The Common Good

40 Years After: 'Four Dead in Ohio'

May 4, 1970 -- 40 years ago yesterday -- was the day protesting the war in Vietnam became serious. National Guardsmen fired on a group of protesting students at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine. Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer became casualties of the war. A presidential commission later concluded that the shooting was "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."

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Demonstrating students were often shot in other countries, but not in the U.S. African-American demonstrators in the civil rights movement frequently faced death or serious injury, but to many white college students, protesting the war seemed easy and cost-free. On May 4, the war came home. I remember the day well -- I was a first-year college student active in the anti-draft and antiwar movement. The news from Ohio was shocking and sobering.

Kent State was a turning point for the movement. Some became frightened and disillusioned, others became more extremist and violent -- the first communiqué, "A Declaration of a State of War," was released by the Weather Underground several weeks later. But for those of us whose anti-war work was deeply grounded in nonviolence, it was a time for serious reflection and re-commitment. Following Jesus' way of peacemaking might not always be easy, there might well be a cost. It's a lesson I still carry with me 40 years later.

Several weeks after the shooting, Neil Young wrote Ohio, immediately recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. It still brings back memories of that day.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Duane Shank is the senior policy advisor for Sojourners.

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