May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play


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We're talking about two different groups of people—white and black. Moreover, Baker concluded that the Jackson shootings were not a response to Kent State, not caused by Kent State, and would have happened whether or not four students had recently been killed in Ohio. Since , however, the Jackson State killings have become unusual in another way: they have been remembered.

For centuries, the slaughter of black men by law enforcement officers in the United States had been neither infrequent nor exceptional, and until very recently that slaughter has been of little interest to society in general. Jackson State's occurrence in proximity to Kent State may have caused its memory to be distorted, but if it had not happened in proximity to Kent, it would be unlikely to be remembered at all. An example of this advocacy is Alan Canfora, a protestor wounded by a national guardsmen's bullet at Kent on May 4 who has also spoken at Jackson State commemorations.

But the latter, circumscribed by the Kent shootings, is rarely examined on its own.

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A question then becomes whether those originally forging the mnemonic links between Jackson and Kent were progressive on the issue of highlighting antiwar protest, drawing attention to civil rights protest, giving equal value to black lives, or all of these.

Here is a proposed phenomenological reading of that collective thought process: the tragic deaths of four white students in Kent produced worldwide outrage. It was clear from the beginning that the event was iconic. But the unrelated and only superficially comparable deaths of Gibbs and Green ten days later raised a question—the question of whether their deaths would also produce mass outrage, though centuries of black murder had not. For those connected with Kent State who wished to certify that their empathy could and did transcend the racial divide, the answer had to be yes.

Ultimately, the fact that the Kent—Jackson correlation was imperfect because the two events had little or nothing to do with each other mattered less than the picturesque synergy created by the pairing of black and white protest deaths. In a genuine sense, Kent officials made an attempt to enact a form of solidarity by sharing the spotlight with Jackson and drawing attention to black victimization. But any significant challenge to prevailing systems of power would be severely undercut by the institution's failure to understand the African American lives with which it sought solidarity or, even more egregiously, reshaping the meanings of those lives to suit the desires of primarily white audiences.

On this topic, the recent work on the politics of cultural memory by Viet Thanh Nguyen seems relevant. During the war and after, Nguyen shows, the United States created and propagated a large number of cultural, artistic, and political representations from its own viewpoint and distributed them worldwide in a way the Vietnamese could not. Baker, for example, believes that the facts of the Jackson State deaths have been largely subordinated to the desire to create a more meaningful narrative about Kent State.

By enshrining Gibbs and Green along with Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer, progressives in Kent and in the academy also enshrined notions of universality and inclusivity. Where the Mississippi shootings are concerned, however, even these motives can produce effects that are ambiguous or misleading. In an effort to be inclusive, the statue design depicted black, white, and Hispanic firefighters. In other words, there were no ethnic boundaries to the tragedy. The same cannot really be said of the Kent tragedy, where no blacks were killed and almost none participated in the protests—or the Jackson tragedy, where no whites were killed and none were among the protesters.

The reason this dichotomy is important and should not be obfuscated is that the color line separating the two events and their victims was not incidental but fundamental, indicating fundamental differences in historical experience. For this reason, viewing the Kent and Jackson tragedies as essentially the same type of happening, though in a different geographic region and involving differing racial demographics, is woefully inadequate and superficial; it fails to respect both the distinct motivations of the victimizers and the presence of power disparities between the groups victimized.

Baker's position—he is indignant that Kent State has been the focus of much more attention than Jackson State and has no desire to connect the events—may strike some as unusual.

But it is bolstered by the statement of a black Kent State student for the Kent May 4th Oral History Archive and later retranscribed in the oral history play, May 4th Voices. This student testimony offers a perspective that at once predicts the Jackson State massacre and meaningfully distinguishes it from the killings in Kent: I was aware of the [May 4th] rally, but at the same time, the Black United Students had encouraged us to stay away from the rally because they felt that if there were any kind of trouble, we would most likely be the first ones targeted.

As far as we were concerned, the National Guardsmen were the police. And because we'd been subject to so much harassment and abuse by the police, I had no illusion that those guys had blanks or pellets in their rifles. We all assumed they had real bullets, and we would be the first ones to be shot. It suggests, for example, why many blacks and other U. American Society and the Ending of the Vietnam War, is to assess culturally and racially diverse protest responses of the Vietnam War period.

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A Teacher's Resource Book for May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970

Another oral history testimonial from Hassler's May 4th Voices describes this dynamic from a Kent perspective: It was different than Jackson State. Look at the small amount of publicity they got, because they were a small, black, Southern institution. And they're never going to get back up again! And this antiwar movement is going to be ended once and for all! Here, the speaker seems to ask why the responses to Jackson State and Kent State differed in scope and intensity and then answers her own question. African American victims, deemed unworthy of empathy, were unable to transmit the requisite or desired message about the gravity of the state's perceived threat.

Certainly part of the reason Kent State has been so deeply imprinted on the nation's consciousness is the race of its victims. His point was that the freedom to resist or protest state authority has been a manifestation of white privilege. Kent State's shattering of that paradigm was its great significance, an indication that the tensions of the period were nearly unprecedented.

Black Americans, however, may have been less surprised that the Kent killings took place than by the race of the victims.

Anytime you go against the system, you become a nigger, regardless of your color. Wary of the war machine from having been always already engaged in existential forms of conflict with it, African Americans abstained from the May 4 demonstration. That blacks were not involved in the Kent protests and whites were not involved in Jackson only one white student was enrolled at Jackson State in was therefore no accident; it was part of the conditions that shaped the events in the first place.

John Filo on photographing the Kent State shootings

Unifying the two tragedies ex post facto and superficially as the yearly Kent State commemorations have done overlooks the real causes for their not being shared in the first place. Since , the tendency of primarily white historians 41 41 See most recently Thomas M. The choice to publicly embrace and emphasize connections between the Kent killings and the systematic murder of blacks was both brave and remarkably perceptive, potentially marking a fresh beginning in the long history of May 4 commemorations.

Not only did the decision have the power to lend new meaning and relevance to the tragedy, it also offered Kent State officials the chance to update the reasoning behind their institution's claimed solidarity with Jackson State. Unfortunately, the commemoration itself sent a disjointed and only partially coherent message.


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The initial announcement of the event theme in April produced startling reactions. First, a large number of furious Kent State alumni expressed their anger on social media. Many argued that May 4 had nothing to do with the killing of Tamir Rice or the Black Lives Matter movement and threatened to pull future donations. Their comments claimed that since no blacks were killed or wounded in the Kent State shooting, the theme of Black Lives Matter distracted attention from Kent victims and debased the commemoration's purpose.

Some posts also assumed that Kent State's Black United Students was behind the choice of theme and publicly blamed them, though they actually had nothing to do with it. Others questioned Samaria Rice's qualifications as a keynote speaker. The Kent State administration's official response was to distance the university from the controversy. Kent State University continues to support the privilege of free speech and encourages open dialogue and respectful discourse.

One Cleveland newspaper seemed to commend the university's generosity in not objecting to the choice of speaker or theme. The tone of the Kent State University announcement was closely matched by Kent President Warren's actual remarks at the commemoration. They seem unaware or uninterested in how vividly the Jackson State tragedy portends the basis and essence of Black Lives Matter.

One might say that Warren missed a teachable moment. But once this is acknowledged, dependent inferences emerge that trouble simplistic Kent—Jackson comparisons. Looking back on history from a vantage point informed by tenets of Black Lives Matter urges contemplation of the fundamental verity that the primacy of Kent State as a historical benchmark has been based in part on a failure to grant black protestors full subjectivity and on an assumption that white lives matter more than black.

I am not alleging anything conspiratorial on the part of Kent officials, nor am I suggesting the phenomenon I am describing is necessarily a conscious one. What I am suggesting is that Kent commemorative strategies have created a conundrum for the institution based on the awkward inconsistency of embracing indelible links to Jackson State while hesitating to embrace the Jackson event's prefiguration of the core ideas of Black Lives Matter. Passionate thoughts to this effect were expressed at the commemoration by Chynna Baldwin, a Kent State junior and then president of the Kent's Black United Students.

In an interview for this article, Baldwin, a psychology major from Twinsburg, Ohio, shared opinions about the failure to see connections between May 4 and violence against blacks. And I wanted people to understand that those Facebook comments were not ok.

Kent State, May 4,

Baldwin added that the way the commemoration theme was treated displayed a denial of African American experience and the suffering attached to it. In her view, it showed a determination to resist the introduction of Jackson State and black issues into conversations about May 4 at any level other than a subordinate one.

We were standing in solidarity with May 4 but protesting the ignorance and blatant racism that was saying blacks had less of a right to be there. Clearly, the formal introduction of Black Lives Matter into the conversation about May 4 put severe stresses on Kent State's existing structures of remembering and commemorating. Even the fact that the event produced mixed results may be a positive sign, especially when we consider that the students themselves—with assistance from May 4 Task Force faculty adviser Idris Kabir Syed—pointed the way to the event's most progressive outcomes.

At the close of the ceremony, Samaria Rice spoke for sixteen minutes about the most harrowing day of her life, when she sent two of her children out to play and only one came home. She discussed how the police had tried to blame her for her son's murder. They were somebody's babies, and American should be ashamed of itself.

A racial element made the deaths in Kent a shocking aberration, a measure of an exceptionally severe desperation in state authority during May Exactly a year after the Kent State shootings, normalcy had returned to the Kent campus. That day, Baker had overheard fellow students talking about the campus shootings of a year earlier, but only about Kent State.

He spoke to the students and learned that they had no awareness of the previous year's events in Mississippi.

May 4th Voices

He processed his anger by composing the following lines. Because Jackson State was not an antiwar protest, genuine links between the two shootings may only be established after eliminating the vocabulary that relegates race to the status of a secondary issue when white police fire bullets into a crowd of unarmed African Americans because they could not tolerate being called names.

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May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play
May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play

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