Commentary

04.29.20

The Legacy of the Kent State Shootings: 50 Years Later

By

Kent State, May 4 - Photo by John Filo

 

In this last week, protesters took to the streets all across the nation to protest quarantine and lock down orders put into place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world. In Ohio, to the dismay of many, there were several days of protesters swarming the Ohio Statehouse in order to make their voices heard to illustrate their disdain of the state of Ohio under lock down.

This has resulted in a viral photo that has been shared all across the world. The photographed individuals have been compared to zombies seen in the popular movie Shaun of the Dead, and the photo has either been celebrated in support or described as chilling by those who don’t agree with them. Regardless of whether people support the individuals in the photo or not, one thing is for certain: it will likely be one of the photographs that people look back on while remembering the pandemic we are currently living through.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time a protest in Ohio has gone down in history. In fact, fifty years ago this year, on May 4, 1970, almost thirty National Guardsman fired into a crowd of Kent State students who were protesting the Vietnam War, ultimately killing four students and wounding another nine in just thirteen seconds. Immediately afterwards, several photos from the event were similarly published all across the world, and it has been claimed that the events of that day in northeast Ohio tilted public opinion against the war and may have contributed to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.

Thousands of students protested at hundreds of universities in response to the tragedy (this resulted in additional students being killed by police and military force). Hundreds of thousands stormed the Capital in the streets of Washington, D.C.

And the ACLU and ACLU of Ohio immediately took action. According to then-Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio, Benson A. Wolman, within hours of the killings, the Kent Chapter of the ACLU began organizing two-person teams to tape-record and take written statements from witnesses, and the next day, the ACLU national office and the Ohio affiliate issued a joint public offer to represent the families of those who were killed.

The ACLU of Ohio was there instantly, because there was a strong, widespread consensus that this was an egregious violation of the victims’ Constitutional rights. Ironically, the students themselves buried a copy of the Constitution on the Kent State University Commons in front of the Victory Bell just a few days before the shooting.

There is very little doubt that these students knew their rights.

And we knew them too.

That is exactly why the national ACLU and the ACLU of Ohio (which was just a tiny organization at the time without even a 501(c)3 status and did not even become official until a year after the shooting) came in with the intent of making sure that justice was served. Though a jury ended up exonerating the then-Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, Robert I. White (who had been the president of Kent State at the time of the shooting), and the 27 National Guardsman, the ACLU and ACLU of Ohio fought on in the name of civil liberties – eventually getting the verdict appealed. This resulted in the case being settled with $675,000 being paid to the parents of the victims.

However, that was not the only victory the ACLU and ACLU of Ohio claimed on behalf of the victims and their families, but also tens of thousands of other Kent State students as well. In an article penned by Wolman, it became clear that the ACLU and ACLU of Ohio had done so much more. This included:

    • The establishment of the ACLU Kent Project to engage in a broad-based legislative attempt to redress the tragedy and to remedy some of the underlying and related problems in the community.
    • Winning a major class-action suit to vindicate the rights of 8,500 students whose dormitory rooms were searched without warrants ten days after the killings while the university was shut down. This resulted in a federal court holding that the search was unconstitutional and violated the civil rights of the students (learn more: Morgan v Hayth).
    • After the state grand jury issued its subsequently expunged report at a press conference called by the attorney general, two county judges issued orders which said that the subjects (students and university officials) could not publicly criticize it. ACLU attorneys brought suit and obtained an injunction and declaratory judgement that the gag rule was unconstitutional and unenforceable (learn more: King v Jones).
    • In the aftermath of the killings, the ACLU succeeded in extending the right to vote to all residents of the university community. A federal suit at Kent was finally dropped when state officials acquiesced and eliminated an unconstitutional ban on student voting in academic communities (learn more: Fridrich v Brown).
    • After continuing harassment of students, the ACLU successfully invoked administrative remedies through the Department of Agriculture when vindictive local officials arbitrarily denied food stamps to needy students.
    • ACLU attorneys succeeded in quashing state riot charges against Craig Morgan who was indicted by the state grand jury merely because he was present on May 4 and was the president of the student body.
    • Union attorneys uncovered a pattern of harassment and surveillance of on-campus peace groups. This included uncovering student groups being entrapped to buy illegal weapons by agents who were uncover.
    • The ACLU of Ohio was entrusted with all of the ACLU of Ohio Kent State Project records – so great was the mistrust of government officials after the long legal battle that the attorneys and families of victims were concerned that the records might be mishandled and manipulated, eventually endangering the historical record. In 2006, ACLU of Ohio Deputy Director, Ann Rowlett, worked in Manuscripts and Archives at Yale to remove all confidential materials sealed by the court so that the files could be opened for research, which they officially were. They can be viewed here.

It’s important to note that despite these victories along the way, it took a long nine years to get justice for the Kent State shooting victims and their families.

And this is because the ACLU and ACLU of Ohio would not give up. While it is true that we are often involved in work that becomes history, the importance of this work is not only for the present situation or the present-day, it also serves as a reference to how we will deal with the civil liberties violations occurring here and now.

Here and now, fifty years later, the right to protest is actually not the right that is being violated – despite the fact that the media gaze has fallen on the anti-quarantine protesters in the recent weeks. No, during this COVID-19 pandemic, rights are now being violated through attempted abortion bans, botched election delays, inaction on protecting Ohio’s incarcerated populationincluding juveniles and immigrants detained by ICE.

And we’re here to fight yet again.

Will you join us?

 

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