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Kent State May 4 commemoration provides an opportunity to examine how the school handled protests

Statue at the site of the Kent State Shootings May 4, 1970. The statue was pierced by a bullet from the Ohio National Guard.
Alexandra Golden
Ideastream Public Media
Solar Totem #1 by Don Drumm. The statue was constructed on Kent State campus in 1967. On May 4, 1970, it was struck by a bullet from the Ohio National Guard in the tragedy that killed four students and injured nine others.

This year’s Jerry M. Lewis May 4 Lecture Series will feature Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration Erica Eckert. Her lecture, "Where Were the Administrators? A Student Affairs Perspective on May 4, 1970," will tell the story of how the university administration responded in the days leading up to the tragedy.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired into a group of students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and injuring nine others. Every year, Kent State commemorates the tragedy with a series of events.

Eckert began her research into administrators’ actions in 2019.

She was inspired to research the topic because of the lack of information available, she said.

“I had the opportunity to do some reading about it as part of my graduate program at Kent State,” Eckert said. “As I read, I realized that we didn't really know what the administrators were doing, and I didn't really see them represented in what had been written about the events.”

Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration Erica Eckert.
Bob Christy
Kent State University
Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration Erica Eckert.

As part of her research, Eckert interviewed 16 informants that were employed by Kent State on May 4, 1970. In the research, she crafted a sequence of events of before and after May 4 from an administrator’s perspective.

Eckert said she was impressed by the administrators attempts to keep the students informed, and she said they responded with some aspects of crisis management.

“I wasn't so surprised at the fact that they were doing a lot behind the scenes, but I was impressed with how deliberate it had been,” Eckert said. “These people couldn't send out a text blast or a mass email campaign or go out and tweet."

"Thinking back to that time and getting the perspective of how much work it actually was to communicate, to me that was the most shocking part," she added.

She hopes people who view her lecture will take away some appreciation for their work behind the scenes.

“The administrators I talked with will be the first to tell you it wasn't enough, that they deeply regret that they couldn't prevent what happened, but they tried,” she said. “And I don't think they've gotten the credit they deserve for trying as hard as they did.”

Eckert, who was an administrator for about 15 years, became a professor this year. Being chosen for the speaker series was humbling for her, she said.

“What I don't think people appreciate about doing academic research is that you're kind of off on your own and you think what you do matters, but you have moments where you wonder if it will make a difference to anyone else,” she said. “And so the recognition that this work has value outside of my own head and with these wonderful people I interviewed is really gratifying.”

It is important to learn from the tragedy of May 4 by commemorating it every year, she added.

“We owe it to the people involved to always remember what happened and to try to make something constructive from that,” Eckert said. “When terrible things happen, the only way to really recover from them is to learn from them.”

The Jerry M. Lewis Lecture and Luncheon will take place May 3 at 11:30 am in the Kent Student Center Ballroom. Get tickets here.

The lecture is part of three days of events for Kent State University’s May 4, 1970, 53rd Commemoration.

The focus is on student’s activism, then and now with the theme being “The Power of Our Voices.”

“But it's vitally important that students today find meaning in what happened here,” said Chic Canfora, chair of May 4 presidential advisory committee at Kent State University. “It was the student movement and the power of the student voice 53 years ago that brought a war across the world to its knees.”

Kicking off the events is the Youth and Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland: 25 years After the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement May 2 at 3 pm in room 417 in McGilvery Hall. Siobhan McEvoy-Levy, professor of peace and conflict studies at Butler University and director of the Desmond Tutu Peace Lab, and Molly Merryman, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kent State, are experts on peacebuilding with youth in Northern Ireland and will share their insights with on youth, peacebuilding, LGBTQ rights and activism, the May 4 website stated.

Later that day at 6 pm, there will be a free screening of the film “Young Plato” in the Kent Student Center Ballroom.

“‘Young Plato’ charts the dream of Elvis-loving school headmaster Kevin McArevey – a maverick who is determined to change the fortunes of an inner-city community plagued by urban decay, sectarian aggression, poverty and drugs. The all-boys primary school in post-conflict Belfast, Northern Ireland, becomes a hot house for thinking and questioning, as the headmaster encourages the children to see beyond the boundaries and limitations of their community, and sends his young wards home each day armed with the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. The boys challenge their school-friends, parents and neighbors to find alternatives to violence and prejudice, and to challenge the mythologies of war,” the press release stated.

Director Neasa Ní Chianáin, producer David Rane and headmaster Kevin McArevey will participate in a panel discussion after the screening.

An Ohio Historical Marker for Kent State University: May 4, 1970, is to the side of Taylor Hall and the May 4th Visitors Center. The sign has the history of the lead up and events that happened on May 4, 1970, that caused the shooting and killing of four and nine wounded.
Alexandra Golden
Ideastream Public Media
An Ohio Historical Marker for Kent State University: May 4, 1970, by Taylor Hall tells the events and lead up to the shooting. The shooting from the Ohio National Guard killed four and wounded nine.

The key events to eyewitnesses and survivors of May 4 are the candlelight walk and vigil that starts at 11 p.m. May 3 and the May 4 commemoration at noon, Canfora said.

We walk around campus and then beginning at midnight, have people positioned on the spot where the four students who were killed fell,” Canfora said. “We stand vigil in those spots for 12 hours until those candles are carried to the stage to kick off the commemoration at noon the next day.”

The candlelight walk will start at the Student Commons, where food will be provided, and the vigil will take place after the walk in the Prentice Hall parking lot.

The May 4 Commemoration will begin at noon on May 4 at the Kent State Commons. There will be a performance by the Kent Chorale, along with remarks from university students and administration. The Victory Bell will be rang at 12:24 p.m., followed by a moment of silence for the event that took place 53 years ago, the press release stated.

There will be two film screenings in the KIVA following the commemoration. The first one is “Kent State The Real Story May 4” at 2:30 pm The film brings together the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State between the Ohio National Guard and protesting students, the website stated. There will be a question and answer session after. The second screening is at 7 pm of "Fire in the Heartland,” which focuses on student activism at Kent State, the growing anti war movements and the killing of students on May 4, 1970, the website stated. There will be a question and answer session after the screening with the producers.

There are still student programs being added to the schedule, Canfora said.

“It's most important that we hear what they have to say today about the issues that matter in their lives and how they're using their voices for change,” Canfora said, “and following the legacy at Kent State of strong student activism actively engaged in changing the world.”

Grace Springer is a journalism student at Kent State University. She is the General Assignment Editor for KentWired and covers executive administration for student media.
Alexandra is originally from Northeast Ohio, but that did not stop her from exciting and new adventures. Before interning at Ideastream Public Media, she interned at The Facts in Clute, Texas, in the summer of 2021.