Sociology professor details May 4 shooting


Kent State professor emeritus of sociology, Jerry Lewis, announces the beginning of the May 4 commemoration candlelight vigil on Sunday, May 3, 2015. This year is the 45th anniversary of the May 4 shootings.

Samantha Meisenburg

It took 13 seconds, 67 shots, 28 Guardsmen, nine injured and four dead to make Kent State infamous on a Monday afternoon 46 years ago.

President Nixon announced the invasion of American troops into Cambodia April 30, 1970, which triggered anti-war protests all over the country. In Kent, the protests turned into anti-guard protests when 1,000 Ohio National Guard soldiers showed up on Kent’s campus. 

Jerry Lewis was an Army Veteran, sociology professor, faculty marshal organizer and witness of May 4. He co-wrote a book titled, “Kent State and May 4th: A Social Science Perspective,” with Thomas Hensley.  

He is currently an emeritus professor of sociology and spoke in April about events that occurred before, during and after the May 4 shooting.

This discussion was a critical analysis on the war that came home and shaped American history. It’s goal was to study how the elements and circumstances got out of control and to study what mistakes everyone made that day. 

Another purpose was to “put us in the shoes of the soldiers first,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Fox, who organized this discussion.

“We strive in mission command to make sure we paint the right picture for our soldiers so they can make correct decisions, because someone made a terrible decision pulling triggers on unarmed students that day,” Fox said.

Fox wanted to have this discussion now, to help the seniors right before they commission and because something like this has not been done since the shooting happened.

“I wanted to walk with the soon-to-be soldiers on the hollow ground that this incident happened,” said Fox. “To show respect to the people we lost that day and to show respect to the service that we are here to learn.”

The discussion as set-off by a 46-minute documentary showcasing the events that transpired.

Afterwards, Lewis, ROTC seniors and officers used the six leadership principles applied to the actions of the Ohio National Guard – Cohesive Teams, Shared Understanding, Commander’s Intent, Discipline Initiative, Mission Orders and Prudent Risk – to examine if the soldiers did what they were suppose to do. 

One topic discussed was that there were two groups of soldiers who fired- one group fired into the crowd and the other fired into the sky. 

The soldiers who shot into the crowd, “acted on initiative and probably felt they needed to do something because they did not have a shared understanding of what to do,” said an ROTC senior.

Lewis discussed how the 70s was a time college students believed they could make major political change.

The anti-war riots, rallies and protests leading up to May 4, were meant to make a statement because the students targeted political symbols, such as burning down the ROTC building on campus and attacking gas and electric companies downtown.

The students made assumptions that the guns the Ohio National Guard had weren’t loaded with bullets. When the shots were fired, many students assumed the soldiers shot blanks.

Lewis was standing in the Prentice parking lot near Prentice Hall when the tragedy occurred.

“When the shots were fired I thought they were shooting at me, so I dove to cover which is what I learned when I was in the Army,” Lewis said.

He then proceeded to inform students that the soldiers did in fact use real bullets and told the students to leave the scene to find safety.

After the conversation, Lewis showed the ROTC seniors and officers significant places around the area where the shootings occurred. After the tour outside, everyone gathered into the May 4 Visitor’s Center in Taylor Hall.

Fox’s key takeaway from the discussion was, “getting the idea across to these soon-to-be lieutenants that what you do and the decisions you make and how you make those decisions have a broader affect.”

Lewis hopes the ROTC students learned how complex leadership can be. 

Kayla Enochs, a senior ROTC cadet with a major in exercise physiology, said “the presentation really opened my eyes to both sides of the story and the aftermath of the events and how it caused a disruption throughout the nation rather than just on campus.”

She thinks its more honorable being part of ROTC at Kent State despite May 4, because, “it shows how we overcame that event and how we have grown from it and learned from it, to better the ROTC program,” Enochs said. 

Samantha Meisenburg is the veteran affairs reporter for The Kent Stater, contact her at [email protected].