I am an alum of a state university in Ohio, and while that university is not Kent State, I will never forget the day I visited the main campus in Kent, Ohio. It was a cold February weekend in 2002 and the grounds felt like any other major college. Until I passed the May 4th Massacre Memorial statue.
If memory serves, the skies darkened above my head and I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. I could hear neither birds singing nor students laughing. The rest of the campus felt alive, full of energy, but not around the memorial. The aura of death still lingered there even over 30 years after President Nixon ordered the Ohio National Guard to advance on an unarmed and peaceful protest of teenagers and college students and they fired into the crowd, murdering four in cold blood and wounding nine more for no reason whatsoever. It was a dark day for the counterculture movement and a darker day for America.
When Neil Young saw photographs of the shootings he was horrified, appalled, and shocked. I realize these are all synonyms and perhaps one would suffice; however, the sheer magnitude of this event isn’t often given credit for its cruelty and seriousness. For those of you who aren’t familiar, please let me summarize what happened.
A few days before the protest, Nixon announced the Vietnam conflict would be expanding into Cambodia. Americans were split down the middle regarding the war already, half wanted out and half wanted to remain fighting. Across colleges and universities from sea to shining sea, students assembled in an outpouring of anger, compassion, and demur. Four million went on strike, thereby affecting public opinion. When the National Guard was called in, over 2,000 people had gathered, and they believed they had a right to disperse the crowd. Just after noon, the soldiers opened fire with their M1 Garand rifles.
The question of why remains a mystery even to this day.
What is clear is the reaction during the aftermath: more protests which included eleven people being bayonetted at the University of New Mexico a few days later (and 10 days after that, two more deaths at Jackson State), Pulitzer Prize winning photographs that fueled the outcry against the conflict in southeast Asia, Nixon himself being evacuated to Camp David for his safety, provided the fuel for hundreds of protest war songs to be written – including "Ohio."
David Crosby commented that Young’s inclusion of Nixon’s name in the lyrics was "the bravest thing I ever heard." Given the state of affairs within the United States at that time, it was quite feasible that Young might have been arrested on some trumped up charge for what could’ve been construed as treason. However, freedom of speech won the day and the counterculture movement adopted CSN&Y as their own – giving them spokesperson and leaders statuses.
The single, along with its B-Side, "Find the Cost of Freedom," peaked at #14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and has since been covered by a dozen artists including, most recently, Ben Harper in 2011. Originally formed as a super-group, CSN&Y went on to success both together and separately. They each released high-profile solo albums in 1971, mere months after the release of "Ohio."
The 1960s were a violent decade of social unrest and massive changes. Musical artists, through their art, helped to release the steam valve and focus the people’s anger in more positive ways. Without Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Country Joe and the Fish, America might have reached a full-scale revolution in the early 1970s. Thankfully, through music, the crisis was averted, but the unwarranted deaths in the spring of 1970, will never be forgotten. ~ Justin Novelli
Jerry Casale gave us this account of the shootings:"I was a student, I was a member of SDS - an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several antiwar groups. That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day - the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we're out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 am on May 4th to declare Martial Law, which suspends all first amendment rights of The Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you're automatically committing a crime. These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that Martial Law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas and some of the more ballsy protesters, while they're coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo. They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us, down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that 2 of the 4 students killed weren't part of the demonstration, weren't part of an antiwar group. They'd just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell's going on, and they got killed. The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scatter-gun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that's paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day. I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. My family was poor and I got a scholarship to go to school. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work 3 months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college, the incoming freshman, and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, 2 honor students, and they turn out to be 2 of the 4 killed on May 4th. So I'd known both of them 9 months before this happened, and so when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn't move. The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. 2 of them were 18 and 2 of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once Martial Law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system. I don't think anyone wants to know the truth. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone." (check out our Devo interview)
Album : Four Way Street Released : 1970 US chart position : 14