Howard Means' '67 Shots' Crucially Reminds Us That We Can't Always Trust Those in Charge
Tension and painful memories still hang over Kent State, 46 years after the state-sanctioned murder of students, as does the warning it conveys.
67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American InnocencePublisher: Da Capo
Author: Howard Means
Publication date: 2016-04
Despite the unseasonably warm weather that greeted Northeast Ohio that morning, Monday, 4 May 1970, turned out to be a dark day in American history. As student protests that had been swirling throughout the weekend came to a boil, the Ohio National Guard, having been hastily assembled to patrol the campus less than 48 hours before, opened fire and sent shock waves throughout the world. Just 13 seconds and 67 shots later, human lives were forever altered and the tumult and cacophony of the previous decade came crashing to a halt.
Howard Means’ 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence takes readers back to that fateful day and the awful blunders, misunderstandings, and naïveté that preceded it. As a former journalist and frequent biographer, Means weaves a precise and comprehensive narrative that paints an accurate and balanced retelling of events. Relying on interviews with first-hand participants and witnesses, as well as utilizing the vast trove of information gathered in research libraries and online sites, Means recreates the scene, putting readers deep into the tense environment and illustrates clearly the sinister feelings in the air and the chaos that forced people on the ground into action.
The specific events and tragic aftermath of this day have been well-chronicled. Numerous scholars have recounted facts, a bevy of conspiracy theories have abounded, and those present have offered both solemn and searing recollections. Neil Young even hustled Crosby, Stills, and Nash into the studio to record the iconic “Ohio”. The facts are indisputable: four students -- Jeffrey Lewis, Sandy Scheur, Alison Krause, and William Schreoder -- were shot and killed, nine others were seriously wounded, and a reign of terror and confusion shrouded the campus for months to come. Means shows throughout the book’s dozen chapters that things weren’t as black and white as they seemed to be for bystanders not directly involved.
By 1970, a clash of cultures was still raging at college campuses across the nation. Kent State, despite its more pastoral and regional affiliations, was no exception. “Longhair radicals” and supposed “communist sympathizers” had been organizing and marching -- mostly peacefully, but occasionally violently -- in opposition of the war in Vietnam. The book shows that Kent State had been a hotbed of student protest activity with prominent organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and famous activists like Jerry Rubin and Muhammad Ali rabble-rousing students and encouraging dissent.
The specific trouble in Kent began with Richard Nixon’s April 30th decision to expand American military operations into Cambodia. This set off a range of fiery protests. Protestors literally burned down the campus ROTC building, prompting residents and even students to adopt an “us versus them” mentality. Townspeople boarded up businesses, left work early, and in some cases, armed themselves in preparation for an impending possible battle.
Means does a splendid job in building up the tension and setting the scene for the ultimate tragedy to unfold. There's a legitimate sense of tension and dread as he leads readers hour by hour through the happenings. As that morning turned to early afternoon, an overwhelming feeling of chaos envelopes the proceedings. In hindsight, one gets the sensation of wanting to reach in and close the curtain, to force everyone to pause and collect their emotions before they spiral out of control.
Making great use of his firsthand sources, Means tells us that, contrary to popular belief, the protest group was actually smaller than has historically been painted. There was certainly a large and massive crowd spread across the campus lawn, but a great majority were there as gawkers, drawn to the events as they idly passed by from class to class. Accordingly, Means goes out of his way to paint both sides of the picture. His portraits of the student protestors are contrasted with those beneath the shields and under the helmets of the Guard. These volunteers, mostly young students looking to make an extra buck or two and avoid being drafted, were thrust into a combat situation that they were ill-equipped and vastly under-prepared to handle. Their hyper-frenzied state of mind, rather than cold-blooded hatred, is viewed as one of the overriding factors in all that transpired.
Mean's subtitle, however, proves to be a bit misleading. To correlate the events of 4 May with the "End of American Innocence" seems to imply that the prior decade was strictly a time of free love, peace, and blind ignorance. While those feelings were certainly at the forefront of culture, the '60s were tumultuous, angry, and tragic. The counterculture was winding down at the start of the '70s, and while Kent State did serve as a citizens' wake-up call and rallying cry (particularly towards President Nixon, whose own demise, Means intimates, started on 4 May) it's probably more accurate to say that "American Innocence" had been obliterated years earlier as assassinations, segregation, and mass casualties in Vietnam cast a pall of weary distrust over much of the country. For a good majority of the public, though, Kent State proved to middle and upper class Americans a fact that underrepresented populations had long known: You can't always trust those in charge. Nixon found this out soon enough.
The book seems to imply (as do many scholars and participants over the years) that this all should have been avoided. While no one has ever been formally indicted for their roles, fault lies at the feet of several key players. There was the overwhelmed and squeamish Kent mayor, LeRoy Satrom, who hastily bypassed local law enforcement and highway patrol options and instead appealed to the governor for National Guard assistance. That governor, James “We are going to eradicate the problem” Rhodes, at the time locked in a tight race for U.S. Senate with a more student protest-friendly opponent, quickly acquiesced to the National Guard, giving them full reign and jurisdiction over campus grounds. The Guardsman leader, Robert Canterbury, who armed his troops with fully loaded M1 Garand rifles and ordered them to aim at the blissfully unaware oncoming protestors is also burdened with the terrible consequences of his blustery reign and lackluster foresight.
In a maddening chapter devoted to several, post-incident legal trials, Canterbury feigns ignorance as to his exact actions on the fateful day, and even passes blame onto some of his supervisors and subordinates. Perhaps most importantly, the university's president, Robert White, was out of town at a conference when the weekend started to veer out of control. He hastily returned, but was never given the authority or the information he needed to take charge of his campus.
The after-effects of this tragedy linger strongly, even as 46 years have passed. Guardsmen have been ravaged with second-guessing and sadness, while survivors have struggled with guilt and confusion. One particular hero of the story, Professor Glenn Frank, devoted his working life to the university but according to family members, was never quite the same since that day. As Means points out, these tragedies continued to play out in places of higher education, with fatal shootings coming just ten days later on the campus of Jackson State University, and carrying on in horrifying frequency up to the present day.
In terms of Kent State, however, there are the victims. Despite the ongoing war of words, conspiracy theories, and bitter memories, the history will always be there. The nine wounded lived on with irreparable physical injuries and unceasing mental scars. The four dead, though forever immortalized, will always be the eternal victims of that terrible day. As a particularly eloquent survivor has pointed out, their memories should stand for something bigger, specifically forgiveness: “If there is no forgiveness, there’s no healing, and the murder goes on forever.”