May 4 reshaped 1970s college students’ lives

Lydia Coutré

Professor says youth lost interest in politics

The events of May 4, 1970, left a mark not only on the students at Kent State but also on the entire college-aged generation.

While the event affected individuals in many different ways, the impact is evident.

Donna England, a housekeeper for Residence Services, was in her early 20s and living in Akron at the time. She said the shootings greatly impacted her.

“It saddened so many people, and so many lives were affected by it,” England said. “I think that people came together more (and) that it woke people up.”

Art Professor Diane Scillia was in graduate school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland in 1970. She was on her way to visit her parents in Long Island when the shootings took place.

“That week at home, I could not talk to my parents,” Scillia said, “because I was defending students. They were not. In the intervening years, we were never able to discuss it.”

She said this represents a larger scale change in the relationship between students and others.

“This was something that really did change our relationship, not just with our parents, but also with the rest of the, I guess, citizenry of the country,” Scillia said. “Because suddenly you went from being students who were students to being students who were suspects.”

The summer following May 4, Scillia began teaching, and she said she saw a big change in students’ behavior. She said those who were in college in the 1960s and up to 1970 were very different from those who entered school in 1970 and afterwards.

“It’s not just that we, the older people, are more vocal or more political … but the ones that came after, when I started teaching in 1970 … weren’t talking in class,” Scilla said.

She said she doesn’t think students are encouraged to speak out and voice their opinions anymore.

“We were encouraged to speak out,” Scillia said. “If we saw something wrong, we were encouraged to try and change it. I don’t think that went on after May 1970. I think in fact there was a pulling back … in the case of parents and teachers of putting people in danger and in the case of students being perceived as a danger.”

She said she felt this was caused by a sequence of events, but May 4 was the biggest one.

On the contrary, assistant professor of physics Jon Secaur, who was at Kent State at the time of the shootings, said he feels that May 4 caused students to speak out more.

“I think most students were probably more willing to speak out than before because they’re just, like now, just so ticked at what happened,” Secaur said. “They might have been less likely to have big demonstrations maybe, but I think they were still very adamant about speaking out.”

He said he feels May 4 even intensified some of the demonstrations in the nation.

“It’s kind of a circle because the college-aged generation of the time caused this to happen and then that inspired more action by the college-aged generation,” Secaur said. “So I think nationally there was a sense of outrage that something like this could happen.”

However, he said it’s difficult to differentiate what exactly May 4 caused because it was linked to a series of events.

“It’s really hard to pull it apart and see,” Secaur said. “It’s almost like a tide. The tide comes in and goes out. So there was a tide of liberalism coming in and I think partly May 4 was caused by that tide, but I think it also moved the tide along.”

Secaur said the biggest impact May 4 had on his generation was to change people’s views on the Vietnam War.

“So I think this whole thing really did help to eventually move the country away from supporting the war in Vietnam and being more and more critical of it and wanting it to end,” Secaur said.

Scillia said the protests of the time were “younger people taking issues with what they saw happening around them and wanting to change.”

She said she feels there is less of that now and there needs to be more. She said she feels “the young people just took themselves out” of the political process, and they need to be involved again.

“’Cause politics is indeed a sport, which means it’s a contact sport. You’ve got to participate,” Scillia said. “It’s not passive.”

Contact news correspondent Lydia Coutré at [email protected].