Today on Rediscovered Radio, a return to the 1970s – when four students were killed on the Kent State University campus by national guard troops as they protested America’s involvement in the Viet Nam war. It was one the most memorable events of the late 20th century, and the shootings set off a series of other events: it changed Americans’ views about staying in the war – and it likely changed how the US government would handle future mass protests. Community Voices Steve McQueen has the story from the WYSO archives.
Five years after the shootings, the Kent State University Board of Trustees announced plans to build an annex to a gym near the site of the shootings, but many people complained that the annex would cover over a major portion of the site where the famous events of 1970 took place. In the summer of 1977, while many students were away from campus, bulldozers showed up to start construction. Thousands of people came to protest and about 60 students immediately began to camp out in the place where the annex was to be built. They would soon be joined by many others... The protest became known as Blanket Hill.
"We got national attention on a regular basis, and people came from all over, we had a number of students coming up from Antioch. We had students from Madison...we had students from California we had students from New York you know, all over to come and join us, they basically lived with us, you know, we had our tents pitched on the hill," says Bill Marvin, professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton. He attended Kent State at the time of the Blanket Hill protest.
The tent city lasted for months, mainly because there were so many legal efforts attempting to stop construction. For example, Joyce Quirk, a member of the board of trustees, requested a United States Department of Interior study to determine whether the site of the Kent State shootings could be considered a national historical landmark.
A WYSO reporter interviewed a person who worked for the Department of Interior, identified on the tape as Mr. Coleman, who stated, "The criteria generally are that it has be significantly involved with the history of the country and with some important development. And if it's associated with something in the past 50 years it generally is not considered for historical landmark status unless it is associated with persons or events of transcendent significance."
"What does transcendent significance mean?" asked the WYSO reporter.
"Well, that's a very good question," Mr. Coleman replied.
"To make it a historical landmark and you're right, ya know, 7 years after... it's a tough sell," says Bill Marvin. "But it's undeniable that the shootings in 1970 and reactions across the country... ya know that was major history and that was the turning point during the Vietnam war."
The president of Kent State at the time filed a trespassing charge against the protestors, and in response, on July 12th 1977, 193 people locked arms and refused to move from Blanket Hill.
"Even though I was a wiry about a hundred and sixty pounds at the time it took four police to carry me off 'cause I made sure to make myself appear heavy and resist," remembers Bill Marvin.
Though students and others continued to go back to the site, the arrest continued and after a long battle, construction soon began.
It took a long time for Kent State to recognize the significance of the tragedy that occurred there so many years ago. Though there are a few memorials to express what happened on May 4th 1970, it is now impossible to recreate the scene without explaining the annex, the extended parking lot and the lack of Blanket Hill where they were built.
I asked Bill Marvin if justice or even a resemblance of justice occurred for the students for either protest? He thought for a second and then left me with this:
"I just want people to remember. That's the memorial, for people to remember and not repeat the mistakes of history again. We're in our 60's, we're still into social justice, we're still into ecology and I think the real fitting tribute to that is if we stop fighting unwarranted wars, we take care of the planet, that we have social justice and civil rights and treat people like humans. That would be the true tribute. I think people are still working for it and haven't given up after all these years. That's a good tribute, that’s the kind of thing I like to see, you know to stand up to misused power."
Rediscovered Radio is made possible in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.