Four dead in Ohio

‘What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?’

On the morning of 5 May 1970, we opened our newspapers to see this photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio grief-stricken as she kneels over the body of student Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. National Guardsmen had fired in to a crowd of demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine. For me this moment in radical politics is scored into my memory. I was a student at the time, involved in radical protest at Liverpool University, and this event seemed to reinforce the growing sense of foreboding and paranoia that came to characterise the seventies.

Apart from the sheer horror of the event, I think it burns in the memory because it was reinforced bythat image – and by several responses from rock musicians. It’s that aspect that I’d like to focus on in this post on the 40th anniversary of the Kent State massacre.

How did that iconic photograph come to be taken?  John Filo was a senior photojournalism student at Kent and was there, with his Nikkormat camera when the shooting started. Like many students that day John assumed the Guard was using blanks and quickly ran towards the Guard to get pictures while dodging fleeing students running the other way:

When I put the camera back to my eye, I noticed a particular guardsman pointing at me. I said, “I’ll get a picture of this,” and his rifle went off. And almost simultaneously, as his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree.

I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition. I don’t know what gave me the combination of innocence and stupidity…but I never took cover. I was the only one standing at the hillside. … and turned slowly to my left, what caught my eye on the street was the body of Jeffrey Miller and the volume of blood that was flowing from his body was as if someone tipped over a bucket. I started to flee – run down the hill and stopped myself. Where are you going? I said to myself, This is why you are here!

And I started to take pictures again. And the picture I made then was of Jeffrey Miller’s body lying in the street and people starting to come out of shelter, and then a picture where Mary Vecchio was just entering the frame. I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob. And it culminated in her saying an exclamation. I can’t remember what she said exactly … something like, Oh, my God!

A few hours later, Filo began to transmit the pictures he had taken to the Associated Press from the office of  a small newspaper in Pennsylvania.  The photograph would go on to win him a Pulitzer Prize.


On 30 April 1970, in a televised announcement, President Nixon had announced that US forces had invaded Cambodia to destroy Vietnamese bases there. Campuses across the country erupted as students responded to this ascalation of the Vietnam conflict. At Kent State a huge demonstration took place on 1 May and a copy of the American constitution was buried to symbolize the fact that Congress had never declared war. That evening there were disturbances in the town with store windows being smashed. The mayor declared a state of emergency and appealed to the Ohio State Governor for help. The National Guard was deployed and arrived on campus on the evening of  2 May to find a crowd of about 1000 students surrounding a burning ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) building on campus. On Sunday 3 May students woke to find their campus a war zone with armed National Guard troops in position, helicopters overhead and tanks stationed on University grounds.

A second demonstration had already been planned for 4 May and although the University attempted to stop the event, handing out thousands of leaflets stating that the protest was cancelled, about 2,000 protestors gathered on the university campus, which was still open, with students attending classes and having lunch.

The National Guard commander ordered that the demonstration be dispersed and protesters were ordered to leave through loudspeakers; when that didn’t work teargas was fired into the crowds. It was at this point that a group of Guardsmen, with bayonets fixed, began advancing on the protestors and suddenly fired their weapons towards the students in a volley that lasted only 13 seconds.

The shootings killed four students and wounded nine. Later, the Guardsmen claimed they were in fear of their lives, yet all the dead and wounded were shot from some distance away. Two of the four students killed, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest, but the other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder, had been walking from one class to the next at the time of their deaths. Schroeder was also a member of the campus ROTC chapter.

The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, set up the following month, concluded that

“The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.”

The shootings led to protests on college campuses throughout the United States, and the first-ever national student strike. Five days later, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington DC against the war and the killing of unarmed student protesters.

Although eight of the guardsmen were indicted, all charges were later dismissed. No criminal charges or disciplinary proceedings were brought against the Guard commander.

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drummin’.
Four dead in Ohio.

-‘Ohio’ released by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in protest at the Kent State massacre

Neil Young wrote the lyrics to ‘Ohio’ after seeing photos of Kent State in Life Magazine. With Crosby, Stills and Nash the song was then recorded on the evening of 15 May 1970 at the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles. The foursome, with other back-up musicians, recorded it live in just a few takes. During the same session they also recorded the single’s B-side, Stephen Stills’ ode to the Vietnam war’s dead, “Find the Cost of Freedom.”The record was rush-released by Atlantic and heard on the radio only a few weeks after the shootings.

Life magazine cover 15 May 1970

‘What if you knew her/ And found her dead on the ground?’

Graham Nash commented:

“Four young men and women had their lives taken from them while lawfully protesting this outrageous government action. We are going back to keep awareness alive in the minds of all students, not only in America, but worldwide…to be vigilant and ready to stand and be counted… and to make sure that the powers of the politicians do not take precedent over the right of lawful protest.”

Jimmy McDonough wrote in his biography of Neil Young : ‘In ten lines, Young captured the fear, frustration and anger felt by the youth across the country and set it to a lumbering D-modal death march that hammered home the dread.’

I was down in Nashville just payin’ my dues
Headed for Ohio when I read the news
‘Bout the people demonstrating ‘gainst the President’s views
Four were shot down by the National Guard troops
Just like Uncle Sam I put on my fighting shoes
School shot down cause there’s no more to lose
Now we’re headed to D.C. two by twos
Cause those low down, profound, killin’ four blues

Lookin’ for my Congressman to make it well known
But the politicians already won’t answer his telephone
Making in his office while they’re shooting kids down at home
Worried about the voters but he won’t be worried long

Silent majority still glued to the tube
Say CIA ain’t lookin’, FBI come unglued
Shot some more in Jackson just to show the world what they can do
While we’re marching to D.C. cause there’s too much to do

Give peace a chance
Give peace a chance
There’s no turnin’ back my friend
There’s no turnin’ back

– ‘Jackson-Kent Blues’, Steve Miller Band

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s ‘Ohio’ wasn’t the only song to mention the Kent State shootings.  Another early response to the killings was Steve Miller’s ‘Jackson-Kent Blues’, released in the summer of 1970, on his album Number 5. Its second side was Miller’s strongest political statement , a three-song suite that included the Hendrix-infuenced ‘Industrial Complex Hex’,  the angry and dark ‘Jackson-Kent Blues’ and the elegiac ‘Never Kill Another Man’, which put Miller’s anti-war sentimentsto the fore.

Jackson? On 14 May, ten days after Kent State, two students were killed by police at the mainly black Jackson State University under similar circumstances, but that event did not arouse the same nationwide attention.

Starting out with Berkeley Free Speech
And later on at People’s Park
The winds of change fanned into flames
Student demonstrations spark
Down to Isla Vista where police felt so harassed
They called the special riot squad of the L. A. County Sheriff

The violence spread down South to where Jackson State brothers
Learned not to say nasty things about Southern policemen’s mothers
Nothing much was said about it and really next to nothing done
The pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for a gun

Well there’s a riot going on
There’s a riot going on
Well there’s a riot going on
‘Cause it’s student demonstration time

America was stunned on May 4, 1970
When rally turned to riot up at Kent State University
They said the students scared the Guard
Though the troops were battle dressed
Four martyrs earned a new degree
The Bachelor of Bullets

I know we’re all fed up with useless wars and racial strife
But next time there’s a riot, well, you best stay out of sight

Well there’s a riot going on
There’s a riot going on
Well there’s a riot going on
Student demonstration time

– ‘Student Demonstration Time’, from Surf’s Up, The Beach Boys

‘Student Demonstration Time’ was a song that The Beach Boys had been performing live since 1969.  After Kent State, Mike Love updated the lyrics and the song – now referring to the Ohio events – was released in 1971 on the Surf’s Up album. The lyric is interesting in that the events referred to in the song comprise a concise history of American campus protest in the sixties: the Berkeley Free Speech movement (autumn 1964), People’s Park (May 1969), rioting in Isla Vista, California (June 1970), the Jackson State killings (May 14-15, 1970) and the Kent State shootings. The conclusion of the song is disappointing, however: ‘I know we’re all fed up with useless wars and racial strife/
But next time there’s a riot, well, you best stay out of sight/ Stay away when there’s a riot going on’

However, the most memorable of all the musical tributes to Kent State was a stunning version of ‘Ohio’ by the Isley Brothers, released on the 1971 album Givin’ It Back.  Allmusic Guide sums up the significance of the Isley Brothers’ version:

Givin’ It Back is as much a time capsule as an album. Not that it can’t be enjoyed on its own absolute musical terms by someone just off a boat who wasn’t even around in 1971, but to really appreciate how daring it was and how delightful it is, that side of its history should be known. Those who are old enough should recall the time whence it came, an era in which hatred and disunity over the Vietnam War, civil rights, school desegregation, the environment, and a multitude of other issues were threatening what seemed, potentially, like the beginning of a new civil war, this one not between states but between factions and ethnic and racial groups in 1,000 individual neighborhoods.

The opening cut of Givin’ It Back, “Ohio/Machine Gun,” is a slap-in-your-face reminder of just how angry the times and the people were. The track evokes instant memories of the campus bloodshed of 1970, not just at Kent State but also the often-forgotten killings a few days later at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where the victims of a fusillade of sheriff’s deputies’ bullets were black students. More than that, the track itself is also a reminder of the divisions that existed on the left; to listen to pundits on the right, the anti-war and civil rights movements, along with the counterculture, were all part of one vast, organized, calculated left-wing conspiracy. The truth is that there was nearly as big a split, culturally and politically, between young blacks and young whites on the left and on college campuses as there was anywhere else in the population. Blacks reacting to years of oppression had little use for mostly middle-class white college students, however sympathetic many of them purported to be to their situation, while well-meaning white students and activists couldn’t begin to know what privation of the kind experienced by blacks and Hispanics in most American towns and cities was. In music, too, there was a lot of division; blacks usually didn’t resonate to the top artists in the white world and, in particular, were oblivious to (and even resentful of) the adoration accorded Jimi Hendrix by the white community. So, when the Isley Brothers — whose appeal among black audiences was unimpeachable — opened Givin’ It Back with a conflation of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” they were speaking to anger and bloodshed in the streets, but they were also performing an act of outreach that was about as radical as any they could have committed on record in 1971. That they incorporated a prayer into their reformulation of the two songs, amid Ernie Isley’s and Chester Woodard’s guitar pyrotechnics, turned it into one of the most powerful and personal musical statements of its era, and it’s worth the price of the album just for the one cut.

Finally – Clive James. Yes, he too contributed a lyric in protest at Kent State. Believe it or not, at this time he was one half of a folk-rock duo with Pete Atkins who created the musical arrangements, whilst Clive James contributed the lyrics. On the title track of the album, Driving Through Mythical America, released in 1972, the events at Kent State were interwoven with a song that speaks of disillusionment with the myth of America that seduced us all:

Four students in the usual light of day
Set out to speak their minds about the war
Unaware that Eddie Pru was on the way
Things had to snap before they knew the score
They were driving through mythical America

A Rooney-Garland show was in the barn
Fields was at the Pussycat Cafe
No-one had even heard of Herman Kahn
And Jersey Joe was eager for the fray

Four students had to take it in their stride
And couldn’t feel the road beneath the wheels
Of the car they didn’t know they rode inside
Across the set and through the cardboard hills
They were driving through mythical America

They sold their Studebaker Golden Hawk
And bought a Nash Ambassador Saloon
Bogart said “Even the dead can talk”
And suddenly the coats were all raccoon

Four students never knew that this was it
There isn’t much a target needs to know
Already Babyface had made the hit
And Rosebud was upended in the snow
They were driving through mythical America

Gatsby floated broken in the pool
The Kansas City Seven found a groove
Barrymore and Lombard played the fool
And Cheetah slowly taught John Wayne to move

Four students watched the soldiers load and aim
And never tumbled they were on the spot
Moose Molloy pulled ten years on a frame
The dough was phoney and the car was hot
They were driving through mythical America

Henry Ford paid seven bucks a day
Rockwell did the covers on the Post
FDR set up the TVA
And the stars rode silver trains from coast to coast

Four students blinked at ordinary skies
But the sunlight came from thousands of motels
A highway through the night was in their eyes
And waiting at the roadblock Orson Welles
They were driving through mythical America

Four students never guessed that they were through
Their history had them covered like a gun
It hit them like a bolt out of the blue
Too quick to grasp and far too late to run
They crashed and died together in the sun
They were driving through mythical America

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