Remembering Kent State as an American Tragedy With a Jewish Face
by Jonah Lowenfeld
KENT, OHIO – At 11 p.m. on May 3, a group of marchers will begin a candlelight vigil at Kent State University in Ohio to recall what is for many a distant echo from another era.
The killing of four unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard during a national wave of campus protests against the Vietnam War will have its 40th anniversary this year. And as they have every year since 1971, those honoring the students’ memory will circle the area where the demonstrations took place and end up in the parking lot where they were killed.
There, the gathering will hear students from the campus Hillel recite the Kaddish.
The Jewish prayer for the dead has been recited regularly at this annual event since the early 1980s – a reflection of the fact that three of the “four dead in Ohio” famously memorialized in song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were Jewish.
Neither at the time of the shootings nor since has anyone looked closely at this odd fact – one that seems odder still for a campus where Jews have never made up more than 5% of those enrolled. Karen Weinberger, a sorority sister of Sandra Scheuer, one of the slain, recalled that back then “it wasn’t anything that was really of great significance. The significance was the fact that you had four students that died and nine that were injured.”
But if the shootings themselves were not a Jewish tragedy, the first commemorations of them were overwhelmingly so. “What happened that day was not a Jewish event,” said Tom Sudow, an alumnus who transferred to Kent State in the fall of 1973. “The response to May 4 in a lot of ways, though, became a Jewish event.”
Today, the killings are memorialized by no fewer than four separate markers at and around the site. They convey official recognition of what happened there by everyone from the campus administration to the federal government, to the Ohio Historical Society. But in 1971, as the first anniversary of the killings approached, there were no plans to do anything to note the date’s passing. The war in Vietnam was still raging, Richard Nixon was still president, and Kent State seemed unwilling to confront its recent bloody history. “It wasn’t, ‘Cover up,’” Sudow recalled. “It was, ‘If we ignore it, maybe it will go away.’”
It was the campus Jewish community that stepped up then. “Hillel was very involved and had a prominent role in commemorating the lives of the four students lost,” said Jennifer Chestnut, the current executive director of Hillel at Kent State.
The Kent State Hillel back then was housed in a rented apartment and had a staff of one: Rabbi Gerald Turk. A charismatic Orthodox rabbi known for his Bukharan yarmulke and his out-of-the-box programming, Turk led the effort to place a simple plaque bearing the names of the four victims on the ground of the parking lot where they died. Dedicated May 4, 1971, it was the first physical marker of the deaths on campus.
In 1974, the plaque was stolen and later returned, riddled with bullet holes. A granite replacement was rededicated by a group of faculty members on May 4, 1975. It remained the only physical memorial on campus until 1990, when the university administration dedicated its own memorial.
The Jewish community on campus still commemorates the events of May 4, often in the context of universitywide events. The candlelight walk and vigil – one of the most distinctive elements of the annual May 4 commemoration – exemplify this.
Initiated in 1971 by then assistant professor of sociology Jerry Lewis, the yearly walk begins in the area of the campus where the protests took place, and ends at midnight in the parking lot where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed. The midnight vigil continues, in 30-minute shifts, until 12:24 p.m. on May 4 – the exact time of the shootings.
Lewis, now a professor emeritus, has tried, by his own account, to keep the walk and vigil simple. But he did allow for one significant addition: “In the early 1980s, Rabbi Turk came to me and said, ‘Do you mind if I say Kaddish?’ I said, ‘Of course I don’t mind,’ because I knew that three of the students were of the Jewish tradition.”
In the meantime, as tempers have cooled, many of the questions about what happened then have been resolved, but not all.
When Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia on April 30, 1970, students on campuses across the country protested. At Kent State, students broke windows of some of the businesses in the city of Kent. And at 5 p.m. the next day, amid rumors of plans to destroy the ROTC building on the campus, the mayor of Kent summoned the National Guard. The ROTC building did go up in flames Saturday evening, May 2, and the guardsmen then cleared students from the area, using tear gas and bayonets.
The next day, Ohio Governor James Rhodes visited the campus – by then wholly occupied by the Guard. Rhodes, who was in a tough race for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, gave a speech designed to cement his position as a law-and-order candidate. He called the students who rioted “worse than the Brown Shirts and the communist element,” and promised to use “whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent.” On Monday, May 4, at a noontime protest, demonstrators defied dispersal orders from the guardsmen, with some of the students hurling rocks at them from a distance. After an extended standoff, 28 guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds at a group of unarmed student demonstrators and nearby bystanders. Four were killed; nine were wounded.
Protesters Krause and Miller were both Jewish. Scheuer and Schroeder, were bystanders, Scheuer being the third Jew.
In September 1970, a federal panel established to investigate the Kent State deaths – as well as the killing of two black students at Jackson State University in Mississippi and campus unrest nationwide – condemned the “indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students” at Kent State as “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
In the years since, numerous articles, books, government inquiries, TV specials and films have attempted to answer some of the difficult questions about “the day the Vietnam War came home.” Were students armed, as was initially reported? (No.) Were guardsmen ordered to fire? (It appears that they were – though no individual was ever clearly identified or held accountable for giving the order.) Were so-called outside agitators responsible for inciting the students to protest? (Possibly, but every one of the dead and wounded was a full-time Kent State student.)
Alan Canfora, a Kent State alumnus who was among the wounded protesters, recalled, “There were about 500 protesters there, and another 1,500 bystanders.” That three of the slain were Jews, he said, was “just an extremely unlikely mathematical probability.” No one believes they were – or could have been – especially targeted.
Few beyond the Kent State campus know about the Jewish connection to the events of May 4. But in 1970, at least some American Jews were aware of their connection to Krause, Miller and Scheuer. “I heard from so many people,” said Elaine Holstein, Miller’s mother, “and I know there were people in the Jewish community. Most people were very supportive.”
Canfora, as director of the Kent May 4 Center, for years has been collecting materials related to the shooting. When the Krause and Scheuer families invited him to retrieve materials from their houses for his archive in the 1990s, he found “numerous letters from synagogues across the country” among the papers. Each family had also received “hundreds of certificates,” Canfora said, “where members of the Jewish community across our country had purchased a tree in Israel and planted it in memory of our martyrs.”
In recent years, the university has become more comfortable with the legacy of May 4. At the urging of students, faculty and alumni, Kent State has established a number of memorials to the slain and wounded students. Earlier this year, part of the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places. And later this year, the university will open the May 4 Visitors Center, which tells about the history of the university’s darkest day.
But to all this, Doris Krause, whose daughter, Allison, was 19 when she was killed, responded as any mother would. “I wish it weren’t so,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.
image: Aaron Morgan