The Truth About Kent State Remains Elusive Even After 50 Years

May 4, 2020

It was 50 years ago today that Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. 

The event brought the Vietnam War home to a divided America. May 4th remains a lightning rod for questions about the rights of free speech vs. the forces of law-and-order.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon believed expanding the war in Vietnam was the way to win it. But widening anti-war protests, including in the small town of Kent, Ohio, revealed a deep rift 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 4th, it wasn’t the war that drew 18 year-old Joseph Lewis Jr. out of his dorm room.

“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 when I had worked all through high school to save money to afford one year of Kent State," he said.

Onlookers tend to severely wounded Joseph Lewis Jr. He was shot by two guardsmen, in the abdomen by Sgt. Lawrence Shafer, and in the leg by SPC James Pierce.
Credit OHIO HIGHWAY PATROL / KENT STATE ARCHIVES

Moments later the Guard starting shooting.

“They were .30-caliber, steel jacketed rounds,” said Lewis.

One tore through Lewis’s groin, another through his leg.

Guardsmen fired 67 rounds leaving four students dead and nine wounded, including freshman Dean Kahler.

“For a moment I was stunned, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, they shot me…’” Kahler said.

A bullet had shattered Kahler’s lower spine leaving him permanently paralyzed. He said another source of lasting pain was the scorn and hatred heaped on the victims.

“There was still that sentiment that they should have shot more students, they should have killed more people," said Kahler.

He said very few people spoke out in defense of the students who were, "justified in redressing our grievance [about the war] to our government by assembling on the campus that day.”

Even after 50 years, not all is known about what happened on May 4th.

Photographer Howard Ruffner was one of hundreds of witnesses who watched as the Guard turned in unison at the top of the hill overlooking the Prentice parking lot at Kent State.

Guard troops turn in unison and fire at students below them. Some, at the right of the photo, point rifles at photographer Howard Ruffner.
Credit HOWARD RUFFNER

"It would be nice to find the truth," said Ruffner.

But why the guard fired remains a mystery.

The war against students

“The perception is that there was a protest, it got out of hand and some kids got shot, and that is not the story."

That's according to Cleveland comic artist John Backderf who recently published a heavily researched graphic novel about the shootings.

He said, “there are so many threads to this thing and so many secret machinations that were going on in the background, and these great forces of 1970 that came crashing together inexplicably on that grassy hillside.”

Joseph Lewis moved to Oregon shortly after the shootings, where he still lives.
Credit JOSEPH LEWIS JR.

Nixon had been waging a clandestine war against the left, fed by paranoia. Dean Kahler said that wildly exaggerated threats drove the violent response to the Kent State demonstrations by local authorities.

“It was something that tore this country apart, the war in Vietnam, and the government exploited that,” said Kahler.

The struggle for justice

The anti-student sentiments of the time made it difficult for the victims to hold anyone accountable for the tragedy.

An Ohio Grand Jury in 1970 indicted 24 students and a professor for inciting a riot.

Dean Kahler lives in Canton, Ohio. He was invited to give the 2020 Kent State University commencement address, before the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Credit DEAN KAHLER

The charges against the 'Kent 25' were eventually thrown out, as were criminal charges against eight guardsmen. 

Dean Kahler, left, appeared at the 1971 commemoration of the May 4th shootings. KSU president Robert White, right in sunglasses, resigned later that year.
Credit KENT STATE NEWS SERVICE / KENT STATE ARCHIVES

“There was nothing that promised that it just wouldn’t end with four dead kids in that parking lot, and everybody saying, ‘hey, the kids did something wrong,’" said Historian Lesley Wischmann, who joined the families in their fight for justice.

"It’s really only because you had some people who just refused to let that be the end of it,” she said.

Five years of legal struggles, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed them to sue the government, finally gave the victims and parents of the killed students their day in court.

But a jury in Cleveland overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the Guard.

The families appealed, and nearly nine years after the shootings, the state settled. Dean Kahler got around half the $675,000 offer. The parents of the four dead students received $15,000 each.

The former head of the Ohio National Guard, 26 former guardsman, and Gov. James Rhodes also signed a what was called a statement of regret.

It acknowledged that, "better ways could have been found to resolve the confrontation."

Wischmann said, as a young activist the lessons of May 4th were clear.

Historian Lesley Wischmann, left, formed a life-long bond with Elaine Holstein, right, whose son Jeffrey Miller was killed on May 4th, 1970.
Credit LESLEY WISCHMANN

“We realized on that day, that we weren’t safe," she said.

"Freedom of speech, fine... freedom of assembly, fine," said Wischmann, "but freedom of guns to shoot you down was also real.”