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Four dead in Ohio

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Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. National Guardsmen had fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four. (AP Photo/John Filo) **NO SALES**

Fifty years ago today four Kent State University students were shot to death by the Ohio National Guard. Two of the students had been at a Vietnam War protest that the National Guard had been sent to disperse, on orders of university administrators. Two others were simply walking to class at the time that the soldiers opened fire. (All the victims were at least a football field away from the gunmen at the time they were shot. There is no evidence that anyone at the protest was armed with any weapon). No one involved in this massacre ever suffered any criminal or civil penalties for ordering it or carrying it out.

At the time, Americans approved of American soldiers massacring college student war protestors by a margin of more than five to one:

As Perlstein argues in Nixonland, this was a key moment in the culture war that began in the mid-1960s and still rages today. (Note that in 1970 only about ten percent of American adults had four year college degrees, compared to 33% today. College students were viewed by cultural conservatives as spoiled libertine brats — a caricature they’ve managed to maintain despite the relative democratization of college attendance).

Eleven days later two students (one a high school student) were shot to death when Jackson, Mississippi police opened fire on a dormitory at Jackson State College (now University). This incident received exponentially less coverage (Jackson State is a Historically Black University, and the students were African-American).

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was a student at Kent State at the time:

Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: “They fucking killed somebody!” Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier.

The ROTC building, now nothing more than a few inches of charcoal, was surrounded by National Guardsmen. They were all on one knee and pointing their rifles at … us! Then they fired.

By the time I made my way to where I could see them it was still unclear what was going on. The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam.

A few days after the shooting, Neil Young wrote the song “Ohio.” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded the song live in just a few takes. It was playing on radio stations less than three weeks after the massacre.

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