Kent State: ‘The Day the 60s Died’

For some, May the 4th is about Star Wars. For others, it is about the Kent State shootings. You’ve probably heard about Kent State, but the documentary “The Day the 60s Died” attempts to look at both sides. “The Day the 60s Died” currently streaming on PBS.

Kent State is a university in Kent, Ohio. It is the largest city on its county and currently has a population of 32,345. In 1970, the population was 28,183. It’s current demographics is 83.1 percent white.

The Kent State shootings occurred on 4 May 1970. The Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others.

I was stunned to learn that the students didn’t believe that the National Guard loaded their guns with real bullets, but also the extent of violence that preceded the shootings. The documentary uses interviews with people who were involved in key events at Kent State and also gives background of Cambodia and Vietnam, using archival footage of then-President Richard M. Nixon on his plans to expand the war effort into Cambodia.

The interviewees include  Dr. Gregory Antoine (student at Jackson State College in 1970),Terry Braun and Ron Orem (both Vietnam combat veterans), Pat Buchanan (White House advisor and speechwriter to President Nixon), Gail Collins (New York Times columnist), Jerry Casale (Kent State student protester and founder of the musical band DEVO), Tim Naftali (former director of the Nixon Library and Museum), Rick Perlstein (historian), and Mark Rudd (co-founder of the Weatherman).

The program also notes that there was another tragic shooting incident, the Jackson State killings on 15 May 1970, again it was in connection with students protests against the US invasion of Cambodia. Two students were killed and 12 were injured by police at what was Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). Jackson State is a historically black university founded in Natchez, Mississippi in 1877. The college moved to Jackson in 1882.

As a result of the shootings, students nationwide protested. One continues to hear the voices of the protestors and the supporters of the protestors, but the voices that aren’t present are those of the townspeople.

“The Day the 60s Died” alludes to these voices when one woman who was a student at Kent and had been on campus when the four were shot recounts how her father came home and said that the guard should have shot all the protestors. Another woman comments that she approved of the shootings.

The protestors hadn’t won over the locals. They had angered and frightened them. The protests against the Cambodian campaigns at Kent State started the day after Nixon announced on TV the Cambodian Incursion. About 500 students demonstrated on 1 May 1970, a Friday afternoon. That night violence broke out. Beer bottles were thrown at police cars. In the downtown area, storefronts were broken. A bank window was broken and an alarm was set off.  The police arrived to face a crowd of 120. At the time Kent only had a polie force of 20 according to the Newsweek coverage. Although the police cleared the area, Newsweek reported that “a campus-bound mob of several hundred students rampaged through town.”

By Saturday, city officials and downtown businesses had received threats. With only 20 officers, the Mayor requested reinforcements. The on-campus ROTC building was set on fire on Saturday and rocks were torwn at the police and firemen. You can read the WKSU-FM accounts of the whole sequence of events. According to the WKSU-FM account, a photographer was attacked and his film exposed.

Monday, (4 May 1970) a protest was scheduled for noon. The shooting happened at 12:24 p.m. and lasted only 13 seconds. Some students thought they were firing blanks.

At the time of the shootings, 58 percent of people polled by the American Institute of Public Opinion thought that the students were to blame. Some of the people of Kent felt the same way. A motel clerk told the Newsweek reporter, “You can’t really help but kind of think they’ve been asking for it and finally got it.”

After a weekend of arson, vandalism, assault and battery of firemen, policemen and the National Guard, Kent State protestors were shot at with four dead and nine wounded.

The Kent State shootings wasn’t the first time protestors had been shot on a college campus by law enforcement. On 8 February 1968, South Carolina Highway Patrol Officers shot and killed three African-American male protestors and wounded 28 others. The count is higher but the so-called Orangeburg Massacre took place in South Carolina, at a historically black college, South Carolina State University, and the protestors were black. The students were protesting the whites-only policy of a local bowling alley. The shooting had been preceded by black students entering the bowling alley. A window in the bowling alley was broken on 5 February 1968. Student protestors were beaten and arrested. Eight protestors ended up in the hospital.

There’s a debate as to why and when the shooting began on the night of 8 February 1968. Objects were being thrown at the police and the police eventually responded with gun fire. The Orangeburg Massacre receive little coverage, but other events also overshadowed it: the 4 April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the 6 June 1968 assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and the Tet Offensive which began in January of that year.

Was this a case of the press not seeing that black lives matter? The documentary doesn’t look into Orangeburg, but it shows the kind of civil war that was brewing in the U.S. over the civil war in Vietnam.

Seeing this documentary, you still have to question the wisdom of protestors throwing rocks at men with guns. I couldn’t help but think of that mother recently seen taking her son to task for throwing rocks at officers in Baltimore.

When you listen to the tragedies of the students, don’t forget that the protestors were also terrorizing a community and that at the time there was no plan in place for handling student protests and mob violence on college campuses. Up until then the city of Kent had a 20-man police force.

“The Day the 60s Died” gives you a feeling of the era but reminds us that anti-war time protests weren’t all flower power and love. “The Day the 60s Died” is currently available on PBS for instant streaming.


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