President Warren calls for May 4 remembrance during conference in Chautauqua

President of Kent State University Beverly J. Warren delivers her lecture “Kent State Beyond the Shootings: Journey of the Wounded Healer” during the Morning Lecture, Wednesday, August 15, 2018, in the Amphitheater. 

Valerie Royzman

May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of Kent State student protesters at 12:24 p.m. — and altered a nation forever.

Sixty-seven shots. Four dead. Nine wounded.

An overwhelming amount of grief in the years following the shootings — grief that left its grisly mark on Kent State’s identity permanently. Grief it still carries around 48 years later.

In a time characterized by social activism nationwide, students were treading campus grounds to protest the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, specifically its invasion of Cambodia.

Today, as the university continues to bear this history, Kent State needs to “tread the ground between memorializing and moving forward,” said President Beverly Warren during her lecture at the Chautauqua Institution at 10:45 a.m. on Wednesday, her first time publicly addressing the massacre outside of campus.

Standing at the podium, Warren told the audience — Kent State alumni, some of whom witnessed May 4 first hand, and long-devoted Chautauquans — about the “terrible, indelible wound” of Kent State. She discussed the importance of remembrance, reflection and renewal as the 50th anniversary approaches in 2020.

“Since 1970, we have seen every emotion on the spectrum, from rage and despair, to perhaps unaccountably, serenity,” Warren said. “Frankly, we have not always honored all those honest reactions. We have seen the impulse to erase history, to move along. We have seen the high price of remaining chained forever to one terrible minute.”

As she recounted the vivid details of the shootings, sniffles sounded through the audience, aging hands clutched tissues and a few wiped the slow tears streaming down their cheeks.

Warren shared words from poet Rumi with her listeners, which she referred back to throughout her lecture: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

“We live with our wound, but the question we ask today is ‘What do we do with it?’” Warren said. “In prior times, we saw it as the atrocity it was, a horror. But today a new generation asks, ‘Can our wound also be, somehow, a gift? What might the experience of May 4 equip us to accomplish?’”

Her lecture, titled “Kent State Beyond the Shootings: Journey of the Wounded Healer,” was part of the institution’s eighth week theme of the summer: “The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21st Century.” The speech lasted 40 minutes and was followed by a Q-and-A, led by Emily Morris, the vice president of marketing and communications at Chautauqua and the former executive communications director at Kent State.

Remembrance

Warren stressed the value of time, as with more passage of it will be fewer original witnesses to May 4 who can share their memories with younger generations.

“Think about it,” she urged the audience. “On the 75th anniversary in 2045, there may be few around us who can remember May 4, 1970, as a personal experience. So I may have no more important vision as leader of Kent State University than getting this moment right.”

Warren was a senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro when she heard about the tragedy that struck Kent State.

“Even in North Carolina, there was tension and anxiety and fear over what was happening,” she said. “And I thought about those Kent State students, and I realized — that could’ve been me.”

As memories fade, Warren reminded, “we have to keep it relevant, make it mean more, put our wound to work,” but given Kent State’s history in the years and presidencies following the shooting, this hasn’t been the simplest task.

While students, their families and faculty struggled to cope with the physical and emotional pain of May 4, President Glenn Olds halted all official commemorations of the shootings in 1975. Since then, Warren has made it part of her mission to honor everyone affected by the calamity.

Hence was born the May 4th Task Force, a group dedicated to the remembrance she called for and which holds an annual candlelight vigil where marchers retrace the steps of protesters and end in the Prentice Hall parking lot, the place students fell.

Warren pointed out the May 4 Visitors Center in Taylor Hall, opened in 2013 while Lester Lefton was still president. This past spring, the U.S. Department of Interior recognized the site of the shootings a national historic landmark.

Even as these efforts have evolved through the years, though, the facts surrounding May 4 paint a “messy narrative,” Warren said. It’s still unclear who gave the order for guardsmen to open fire or why there were live bullets as ammunition.

“Remembering, however fearlessly and conscientiously done, does not resolve all question, nor calm all critics,” she said. “Whatever you think you know about the Kent State shootings is likely incomplete. … We still lack one authoritative narrative for the shootings. There are thousands of unique perspectives and voices, and they often conflict. We acknowledge all the shades of gray that color the narrative.”

Reflection

As part of the reflection process, Warren encouraged spectators to consider what the agony etched into Kent State’s existence means in America’s political climate.

“One way to view the shootings is as a terrible product of missed signals and failed communication,” she said. “That doubles as a fair description of the environment we find ourselves in today, where our leaders talk past one another, where our rhetoric is top volume, … insults and mockery blow away civility and respect.”

Kent State strives for better values, she said, and civil discourse on college campuses. Warren said she sees these same values mirrored in Chautauqua, where people are willing to have a respectful conversation even if their views don’t align — and a place with a strong Kent State presence, where Northeast Ohio roots reach far.

“As a culture, we pay a high price today for angry politics,” Warren said. “If all we do is hunker down in bunkers alongside like-minded people, attacking the opposition, our divisions only grow.”

Warren highlighted some examples of Kent State where the reflection process is happening on campus and beyond: the School of Peace and Conflict Studies; an open-carry demonstration in April where Second Amendment supporters brought guns to campus, spurring a dialogue where students and community members “listened as hard as they talked”; the Wick Poetry Center, whose Traveling Stanzas Makerspace is on Chautauqua grounds this summer; and later on in the Q-and-A, The Kent Stater student-run newspaper for “speaking their truth.”

Renewal and the young voices of Kent State

So how does a university nationally defined by a dreadful shooting move past the dark cloud that looms above and reclaim its identity?

The 50th anniversary provides opportunity for true renewal, Warren said, as the university plans to develop interactive, mobile museum installations to send across the country. Middle and high schools will be provided teaching materials about May 4, and the university is arranging a teaching workshop and forum for a wide range of perspectives so that “no one and no one’s pain will be forgotten.”

Warren invited all audience members back to Kent, including those who have history with the university and Chautauquans with a “commitment to civil discourse.” 

Warren said she wishes for “noble, inspiring, productive” work to arise from the wound that Kent State has endured, and the young generations of today will help make sense of the “broken politics and vast challenges.”

“In many ways, today’s young people are more likely than the Vietnam protest generation to fight for worthy causes, demand corporate responsibility and to seek change,” she said.

“The youth revolution we anticipated in the 1960s may actually be happening now,” she continued. “Kent State will be there, calling on both the voices in our midst and more powerful voices around the world to rise up and drive change. And Kent State itself intends to lead; that is now our destiny. To emerge as the wounded healer and to use the wound at our core to help create a brighter future for us all.”

Finding the poetry in tragedy

Morris serves on the Interdepartmental Committee that contributes to plans for the institution’s nine-week summer season, and she suggested Warren as a speaker.

“Clearly, what happened at Kent State and how the university has responded since is a story that had not previously been told from the perspective of the university,” she said. “We were honored that President Warren accepted our invitation and the opportunity to share their journey and vision for the future of ‘putting the wound to work.’”

The theater quieted as Warren arrived at the closing moments of her lecture. She borrowed words from poet Mary Oliver:

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” she read from Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.”

Warren reiterated the responsibility of the university to remember its difficult past, but also said the people of Kent State must no longer live in it.

“We will honor all emotions and perspectives that forever will resound around us but be consumed no more by grief or anger,” she said. “And we will raise our voices using the lessons of May 4th 50 years ago to convene people, heal conflict and create a more inclusive and more peaceful future. If we do that, we and Kent State will be transformed. So that is our plan for using our history and making it forever meaningful — and making the most out of our wild and precious lives.”

Valerie Royzman is the features editor. Contact her at [email protected]