KENT, OH — It has now been 50 years since the date some have said the Vietnam War came home. It was May 4, 1970 when four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during a protest of the war on campus.
“We were gathering in the center of the campus by the student union building and chanting ‘1, 2, 3, 4 we don’t want your f***ing war,'” remembers Steve English, who was a junior theater major at Kent State that year. English was part of a number of groups on campus protesting both the war and the National Guard’s presence on the campus.
“We were chanting. No one was doing anything violent, but all of a sudden out of the blue there were gunshots. And everyone scattered,” English, who is now a flower shop owner in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood and uses the “she/her” pronouns, said.
“I was in a state of shock,” she said. “I ran, and the shots stopped very quickly. I was standing 10 feet away from one of the kids (who was killed) and you could see bodies everywhere. The professors were hysterical, telling us all to go to our dorms.”
The Kent State campus is a hilly one, and with the large group of about 3,000 scattering from the gunshots English said the scene “looked like a bunch of ants scattering, running as fast as they could, up and down the rolling hills.”
What looked like “ants” were people. As the thousands gathered that day, four people were killed by the barrage of what’s been estimated to have been nearly 70 shots fired in less than 20 seconds. Alison Krause and Jeffrey Miller were protesting, while Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder were bystanders, a History.com description of the event states. Nine others were wounded by the guardsmen who used M1 rifles.
English, now 70, said she did not know any of the students killed or wounded. But at the time of the shooting and immediate aftermath, there was no way to have known for sure.
“I could have been shot like everyone else,” she said. “But someone with a car picked me up right away. Everyone was getting off campus as fast as they could.”
The accounts of why the shots were fired remain in question a half-century later. A spokesman for the National Guard then said there was a sniper who fired at them, but that has not been corroborated.
The May 4 shooting was the culmination of several days of unrest on the campus. A few days earlier, protesters burned down the campus ROTC building. War protests during this week were specifically in response to President Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement of the United States’ “Cambodian incursion,” an invasion by American troops during a time some were under the impression the war was winding down.
“We believed this was an unnecessary war based on money,” English said.
Her visual memory of the crowd of students scattering like ants is accompanied by an iconic image connected to the historical event. A photo taken by John Filo of a 14-year-old runaway girl screaming and crying over Miller’s body after he was shot and killed is the signature image of the Kent State massacre.
“That famous photo of the girl screaming, I was six feet away from that” when it happened, English said.
English, who went on to earn a degree in speech and theater from Kent State in 1972, had an art minor in the works at the time of the massacre. The native of Ashtabula, Ohio was in her first year at the main campus after attending a satellite school in her hometown for her first two years of college.
“In those days, in art, everything was very political,” she said. “The artists were very outspoken. Many of us wore Army fatigue in protest.”
But Kent State, prior to 1970, was “a very conservative teachers’ college not known for politics at all,” English said.
Massive protests erupted at other colleges and universities across Ohio as well. English remembers hearing about one “incredible” effort at Ohio State University when the students “timed it so that all the toilets on campus were flushed at the same moment so it flooded their sewage system.”
“We were a bunch of hippies,” she said. “Kids would do subtle protests. Wearing Army gear, holding a tooth brush. Things like that.”
After the shooting, the Kent State campus closed for months. And English returned to her home some 80 miles away in Ashtabula.
“I remember going to church back home one day and hearing someone make a comment that ‘they should have shot all those communists.'”
But English herself delivered a sermon about what happened at Kent State at the same church another day and remembers “some people walking out.”
“Although many did not agree with me, I made people think,” she said.
Fifty years later, English is described as a “social entrepreneur,” having for many years been a voice for marginalized groups. She’s a vocal supporter of animal rights and before the coronavirus pandemic hosted monthly meetings for an LGBTQ group for teen artists and writers.
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She says it was the Kent State massacre, more than anything else, that led to that social entrepreneurship.
“I think nothing else in my life has so created my political stance,” she said. “I believe that has influenced me more than anything in the world, and probably why I’m a little more outspoken.”
During the summer after the shooting, English remembers working at an Ashtabula jewelry store when she received a call from her father.
“He said, ‘Stephen English: the FBI just called, and they want to meet with you. What did you do?'”
It turns out the FBI was interviewing anyone they found out was at the scene that day and were “pleasant” to speak to, English said.
Eventually, English and other students returned to school. But the atmosphere would never be the same after May 4, 1970. A memorial at the campus commons remembers the date.
“It was mixed… some were more conservative about their positions but some were more outspoken after it happened,” English said, adding that outspoken national political speakers began to take notice of the northeast Ohio school.
“I was home the weekend Jane Fonda came to the campus to talk, and I was so mad that I missed it,” she said.
The four who lost their lives 50 years ago were all younger than 21 years of age at the time. But they will forever be remembered in history.
“It was a horrible day, but an important piece of history,” English said, citing a song that encompasses the day more than anything else.
Here’s “Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.