Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So, where was I ... Oh, yeah, Kent, 1970

Oh, yes. May 4. Kent. 1970. Busted laptop. Hm, one of these things is not like the other.
In any case, the story I wanted to tell goes like this:
In the spring of 2000 the organizers of the memorial events that year invited all of the survivors of the shootings to Kent. I don't know if that happens every year. I do know that in the early years, including the years that I was a student, the school administration really did not want the survivors on campus because they were a visceral reminder of something the university simply wished to forget.
But in 2000 the surviving victims of the shooting were invited back and many returned, which was really neither here nor there for me except that in the spring of 2000 I was serving a church in Mt. Lebanon, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
In 2000, May 4 fell on a Wednesday. It was both a work day for me and a school day for our children so we quickly concluded that the trek to Kent, about two hours west of Mt. Lebo, was not going to happen. I was at the church on that Friday afternoon later than usual, and the rest of the staff had left for the day. I was walking around the front of the church, something I rarely did because the main entrance off the parking lot actually went into the back of the place. I noticed a middle-aged man and woman and a teenage girl trying the door to the fellowship hall, so I walked over to them and asked if I could help.
The man said he had grown up in Mt. Lebanon and attended the church as a child, and was back in town for the first time with his daughter. He wanted to show her some of the places that had been important to him and the church, which had hosted dances for high school kids on Friday and Saturday nights in the late 60s, was one of those places.
One of the family, I don't recall which, was wearing a 30th anniversary May 4 t-shirt and I remarked that I was a KSU grad.
That was when Jim Russell introduced himself. He told me that he had been shot at Kent on May 4, 1970. He was standing at a 90-degree angle from and more than a football field's distance from the National Guardsmen who turned and opened fire on the students that afternoon. He was shot in the thigh and the forehead by the only Guardsman firing a shotgun. The rest had machine guns.
In 2000 he lived in Oregon, having moved west in the mid-1970s to escape the shadow of Kent. He shared with me the bitterness he felt toward the university and the authorities, who wanted either to forget the whole thing or blame the students.
He vividly remembered the calls to "shoot 'em all," and the names -- "worse than brown shirts and night riders" according to Ohio Gov. James Rhodes -- that the students were called by high ranking government officials.
He shared with me that he'd lost a job in Ohio in the early 70s when his employers learned of his connection to the shootings, a story he also shares in the story linked above. He also noted that a new university administration during the 1990s had changed the way the school dealt with the survivors of the shootings and had made them feel welcome on campus for the first time in a quarter century. While time had healed his physical wounds and many of the psychological ones as well, I doubt that Jim Russell ever felt completely at peace with the events of May 4, 1970. He died in 2007 at 60.
A memorial service was held at Kent and the story on it in the Akron paper at the time drew echos of the same response the shootings did in 1970: the students deserved what they got.
Forty years later the shootings continue to haunt the lives of those caught in the crossfire. In fact just this week Alan Canfora, who was wounded on May 4, asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to reopen the investigation of the 40-year-old case based on new evidence from an audio recording of the shootings. A Cleveland Plain-Dealer investigation this spring used new audio enhancement techniques and discovered a voice clearly ordering the Guard to "prepare to fire" seconds before they opened fire for 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others.
Doris Krause, the 84-year-old mother of Allison Krause, who was 19 when died from fatal wounds received on a campus parking lot more than 100 yards from National Guardsmen, said of the new discovery, "I'm an old lady, and before I leave this earth, I'd like to find out who said what is on that tape."
Forty years on and it remains true that the powers that be will bring to bear deadly force on those who threaten the base of the power, and they will also go to any length to avoid being held accountable for their actions.
They used to produce t-shirts each spring at Kent that read, "long live the spirit of Kent and Jackson State." I never bought one because I was always skeptical that there was any such thing as a spirit of those places and the killings deaths of the spring of 1970. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the spirit is simply the tireless search for the truth about what happened that day and the pursuit of something like justice even all these years later.

1 comment:

Peace Church said...

thanks david.