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Honoring Spirit of Kent, Jackson State

May 16, 1985|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

April was a month for anniversaries.

It has wrung us out emotionally: the 40-year-old scars of imminent victory, Hitler's suicide and the collapse of Germany, and the fresh wounds that President Reagan's planned Bitburg cemetery visit opened; the still-raw 10-year-old sores of slow defeat in Vietnam, and the force-feeding of memories many people think we should keep always before us, and others would just as soon forget.

But May, too, has its anniversaries.

At a lunchtime rally 15 years ago, on May 4, 1970, below "Blanket Hill," a sunny, grassy slope at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were shot to death and nine were wounded by a panicked handful of Ohio National Guardsmen.

And on a balmy evening 10 days later, during a fracas on the predominantly black campus of Jackson State, in Mississippi, a college student and a high school youth were killed by a skittish group of Highway Patrolmen, whose bullets also wounded a score of others.

There was a time when the admonitory phrase, "No more Kent States," was heard around the country as often as "No more Vietnams" is now. In the recent rush to make unarguably overdue amends to the veterans--"Forget the War, Not the Warriors" is the slogan on a best-selling T-shirt advertised in a Vietnam vets magazine--we cannot afford to push aside the memory of the home-front casualties.

I went to both last month--Kent and Jackson--as I traveled the country for The Times' Vietnam retrospective. For the young people nonchalantly going to class in those places, the 15-year anniversaries are scars that never felt a wound. For those old enough to remember, though, Kent State, in particular, eclipsed the Vietnam War; it became the Vietnam War in microcosm, right next door.

Town 'Under Siege'

In the weekend before the Kent shootings, students suffering spring fever and students protesting U.S. presence in Cambodia somehow came together, racketing through town, making a lot of noise and breaking a lot of windows. The townsfolk felt "under siege," and Kent pharmacist Jim Myers, reflecting on that weekend, said he remembers "welcoming the National Guard, thinking 'Thank God, they're here.' "

That weekend, like Vietnam, the helicopters crisscrossed the skies of Kent, and like Vietnam, people went about fearfully, not knowing who was the "enemy" and who was not, a little Midwestern town, says Myers, "that suddenly was not your own."

And on Monday, when students showed up for a campus anti-war rally that someone had decided to rule an "illegal assembly," the tensions spilled over: Tear gas provoked some badly aimed rock-throwing, and that provoked unauthorized gunfire from nervous local Guardsmen--some not much older than the students they shot. One dead student had shouted a vulgarity at a guardsman; another was walking to class a long way away. The blood flowed in a parking lot of a Midwestern university, as it was flowing in Vietnam.

Ten days later, it happened again at Jackson, whose rare anti-war rallies had been reassuringly attended by the university president, Dr. John A. Peoples Jr. It was an unlikely campus, in a part of the country where the military is a well-respected career--"a young black second lieutenant was something to behold," Peoples says. But here, as in Vietnam, there was edginess. And when young "street kids," not college students, started harassing motorists and setting trash fires, and firemen and lawmen arrived, students began leaving a concert (the gunfire-punctuated "1812 Overture"), a bottle got thrown, the shooting began. And again, the blood flowed.

Lingering Bitterness

Peoples spent the night with his distraught students, singing, praying, talking. "It was not the same intensity as at Kent State," and eventually, "it tended to bring things together in town." In Kent, the bitterness was deeper, more lingering; some townspeople said darkly that the guardsmen should not have stopped shooting at four.

There were monuments, of course, set up a full decade sooner than the veterans' memorial in Washington. The first one, at Kent State, was stolen, and returned defaced. On the marble marker outside Jackson State's Dixon Hall, the Plexiglas sheets over photos of the dead youths have been smashed.

There were speeches on these campuses, unlikely martyring grounds to big-city activists; Ed Muskie went to Jackson State and found most of the students had gone home, Peoples says. Kent State, which became "one of the stations of the cross" in the anti-war movement according to sociology professor Jerry M. Lewis, drew Sargent Shriver, who noted how glad he was to be "here at Penn State."

Like Vietnam, no blame was ever really, officially fixed. Grand juries convened and dispersed, lawsuits came and went. Like Vietnam, the willingness to remember faded, even if the memory itself did not. For pharmacist Myers, one of the happiest days of his life came when he told someone where he was from, and the man said, "Kent, where's that?"

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