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Putting horrible past into perspective

By Debbie Leffler • Apr 25, 2019 at 12:00 PM

I used to think of museums as places that preserve the distant past.

Museums are supposed to have dinosaur bones, ancient Egyptian mummies and paintings from the 1500s.

But I recently discovered a museum that preserves not the ancient past, but my own past.

It is the May 4 museum at Kent State University.

This museum is dedicated to what happened there on May 4, 1970, when four students were killed and nine were injured by National Guardsmen who shot them during a protest against the Vietnam War.

Then-President Richard Nixon, a few days before May 4, had sent U.S. soldiers into Cambodia, thus expanding a war that many thought was a mistake.

The students protested this move, outsiders joined the protest, an ROTC building was set on fire and the mayor of Kent asked that the National Guard be sent in to make sure the situation didn’t escalate further.

The National Guardsmen came on campus, and the May 4 demonstration — in addition to being an anti-war protest — became a protest of the presence of the military on campus.

The students were asked to disband. They did not. The National Guard fired bullets and some hit the unarmed students.

Our speaker at the museum pointed out that, ironically, the national guardsmen themselves were probably anti-war. Joining the Guard at that time was an option to being drafted and those who joined the Guard were guaranteed not to have to leave the country.

How to understand this horrible event? At the time of the shootings, I was a high school student in New Jersey and had never heard of Kent State up to that point. But the news reached me there.

It is hard to grasp the mood of the country then, but the museum captured it well. The country was split between those who favored the war and those who opposed it, between older, conservative, short-haired people who supported the war and held responsible jobs and long-haired young people who did not believe the war was right, and did not want to be drafted to fight — and possibly die — in a war they did not believe in.

In a respectful, touching way, the museum memorializes the lives of the four students who died — for example, the record collection of one of the four is housed there.

It preserves the feeling of the time  — the music, the newspaper stories about civil rights, the advertisements and the posters (“Make America Beautiful — cut your hair” was one of them).

It includes photos and video shot on May 4, 1970. The demonstration was just outside the journalism building (which is now the museum — Franklin Hall is the journalism building now). Kent State journalism students took pictures and shot video in 1970, which can be seen at the museum.

I took my journalism students there recently before we attended the Ohio Scholastic Media Association conference at Kent. My Norwalk students were silent and attentive to learn of this period of history. They left the museum appropriately saddened and thoughtful.

Outside the museum is a memorial where our tour guide showed us the spots where the students lay dead. The spots are tastefully marked, even though they are in what is now a campus parking lot. Our guide showed us the hill where the students gathered and the “liberty bell” where the demonstration took place.

Kent State is a normal, thriving campus with a horrible thing that happened in its past. The museum respectfully does not deny what happened, but tries to put this event — which triggered national attention, even for a high school student in New Jersey — into perspective.

Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]

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