Submitted via e-mail, April 30, 2000
Today's Philadelphia Inquirer quotes Sandra Halem on people sharing their histories of Kent State 30 years later as being more comfortable from the distance of time: "They've been in shock for years." That statement rings very true. I was a student at Kent State on May 4, 1970. The whole experience was very traumatic. I likened it in impact on my to the death of my father. For years, whenever anyone asked me where I went to undergraduate school, I would cringe, knowing the inevitable chain of events to follow: I would say KSU, they would ask when, I would give the dates, they would usually say, "Was that when those kids got shot?" and a dialogue would follow, in which they would inquire about details as one would ask someone who had witnessed a big fire. But not a fire of their own house. See, it never occurred to any of these people to be sensitive to the impact on me. No sensitive person would have pressed for details of my father's final illness without at least saying "Do you mind talking about this?" but no one ever asked that question before asking me about May 4.
I guess my only really unique contribution is the correspondence I had with the White House. Some time in the summer of 1970, H.R. Haldeman was a guest on the Dick Cavett show on TV. Cavett asked Haldeman if the Administration had any regrets about the Cambodian incursion, in light of the fact that it led to the deaths of 4 students at KSU (or something to that effect). Haldeman dodged the question by saying that the events of the May 1-3 weekend "started with a protest by black students," (I am quoting from memory). I was livid that he would use such a lie to avoid a question, and fired off a letter to Haldeman saying so. (I did acknowledge that there had been some kind of black protest on April 30 or so, but that there was no connection with the rest of the events to follow.) Several months later, I received a personal response from Haldeman, which began with an apology for not responding earlier and stating that my letter had gotten clipped to another piece of correspondence. Haldeman dodged the real issue again, by saying that he didn't mean to imply that the events of May 1-3 started with a black protest and thought most people would not have taken his comment that way.
The other comment I have is that as a Philadelphia resident and employee of the City of Philadelphia, I am outraged at the seemingly unthinking support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer, and whose conviction has been upheld on appeal. It offends me that my alma mater, Kent State, has decided to include a submission from Abu-Jamal as part of this year's May 4 commemoration. I wonder how I would have felt in 1970. I suspect I would have still felt that Abu-Jamal was guilty and that the protest was wrong-headed, but I would have merely been bemused by such student over-reaching. Now it bothers me. Am I now on the other side of the Generation Gap?
The Generation Gap—that's what really summarizes my feelings about May 4. The most upsetting thing was not so much the shootings, but the fact that so many folks of my parents' generation seemed to think it was just fine. It was upsetting to go to summer school in the summer of 1970 and read reports in the Plain Dealer that a City Councilman in Youngstown stood up in Council chambers and said "They should have shot them all!" (again, I am relating this from a memory of some 30 years.) and read similar expressions of contempt for my entire generation in the letters to the editor of local newspapers. In the fall of 1970, I was calling around to find off-campus apartment to rent, and one landlady asked if I had long hair. On being told that I did, she said that then she would not rent to me.
I was 24 when I entered KSU in 1968, having just been released from 4-1/2 years of active duty with the U.S. Navy. My father was a lawyer, having served two terms as the Republican prosecuting attorney in our county. After graduating from KSU in 1971, I did a lot of different things, eventually enrolling in law school.