Monday, May 4, 2009

Kent State University: 4 May

Thirty-nine years ago today, a confrontation between Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War and a contingent of Ohio National Guardsmen charged with preserving order on campus ended tragically: after 13 seconds of rifle fire, four students were dead, one was paralyzed for life, and eight others were wounded to varying degrees.

I have a master's degree in history from Kent, and during my three years there I was always surprised by the innumerable and at times deeply strange ways in which those 13 seconds continued to echo throughout the campus. The Vietnam War was profoundly divisive, and the events of 4 May 1970 haven't yet lost their polarizing effect. The calls for the wholesale slaughter of hippie college kids and for the offing of the baby-killing capitalist pigs may have subsided, but the bitter division between those who think that the Guard's actions were unconscionable and those who believe that the students got what they deserved still persists.

Owing to these lingering tensions -- and the simple fact that Kent is a state-funded institution -- official remembrances of 4 May 1970 were invariably ambivalent: this is a very important part of the university's history, so let's solemnly pause for some silent reflection and then move on. My ability to tolerate official commemorations is generally pretty limited, and in early May I had little time for anything other than my undergrads' finals and my own end-of-semester papers. As a result, I didn't pay much heed to the university's 4 May calendar of events.

4 May was nonetheless omnipresent. My thesis adviser (a longtime peace activist) was one of a handful of faculty marshals who tried on the morning of 4 May to defuse the conflict between the students and the Guard, and he witnessed, up close, its horrific end. Buildings that I walked past every day appeared in the archival footage that the local TV news aired on every 4 May. The shortest (but hilliest) route between my apartment and the building housing the Department of History took me right past the May 4 Memorial. My cohorts and I noted that a sizeable number of the library's journal subscriptions ended in 1971, when the university suffered the first of a series of massive budget cuts.

Even my references to my alma mater are shaped by 4 May: during my time on campus, the university was in the midst of a re-branding campaign, and "Kent State" was out. "Kent" was in, and the university's letterhead, Web site, apparel, mugs, etc., reflected the change. (However, judging from the university's recently redesigned Web site, "Kent State" is back in vogue.)

Not surprisingly, the events of 4 May 1970 have also left an indelible mark upon the documentary record. Many archives throughout Northeast Ohio and the rest of the nation hold relevant materials, but the university's own Department of Special Collections and Archives holds the largest body of records documenting the events of 4 May and their aftermath. At present, its May 4 Collection consists of approximately 250 cubic feet of material created by individual faculty and students, university departments, student organizations, local politicians, and area newspapers.

I didn't spend a lot of time in the Department of Special Collections and Archives--my research almost always took me to other repositories--but I was glad that the university's archivists and librarians were so firmly committed to documenting the events of 4 May 1970 as comprehensively as possible. The collection has grown quite a bit since my time at Kent, and I expect that it will continue to do so.

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