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War. Four were killed, and nine were injured.
On April 27, 2018, Kent State students staged an on-campus demonstration with various firearms in support of open-carry gun laws. One might have expected “tense confrontations,” said Beverly Warren, president of Kent State. What happened instead was “meaningful conversations.”
“The May 4 shootings still speak to us about the dangers of polarization,” Warren said, “the price we pay for shouting at one another in place of civil discourse.”
At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15, in the Amphitheater, Warren will give her lecture, “Kent State Beyond the Shootings: Journey of the Wounded Healer.” Her speech, which marks the first time a Kent State president has spoken publicly about May 4 outside of Kent’s campus, is part of the Week Eight theme, “The Forgotten: History and Memory in the
Her topic is a bit of both. As the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shooting approaches, Warren and others at the university have used the event to frame “Kent State’s unique answer to a common challenge: how do we keep history relevant?”
The answer, which Warren will share with Chautauquans, involves how Kent State “use(s) our history to drive positive change in the world.”
That journey has led the university to undertake a number of initiatives to reflect on and learn from the May 4 shooting. In addition to an annual commemoration of the date, a visitors center was built in 2013 to host exhibits that “tell the story of the decade leading up to May 4, 1970, the events of that day, the aftermath and the historical impact,” according to the center’s website. The site of the shooting was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2016. Plans for the 50th anniversary include a series of events throughout the 2019-2020 academic year.
“For many members of the Kent State family — including me — the events of May 4, 1970, remain a vivid and emotional memory,” Warren said in a June press release. “ … As we honor and remember the lives lost and those lives forever changed, we reflect on the lessons of May 4 and renew our commitment to lift our collective voices to affect positive change.”
Since taking the helm at Kent State in 2014, Warren has launched a six-year plan that includes a “global exploration” of the lessons learned from the incident.
Although it was not understood at the time, Warren said many now consider the Kent State shooting to be the “pivot point that turned mainstream American public opinion against the Vietnam War once and for all.” The incident was a spark that ignited similar events at universities across the country — such as the nearby Ohio University, where National Guardsmen were also summoned on May 15, 1970. The school closed for the remainder of spring quarter.
Despite that importance, there are many questions about May 4, 1970, that are still unresolved.
“Who gave the order to open fire? Why did those rifles have live ammunition?” Warren said. “We have to make peace with a certain lack of closure.”
This presents another challenge, Warren said. Although the lessons of the shooting have “never been more useful,” the majority of Americans now were not alive to witness it.
“The shootings are embedded in our history,” she said. “It is vital for Kent State to keep the memory alive … Sharing the painful lessons of May 4 is a vital path to healing and renewal.”