Opinion: Exposing myths and highlighting hidden truths about May 4, 1970

William A. Gordon

May 4 marks another anniversary of the deadly day when Ohio National Guardsmen killed four Kent State students during what started out as a protest against the Vietnam War. This short column is designed to expose some of the myths and propaganda still circulating on campus today.

May 4 was, among other things, a test case over how far the First Amendment went to protect the students’ rights of free speech and peaceful assembly.

It turned out that those rights did not go very far.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that authorities could legally ban the May 4 rally because the previous three nights of protest had turned violent. The victims’ attorneys did not appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court, because they felt the conservative court would most likely be unsympathetic to their arguments.

The principal conclusion of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest was that the shootings were “unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.” The commission also condemned the protesters’ behavior as “dangerous, reckless and irresponsible.”

The very same people the Commission felt were “dangerous, reckless and irresponsible” went on to organize the annual May 4 commemorations. Those observances almost uniformly glorify the protests and offer only the most radical points of view.

Ever since it was founded, the May 4 Task Force and its gurus have prevented Kent State students from hearing from any speakers or experts who do not share the Task Force’s extreme points of view.

The main campus memorial, designed by Bruno Ast, undoubtedly would not have been built had it not been for threats to shut down the university again from Alan Canfora, the most vocal and visible protester on May 4. Canfora was also the prime organizer of the unsuccessful 1977 protests against Kent State’s decision to build a gym annex over a sizable chunk of the site.

When I asked Ast what he wanted students to think about when they visited his memorial, he did not have a clue.

Seven of the eight major authors of books on May 4 (Joe Eszterhas and Michael Roberts, Peter Davies, Joseph Kelner, William Gordon, Philip Caputo, Thomas Grace and Howard Means) agree the shootings were probably deliberate and constituted either manslaughter or murder. Ironically, the only influential author who disagreed with that assessment (James Michener) provided much of the damning evidence, including suggestions that the guardsmen huddled before turning and firing in unison by Taylor Hall. And even Michener eventually agreed there might have been a conspiracy, depending on how it was legally defined.

In 2010, two audio forensic experts commissioned by The Plain Dealer re-examined the tape of the tragedy using technology that was not available during the trials.

Those experts concluded that, despite the guards’ testimony, they could hear an order to fire, which, if confirmed, would have meant that the guardsmen committed massive perjury at the trials.

The FBI subsequently disputed the experts’ findings, saying all it could hear was noise.

However, it later came to light after the Bureau re-closed the case to do so by making an “apples to oranges” comparison. The Bureau used less sophisticated software than the experts commissioned by The Plain Dealer, even using one type of software (Sound Forge) that was seven generations older than the software the experts used. (Expert Stuart Allen used Sound Forge’s version 10.0 versus the FBI’s 3.0.)

Without a clear resolution, May 4 remains an unresolved case. It will continue to be debated for years to come.

No one will publicly admit this, but the few remaining public fights about May 4 are not about whose version of events is more historically accurate, but over who will cash in on the tragic killings of four students.

Some professors already have.

The joke, of course, is on those who believe there is a chance a feature film will be made. Hardly any grown-ups can relate to what ’60s protesters did or give a damn about the SDS or radical protest.

The fact is: May 4 is box office poison, and every effort to get a movie off the ground has failed.

William A. Gordon (Kent State, 1973) is the author of “Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?” and three other books, contact him at [email protected].