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kent state affair

Glenn Frank

One of our great cultural temptations since the 1960s is to think of songsters as poets. Stephen Foster never claimed to be, nor did Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, or Oscar Hammerstein. Suddenly, in the 60s, the likes of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, David Crosby and (slightly later) Bruce Springsteen moved up an evolutionary notch to bard-troubadour-poet, and had to be Taken Seriously. Dylan said in his autobiography Chronicles, “Wherever I am, I’m a ‘60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows.” He wasn’t there, but Woodstock, the “Woodstock Nation,” the “miracle of Woodstock” became the cultural icon of the new integration of music, politics, and drugs. The 60s, the Age of Pretension, has in this sense not gone away.

Music and politics have rarely been a healthy combination (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” comes especially to mind), but when the Woodstock Nation (the movie) was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public just 39 days before several youngsters died from Ohio National Guard bullets on a college campus in the Heartland, mythologies converged that created a whole new martyrology and (if H.R. Haldeman is to be believed) led even to the defrocking of a President. In a recent book, a mature historian who should know better goes so far as to introduce the “real” 60s with a song he uses as his title, “The Eve of Destruction.” At Kent State, a place which the reporters who feasted on its palpable destruction had to consult maps to find, on May 4, 1970, what had seemed like the “miracle” of Woodstock ran up against the muck and mire of Vietnam.

The 44th anniversary of the unfortunate events at Kent State, just days ago, brought this to mind when a close friend and colleague remembered it on social media, and linked it with the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, “Ohio.” Neil Young wrote it, supposedly after seeing the Kent State pictures in Life Magazine. Its continuing power is illustrated by a young person’s response to my friend’s post: “Great song. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young taught me more about this day in our history than any class or textbook.” Here is the refrain:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

The rest is gibberish, talking about soldiers “cutting us down,” and evoking the image of a young woman: “What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground?” It is not a good song, but a gut reaction by a left-wing songwriter who wasn’t there but knew that it had to fit the dread images of a nasty President and a war that were emotively opposite from the “miracle” at Woodstock, where his singing group had first come together.

I would like to hope that what the young person “learned” from this song is not the lesson that Young wanted to teach. Those “tin soldiers” were young men exactly the age of the Kent State students who were conducting an illegal “protest,” and were no more there to shoot down defenseless girls than the “protesters” were there to bring down the state of Ohio. “Nixon coming” is a tragic phrase. “We’re finally on our own” is a cry for help more than of resignation or triumph. I suspect, however, that what even now young people think they learned is that Neil Young was crying for the martyrs; but he really wanted us to cry so that we didn’t have to think.

Kent State was in fact a complicated event, ugly as chaos is always ugly, the chaos brought on by the separation of generations in a manner and with a speed that had perhaps never happened before in all of human history. One can witness in less than a decade a culture moving from civil rights to the savaging of cities; from students graduating from college never having heard the word marijuana (like me, 1962) to the celebration of drugs in everything from Peter, Paul and Mary songs to the altars at Woodstock; from colleges being places of relatively peaceful studies and parties to politicized battle grounds where thugs and ideologues could bring down administrations and buildings seemingly at will. It would have been impossible for anyone at Kent State in 1960, a second-rate branch state university growing under the liberal demands for universal education, to have imagined what would happen there in 1970. It is up to us, however, to remember it, not as martyrology but as anamnesis.

As is true of every great cultural crisis, both God and the devil are in the details. On May 4, 1970 I was teaching at St. Louis University, a medium sized urban university with a proud intellectual and spiritual heritage, dedicated to its city and its Catholic population. In the spirit of its older Jesuit heritage, the university was rigorous in both intellect and service. Its students had up until the late 60s come mostly from the Catholic ghettos of St. Louis and other midwestern cities, often the first in their families to have the opportunity for higher education. SLU was trying in some ways to change. Even though I was young (30) I had already been part of “Project 21,” an ambitious attempt to plan a “Jesuit, Catholic, urban university” into the 21st century. Everything was up for grabs—curriculum, living conditions in dormitories, relation to government grants, Jesuit presence in faculty and administrative positions, student “representation” in decision-making, how the university should relate to the racial and ethnic makeup of the St. Louis inner-city. Like all such projects going on around the country, nobody on the “task force” had much of a grasp on what was at stake. To complicate matters, this was also the era of Vatican II. The Society of Jesus and the larger Catholic Church were in as much turmoil as most of American society, and especially most of American higher education. Add all this to extreme racial tension in the city (it was an urban legend that St. Louis had escaped much of the late 60s violence because the Cardinals won three pennants and two World Series between 1964 and 1968, but those of us who drove daily through burnt-out blocks of north St. Louis knew better) that had spilled over to the university after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and what happened at SLU in early May should have surprised nobody. Instead, it surprised all of us.

Spontaneously—I’m sure that there was no real organization; even the Students for a Democratic Society chapter was small and made up mostly of Dorothy Day type Catholics—groups that considered themselves victims rose up all over campus. For maybe twenty-four hours they milled around, doing the things that frustrated and angry young people do, but trashing no property and seeming to have no particular agenda. The administration, on May 5, offered a platform and sound system for grievance-airing. The weather was good (St. Louis tends to be lovely in the spring) and for many hours representatives of one victim group after another came to the microphones. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, it would have been easy to see the sequence of speeches as high comedy. Angry, inarticulate males called Ohio Guardsmen murderers, as if they were from another planet or another country. Black speakers grew increasingly frustrated that their causes were being pushed into the background, even though much of the urban and university violence in the past few years had been centered on them. The feminists were the most pathetic, going on for hours about how they were being subordinated to the shouting of the male white and black radicals. I was hoping that the students (not all were students—some were agenda-driven agitators from outside, a fact rarely discussed in the 60s and 70s) would talk themselves out.

But events intervened. Just up the street, about ten minutes from SLU on the campus of Washington University, shortly after midnight on the beginning of May 5, “Students for Peace” had torched the Air Force ROTC building. This was after having burned and bombed the Army ROTC building a month or so earlier. In fact, scores of buildings (mostly ROTC) had been fired bombed and burned in the past few months, resulting in deaths and injuries to entirely innocent janitors, students, and law enforcement officers. It would turn out, by the way, that nobody was punished for the Washington University acts of terrorism, which were usually termed “protests” by the media. Reports also flooded into campus, even in these days long before cell phones and the internet, of campuses shut down, buildings occupied, people injured—many of the incidents happening before the Kent State affair. Chaos always spreads faster than Order; the devil seems likely to get his licks in first.

The noise level rose at Olive and Pine on the SLU campus. I heard it in my office and ran to the library, two buildings over, to see hundreds of people running up the street toward our ROTC building, yelling slogans. The first thing I noticed was that ten or twenty of my students were in the front ranks. The second was that there were about a dozen men moving with the crowd who were dressed in white canvass sneakers, madras shorts and polo shirts, and all of them had crewcuts. Did the FBI, or whoever they were, think that they had infiltrated the protest? I couldn’t help laughing—as it became clear later on, a reaction that terribly upset several other students of mine, who for whatever reason were watching for my reaction more than what the crowd was doing. I got a pathetic letter under my office door about two hours later. How could I laugh?

As the crowd approached the ROTC building, a small group of men came out onto the front steps, led by Father Paul Reinert, S.J., the university president. He was not surrounded by a security detail, or city police. He had not called the Governor to summon the National Guard. He didn’t bring a bullhorn or sound system. He talked with those who could hear him, and after a remarkably short time the crowd quieted and began to disperse. Later we learned that he had proposed a University Council hearing on the presence of ROTC on campus, and agreed to listen to all serious points of view on almost everything the students and faculty had to say. Most people believed him, because two years earlier he had settled the black students’ occupation of the Dean’s office without violence and without reprisals. Fr. Reinert was a quietly courageous and faithful man.

The University Council duly met. Its proceedings were broadcast to a large quadrangle. Hundreds of students listened to testimony, oratory, pleading, a few threats, and some good arguments. I was on the Council, but didn’t say much except in defense of three well dressed and articulate defenders of Catholic tradition, the ROTC and St. Louis University’s place in what we would soon be calling the “public square.” They were speaking against the crowd, and for order, and I will never forget their courage. The Council decided to move ROTC off campus. Although later the two St. Louis universities would form a joint agreement to train officers, it appeared at the time to be a victory for the crowd.

And it was not over. Later in the evening various student leaders decided to call a strike. It looked like a smart move; there were only a few days left in the semester, universities were getting away with it all over the country, faculty and students seemed to be in favor. End the year with a big symbolic victory. We shut the school down! By this time I had received the letter from my student(s), and had realized that the main thing I cared about in the whole mess was her, or them. Kent State students had been hurt, but nothing, at least that I knew of, had been or was likely to be learned from it. I decided to ignore the strike and hold class. Not many people approved of my decision.

The next day there was a large picket line around the classroom building. I had called several students to say that I would be there at 11:00am, but I had no idea if anyone else would show up. As I approached the outside door one of the strike leaders said to me, “Dr. Willson, we can’t allow you to go through that door.” People pressed in toward me, nobody really threatening, but they were indeed blocking the door. I said (this is as close as an old man’s memory allows), “Well, I have a class at 11:00 and intend to be there. If you are going to prevent that, you will have to accept the responsibility for some hard physical restraint.” We looked at each other for what seemed to be an hour (probably ten seconds) and I walked past him. Nobody tried to stop me. I went to the classroom to find every one of my students present—about forty of them—and perhaps another forty “guests” who had come to see what happened. I told them that we had responsibilities to ourselves and our parents and our university to do what we were here to do, but that we had made our point, and would meet as usual on Monday. Something smashed the blackboard. I didn’t stop to see what it was, but it was heavy, and I walked toward the door. As I did, all of my students stood up and silently backed up, effectively pinning our “visitors” against the back wall.

The strike ended that day. Saint Louis University was blessed. No students were hurt or expelled, no faculty suppressed, no administrators fired, no buildings destroyed. I spent a lot of time trying to account for these blessings, but never have come to a solid conclusion.


Father Reinert

Many years later, I read about Professor Glenn Frank of Kent State, whose son was on the field that day. In the midst of the chaos he ran to the students who wanted to charge against the soldiers who had fired. “I don’t care whether you’ve ever listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don’t want to be a part of this…” His son believes to this day that Glenn Frank saved many lives.

I think that Glenn Frank and Father Reinert and my courageous students were the only heroes in that tragic time. I think the musicians and the media got it all wrong. They were ideologues and opportunists, not poets or reporters. They trivialized the damage the 60s are still doing.

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10 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for these powerful observations, John. Would that more had had your courage at the time. Would that more had your honesty today.

  2. I second both Peter’s and Bruce’s sober words! Dr. Wilson takes us there, though we may not wish to go!

  3. Excellent piece. Re: the insurrection at Kent St., I always thought Gov. Rhodes did the right thing in ordering out the Guard. The deaths were the result of students making the mistake of loitering around armed men with orders to restore order and quell the arson and terrorist activity in town and at the university. If memory serves, following this incident and another down south at about the same time, there was very little violence on American campuses. A whiff of powder has a sobering effect.

  4. Excellent article, but I believe there’s one minor mistake: “Woodstock Nation” was a book by Abbie Hoffman, and to the best of my knowledge (and a search on not a movie. I’m guessing you were thinking of the Michael Wadleigh “Woodstock,” a documentary of the famous concert of 1969.

  5. I don’t think I called “Woodstock Nation” a movie; at least I didn’t mean to. I do admit that the way I put it leaves it open to that interpretation. I happened to see the fictional piece by Michael Wadleigh a few days after it was released, and appreciated certain aspects of its power. Because a couple of members of my extended family attended the lovefest I also learned earlier than most what a mystery the movie was, leaving out, among many other things, the fact that thousands of young people would have died had it not been for the heroic efforts of medical volunteers who saved them from the folly of their stupid drug abuse. Abbie Hoffman, whom I chanced to meet briefly in western New York the next year, was well aware of what a scam the whole concept of Woodstock was from the beginning. He was a devious elf.

  6. That was so insightful! Really terrific! I’ve never read any account of the mayhem of the 60’s that so clearly spelled out the wrongheadedness of the whole crazy movement, nor the courage of the few who resisted that mayhem. Thanks.

  7. At the time I was on the Cambodian border. When a newspaper detailing the events at Kent State eventually reached us, SK3 Thomas of Tennessee observed “Look at the pictures. Those are their high school graduation pictures. What did they look like on THAT DAY?” A small detail, but perhaps important.

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