Kent State Shooting Divided Campus And Country
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.
Forty years ago tomorrow, on May 4th, 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio gathered to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War. The Ohio National Guard, in its efforts to disperse the crowd, opened fire. When the smoke cleared, four students were dead and nine were wounded.
The event deeply divided the nation and triggered a nationwide student strike, forcing hundreds of colleges and universities to close. Ten days later, police opened fire at a group of protestors at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Two students were killed and a dozen more injured. Today, we revisit Kent State and Jackson State, 40 years later.
So what do you remember from that time 40 years ago? What did the event mean to you? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
ROBERTS: Joining us now from member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, is Jerry Lewis. He's a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University. Welcome to the program.
Dr. JERRY LEWIS (Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Kent State University): Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
ROBERTS: Give us a quick history lesson. What led up to the Ohio National Guard arriving on campus that day?
Dr. LEWIS: Well, the major thing was the announcement by President Nixon that the troops had invaded Cambodia, which signaled to students, particularly students but all males who were eligible for the draft, that the war was not only not ending, but it was spreading.
Then on Friday night, there was a protest in downtown Kent. Saturday, an ROTC building was attacked. Sunday, there was another confrontation with the National Guard that had come on campus when the ROTC building was attacked, and then May 4th occurred.
ROBERTS: And that day, some there was some debate about whether or not to close the campus?
Dr. LEWIS: Well, Governor Rhodes said in his famous press conference on Sunday, May 3rd, that the campus would not be closed. And so, students had gathered on the commons on May 4th a little before noon to protest the presence of the Guard.
The character of the protest changed from anti-war to anti-Guard. And then about 12:00, the Guard moved out against the students, drove students over a hill. Some of the students went on a veranda of one of our buildings and other students went down in a parking lot, and the National Guard went into a practice football field, where there became an exchange of tear gas back and forth.
Then the Guard all of a sudden turned around, started heading right back up the hill where they came from. When they got to the top of the hill, near what we call the pagoda, the right rear echelon of Guardsman fired. A total of 28 Guardsmen fired between 61 and 67 rounds over 13 seconds. My good friend, Dean Kahler, was hit and seriously wounded, and he'll probably talk about that.
ROBERTS: And where were you?
Dr. LEWIS: I was standing in a parking lot behind Sandy Scheuer. I was a faculty marshal, and having been in the Army, I knew that they were firing real bullets because I saw the smoke come out of the weapons. So I dove for cover behind some bushes.
ROBERTS: And Sandy Scheuer was one of the students who was killed. Did you realize she was dead?
Dr. LEWIS: I did shortly afterwards. I didn't know it was Sandy Scheuer because when I came up after the shootings ended, I walked a few paces. A student rushed up and said, Dr. Lewis, those were blanks, weren't they? And I pointed to a body, I later learned it was Sandy Scheuer, and I realized the students thought they were blanks. And I wanted to get them to get out of there, so I began to run around the back of the parking lot saying - I'm Dr. Lewis, those are real bullets, you must leave.
ROBERTS: Do we know why the Guardsmen fired?
Dr. LEWIS: No, that's the fundamental question. Dean's shaking his head, and that's we don't know. And one of things we learned as Dr. Young was talking with me shortly before the interview is that we learn new things on these major anniversaries. That's why they're so important.
They're demanding on us emotionally, but they're very important to our knowledge about May 4th, because people come forward and tell things that they haven't told for years.
For instance, on the 20th anniversary, I had a student walk up to me and hand me some brass from an M-1 bullet that she had kept in her drawer for 20 years. So these things are going on all over campus and the town of Kent, I'm sure. People are coming forth with material. Someday, we may learn about why the Guard fired.
ROBERTS: Did they ever apologize?
Dr. LEWIS: No. The only thing they did, when the civil suit was settled, and Dean can talk about that later on, was they issued a statement of regret, which was pretty weak. Mrs. Holstein has said that she was hoping for a much stronger statement of apology.
Now, later on, at the in 2000, at the 20th anniversary, when we dedicated the memorial, the former governor of the state of Ohio, Richard Celeste, did apologize to, not only to the parents of the slain students but to the wounded students. But he was no longer a sitting governor when he did that.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Brenda(ph) in Syracuse, New York. Brenda, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BRENDA (Caller): Yes.
ROBERTS: Hi, Brenda, you're on the air.
BRENDA: Oh my gosh, okay. Okay, I just turned off the car.
ROBERTS: Okay, I'm glad you're safe. Go ahead. What's your comment?
BRENDA: Just that I was at Ohio State during that time. I had a three-month-old baby, a husband who turned in a master's degree and was arrested during that time. The university itself was shut down after Kent State, and 40,000 students. And the memory of looking at kids my own age who were not college students but they were part of the National Guard and they were standing there with bayoneted rifles staring at us.
And I think everybody was absolutely in was fearful of each other without knowing each other or understanding each other. And there was this crazy war going on, and it just felt like a time of real insanity in the country.
ROBERTS: And Brenda, what happened at Ohio State in the following days?
BRENDA: What happened at Ohio State was there was a lot of protesting. There was a lot of shock. But they closed the campus immediately. There was they just shut down all the classes. It was closed for about two weeks, if I remember correctly.
Dr. LEWIS: And that went on all over the nation. We don't have real good data but our estimate is there were 800 schools closed down, over four million students on strike.
Of course, Kent State was shut, and we were on the quarter system, as Ohio State was, and we finished the quarter system, as we were right in the middle of it, through correspondence, lectures in churches and other places.
ROBERTS: We have two emails, one from Shelly(ph) in St. Paul who says: I was 21, married and living in Lima, Ohio. I saw the breaking news of the Kent State shootings on TV at my mother-in-law's home. Her response was, they shouldve shot them all. That was a common response heard in the community at the time. I was horrified but not surprised. It's an extremely conservative part of the state and still is.
And Judy(ph) adds a similar memory. She says: Sadly, I remember the shootings vividly. I was working in the business office of a local university with several retired military men. One of them stood up and proclaimed to the office that the actions of the Guard at Kent State was the best way to handle these student protests, that if we shot more of them, the protests would cease.
You know, 40 years later, that sounds shocking, but I guess at the time, it wasn't that uncommon.
Dr. LEWIS: Well, I think Dean has a wonderful story that clarifies this, but this happened all the time. We in sociology call this victimology, where you blame the victim for their own demise or injury. So, Dean, you want to tell them about your...
ROBERTS: I should introduce Dean Kahler. He was shot and paralyzed during the Kent State student demonstration. He's also there at WKSU. And with any luck, his microphone is on. Dean Kahler, are you with us?
Mr. DEAN KAHLER (Former Student, Kent State University): Yes, I am. And Jerry is referring to one of the actually, the first correspondence I opened up after I came out of the induced coma on Friday, after the shootings. And it started off with: Dear communist hippie radical, I hope by the time you read this, you are dead.
Basically, I think that that person was mouthing or following up on the comments that had been made by Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Governor Rhodes. Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew had called us bums, effete snobs, and I think Spiro Agnew had called us nattering nabobs of negatism. And Governor Rhodes made a famous speech on the 3rd of May, saying that we were the worst element in our society, worse than the communists, the knight riders and the vigilantes.
The hate speech of the time, I used to call it rhetoric, was just as vitriolic as it is today. And it's unfortunate that those words do have consequences.
ROBERTS: Now, of course, one of the other reactions was in the opposite direction. And we've got two emails from people who were radicalized by watching Kent State.
Steve(ph) in Bemis Point, New York, says: I was a senior at Notre Dame. I was a Navy ROTC. In a matter of weeks, I was going to graduate and be commissioned as a Navy officer and get married. I was appalled that this could happen and outraged that initial reports could suggest the Guard was shot at first. I remember one of my classmates who was from Ohio had joined the National Guard to avoid the draft and Vietnam, and he went to Washington, D.C., to protest the war after this event.
And Sandra(ph) in Philadelphia says she lived in Akron, Ohio, at the time, worked at a medical library at the closest children's hospital to Kent State: Up until that incident, I had been a pretty conventional young person. I was 20. But when I saw my government killing innocent students who were just walking to class, I was radicalized, totally radicalized. From that day forward, I began to immerse myself in national and international news and politics and have never since allowed myself to be so ignorant of what's going on as I was before that day.
Dr. LEWIS: Well, that rings very true. My colleague and I, Ray Adam(ph), collected some data on students who were directly exposed to social controlled violence at Kent State, you know, on May 4th. And we collected the data two years after the shootings, and we found that exactly that had happened. Those directly exposed to the shootings had been radicalized as measured by - not being violent, but particularly increased political activity. And that political activity, for the most part, was against the war.
ROBERTS: Well, and then there, you know, similar protests in campuses all over the country, there was that iconic sign, I think it was at Columbia, that said: they can't kill us all.
Prof. LEWIS: Yeah. One of my colleagues who takes leadership in May 4th, Laura Davis(ph), tells a story that she and - as the marshals convinced the students to leave the commons, they - she was walking with two of her friends and she whispered to the two friends, we'll all run in opposite directions, they can't shoot us all. But that was a kind of worry we had when we're dealing - because what we all realized, and Dean can speak to this certainly, is that this Guard was not under control. And thank God, of the 71 Guardsmen on the hill, only 28 fired their weapons. Can you imagine if all 71 had fired their weapons?
Mr. KAHLER: And not everyone thought that the rifles were full of blanks. Being a country boy and having hunted with rifles and shotguns, I took many courses in gun safety. And there is only one time you can assume without, you know, with only one time you can assume with impunity, and that's when you see a rifle or a shotgun. You always assume it's loaded until you check the chamber yourself. So I had no illusions that they had blanks in their rifles when they shot. When they turned and started to fire, I said to myself, they're going to shoot, and I jumped on the ground and had no place to hide. And then, I could hear the rounds hitting me - hitting on the ground around me before one hit me.
So it radicalized me at the same time, to the point where I became very involved in politics. And, you know, to this day, I still write letters and email my congressmen and my senators, as well.
ROBERTS: That is Dean Kahler. He was an undergraduate at Kent State in 1970 and one of the nine students wounded by the Ohio National Guard. We are also joined by Jerry Lewis, a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University. He - both of them are joining us from WKSU, our member station in Kent, Ohio.
And we are taking your calls at 800-989-8255. If you remember where you were that day, if you remember the effects of the Kent State events on your life and your family's life, 800-989-8255. You can send us email: email@example.com. Or you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's hear from Robert(ph) in Escalante, Utah. Robert, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ROBERT (Caller): Hello. I had a different perspective, perhaps. I was - Kent is my hometown and I was in second grade at the time. I remember the guard coming into town and I believe it was that day they took us out of school. And we had to - my bus rode right past the campus and we were told to duck. We were escorted by a convoy of other National Guard.
So, you know, a second grader has a way different impression of these events than does an adult. But, you know, I've learned a lot since then, seeing some of the photographs from the day. And I didn't realize it, I guess, until this morning but, you know, people in Kent - people at Kent State think of the event as a - the May 4th time or simply May 4th, where the rest of the country calls it Kent State. And it dawned on me this morning that it really is more of a 9/11 type of feel, I think, for people who had that kind of connection to it. So, just thought I'd make that comment.
Prof. LEWIS: Well...
ROBERTS: Thanks, Robert.
Prof. LEWIS: That's very good, and you're quite right. Schools were closed down not only in Kent - that was after the shootings - but all over the county. The county airport was closed down. There were jeeps driving around the little college north of Kent called Hiram College. So there was - but, you see, that's a classic example of blaming the victim. The victims or the students were being blamed for the shootings and, therefore, the National Guard had to protect schoolchildren from the students, but in fact, the killing was done by the National Guard.
Well, one of the problems - and, Robert, you may have heard this - that a -there was a mistake on a press release that went out over the wire services. And it said that two Guardsmen had been killed, and that caused a great deal of problems and concerns which we had to deal with. And that misinformation lasted for about three hours before it was corrected.
So, many of townspeople thought the Guardsmen had been killed by students, and of course, that was not the case. In fact, there were only two Guardsmen injured and one was from a hyperventilation.
ROBERTS: And, Jerry Lewis, as a faculty member at the time, how good was your information? Did you all really understand the extent of what had happened?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, we certainly understood immediately that there were injuries and deaths, but not the scope of - I only - I took field notes three hours after shootings and I identified three people who were down, one who I thought was killed, that was Sandy Scheuer. I didn't realize the scope of this at all.
And we further didn't realize is the scope of the impact as you're getting calls from all over the nation, how impactful the events of May 4th and 10 days later, Jackson State were on the nation. And we didn't realize as one of the major documentaries said, it was the day that war came home. And the other thing that impacted on us was the famous picture of Mary Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller, which was all over all the media and being talked about. So, no, we really didn't realize...
ROBERTS: And won the Pulitzer Prize. I understand that's more...
Prof. LEWIS: Yes, sure.
ROBERTS: ...a little back-story to that picture.
Prof. LEWIS: Well, you know, John Filo was a student and he - I'm not sure what back-story means, but I think I know. John was worried about the FBI confiscating his camera, so he drove over to a small paper in Pennsylvania where he had interned. And he said to the editor, I think I've got some good pictures and, in fact, won the Pulitzer Prize with the picture. But he actually has even better one, he's told me, that he thinks is more powerful that was not used.
ROBERTS: We are talking about Kent State, 40 years ago. We are going to talk about Jackson State, where students were killed 10 days later in just a minute. But we do need to say goodbye to Jerry Lewis. I know that you have to go. He's a professor of emeritus - professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University. Thank you so much for joining us.
Prof. LEWIS: Thank you for inviting me.
ROBERTS: And Dean Kahler will stay with us. He was shot and paralyzed that day, May 4th, 1970. And we are taking your calls. What does Kent State mean to you? We will hear your stories in a moment. 808-989-8255 is the number to call, or you can email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can join the conversation at the website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
ROBERTS: Right now, we're talking about what happened on May 4th, 1970, the shootings at Kent State University. In the span of about 13 seconds, National Guard troops shot and killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others, including our guest, Dean Kahler.
We have posted an audio slideshow of the events of that day with the help of WKSU, our member station at Kent State. If you go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION, you can see some of these iconic images. Special thanks also to Coburn Dukehart, our digital media team, for her help.
Dean Kahler, why don't you tell us the story of that day from your perspective?
Mr. KAHLER: I woke up that morning after a long night dealing with the chaos that was happening in my dormitory. I decided not to go to my classes, but I made phone calls to my professors' office and let them know that I wasn't coming. I didn't have any exams scheduled that day. And after spending some time in the morning with my friends on the floor, I ate lunch, and with a group of them, we walked over to the commons.
It was a beautiful day. We saw people standing around. There was a thousand or a couple of thousand people with a bullhorn talking about the isms, but probably only about maybe 50 of them were actually involved in that little discussion. I was on the side of the hill looking down upon them, getting a little bored, wondering what had to do with the war in Vietnam, when were we getting out of it, when we're going to leave Cambodia, what was the role of the National Guard, what was the responsibility of us as students, what could we do and what could we not do?
So I went there with those three main purposes. And was getting a little tired at that point in time. I was thinking about possibly going to the student union, get a cup of coffee. They came out and said that they were gathered illegally. You don't tell several thousand students they're gathered illegally at noontime on a campus that primarily is made up of commuter students. Where are they going to go?
And so, it was greeted with a lot of jeering and cheers and anti-war slogans. They went back, they came back again, then, a few minutes later, read the Riot Act to us, which was, again, greeted with jeering and cheering and anti-war slogans. And then I saw them gathering together - near the burned out ROTC building. They were loading these tubes that had rifle stocks on them. I found out later that's what they put tear gas canisters in to launch them. And all of a sudden, they formed up and then they shot about 15 - 10, 15 tear gas canisters at us and dispersed the several thousand students that were there.
I went around the building, down the other side of the hill, across the parking lot, across the street into another parking lot. And at that point in time, I cleared the tear gas from my face with a wet handkerchief that I had brought along. And I remember grabbing a handful of gravel, flinging it underhand in the direction of the National Guard, who were about 150 yards away from me at this point in time. 150 yards. And so, I actually hit some students who were in front of me, who turned around and gave me the finger and swore at me.
And then I remember ducking down behind a pile of gravel in this gravel parking lot because it wasn't used as a parking lot anymore. It was a construction site, a supply depot, and there was gravel there. Because the National Guard were pointing their weapons, and I thought, oh, my God, what are they doing pointing their weapons? So I got behind this pile of gravel.
I then saw them stand up, get together in a huddle and then start moving in the direction of Taylor Hall again, because they have come the same path I did. They came up the hill, down the other side and now were going back up the hill. And I thought, well, I'll follow along. Its almost 12:20 or so. Ill work my way over to the Student Union, get a cup of coffee to go to my 1:00 class.
And I finally made it over probably at the bottom of the hill on the practice football field around 100 yards away from them at the exact moment that they reached the top of the hill, turned and wheeled with their rifles in a shooting formation or shooting position and then commenced firing almost immediately.
And I thought to myself, oh, my God, they're shooting at me. I jumped on the ground, covered my head. I heard bullets hitting the ground around me. And I'm thinking, why are they shooting at me? I'm not directly in their line of fire. Apparently, I was, apparently. But I wasn't doing anything. I was trying to stay a safe distance away from them. I didn't want to get near those guys with rifles. And then I got hit. And still, the bullets were hitting the ground around me. I would say probably eight or nine bullets hit the ground around me. But only one of them hit me and then the shooting stopped, and I was relieved. And then I remember (unintelligible) hollering out, I'm hit. And someone came to my aid and got my parents' phone number and called my parents. And they found out through a phone call almost immediately after the shootings.
ROBERTS: You mentioned the burned out ROTC building. We have email from Edward(ph) who says, didn't the radical students burn down the ROTC building? This would heighten the climate of fear in violence.
Mr. KAHLER: That's always been one of the misconceptions. The Justice Department and the President's Commission on Student Unrest basically said that students didn't burn the building down. It was burned down by someone who knew how to burn building down.
At the time the building burned down, there were virtually no students at that site. The site was totally surrounded by campus security and local police authorities. And so there was really no reason to assume that the students burned the building down. But we have been blamed for it. It's one of the myths of the burning of the ROTC building.
ROBERTS: We have a call from Jack(ph) in Johnson City, Tennessee. Jack, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JACK (Caller): Well, thank you. My memory of Kent State is that I was a junior in high school in my U.S. history class. I'd always been a news junkie so I had been reading about the occurrence - about Kent State in the papers, in Life and magazine that came out that week. And I got into an argument with my high school history teacher because he was blaming the students, the syndrome you -one of your other callers mentioned. It was like there was this vast dichotomy if you were over 30, the - it was the students' fault. If you were under 30, you looked at - at least I tried to read and be logical about it. And I thought it was ridiculous.
One of the things that has always struck in my memory, one of the students killed was something like 300 or 400 yards away from the protest and was on his way to his - to a class and he was an ROTC student that had nothing to do with the protest. And he was hit and killed.
Mr. KAHLER: Well, he was closer than that. Yeah. Yeah. But you're absolutely right. The - we - the victims, were blamed for this, and that was primarily because in the late '60s and into the early '70s, the speeches by our political leaders who supported the war basically said that if you were against us, then you were a communist or you were a dirty hippy. And they used language to victimize people who disagreed with them. And the prevailing feeling on the part of most of the country when we got shot was that we deserved it because of the language that was used by our political leaders.
Back then, we were - you were either a dove or a hawk and never the twain shall meet. So they used that language to victimize students.
ROBERTS: Well, Jack, mentioned that generational divide, and that's mentioned in a lot of calls and emails we're getting. Debra(ph) in Reno, Nevada says, she remembers coming home from high school that afternoon and her mother was watching TV and ironing. When I realized what she was watching, I was horrified and started crying and asked why, why, why? My mother said they were throwing rocks. That was a paradigm shift for me. Our parents were not necessarily on our side anymore protecting us. Many of them thought that murdering students was justified.
Mr. KAHLER: Well, a capital sentence or a capital punishment usually is reserved for our courts. When did the National Guard and our political leaders give them the authority to execute students who disagreed with them? Yes, there were some students who were throwing stones. But if you look at the photographs, the National Guard were doing the same thing while they were on the practice football field for they had run out of tear gas and were returning the tear gas that was thrown at them and some were throwing the stones back at the students. But that doesn't give the right of the law enforcement official in our country to execute students who were disagreeing with policies of our federal government. So, yes, there is a divide therein.
Let us see. It goes around to the hate speech, the language that was being used. We have to be careful of the language we use. We see it today. The language of dealing with the abortion issue is very vitriolic and has led to many deaths. Just the language around the health care reform bill led to congressmen being spit on when they were walking to the chamber. And, you know, we need to watch our language. I know our country has had a long history of using vitriolic language in political speech, but it does have consequences.
ROBERTS: We have an email from Lenny(ph) in Lake Worth, Florida who says, I was a Kent grad and also a member of the Ohio National Guard unit, although thanks be to God I wasn't on active duty that day. Because there were so many race riots going on, we were held in reserve. After the fact, I most certainly blame then Governor Rhodes for these deaths and injuries. Dean Kahler, how satisfied are you that there was justice served in the wake of the Kent State shootings?
Mr. KAHLER: I'm satisfied that we have much of the record that is public on record - we could get a hold of as public record. I'm not satisfied with the lack of justice that we had. And yes, Governor Rhodes was one of the major perpetrators of this. And it not only affected those of us who got shot, but it affected a whole generation of students who went to Kent State University in 1970 and had been labeled this. I know people who didn't get jobs just because they were a student at Kent. And so it has not only affected those of us who were wounded but it has affected those who were there. And yes, Governor Rhodes has a tremendous amount of responsibility for this, and no, justice has not been served in this particular matter yet.
ROBERTS: And what is planned on campus tomorrow?
Mr. KAHLER: There is the usual day of speeches, of commemoration and memoriam to the students who were killed, and we will dowse the candles at approximately the time of the shootings, around 12:20 or so. And then there are some other activities that are happening - I mean, just a whole host of things. I don't have the schedule in front of me and I didn't memorize it. But it's a day of mourning, a day of celebration at the same time, and a day of looking forward. And not only do we mention the students who were shot here at Kent, but on the 15th of May, you know, students were killed in Jackson State.
I remember lying in my bed in the intensive care unit, hearing the story and thinking, oh my, God. What is going on with this country? Are we going crazy or what? And I just couldn't believe it. It was probably one of the lowest periods of my time, coming so shortly after the shootings at Kent State. It didn't make my recovery any easier.
ROBERTS: Dean Kahler was a student at Kent State University 40 years ago. He was shot and paralyzed during the student demonstration on May 4th. He joined us from member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio. Thank you so much.
Mr. KAHLER: You're welcome.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as Dean Kahler mentioned, 10 days after the Kent State shooting, an eerily familiar tragedy played out on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi. Police there fired on a group of students, killing two, hurting 12 others. Gene Young was a student on campus in 1970. He's now a civil rights activist and taught at Jackson State. He joins us now also from member station WKSU in Kent.
Gene Young, welcome to the program.
Mr. GENE YOUNG (Former Professor, Jackson State University): Good afternoon. I'm in Kent also for the 40th anniversary commemoration of the killings at Kent and Jackson State.
ROBERTS: We have had a couple of emails, including this one from Sharon(ph), who says, what disturbs me is that a similar incident at Jackson State in Florida didn't receive - she says Florida, she means Mississippi - didn't receive the similar media coverage. That has become one of the things talked about when people mention the Jackson State incident. Why do you think that it wasn't sort of seared into public consciousness as Kent State was?
Mr. YOUNG: On the surface, Kent State was four white students in Ohio. Jackson State and Orangeburg were black colleges in the South. Two black students on a black college campus in Mississippi that had the history of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. It was just another day of business as usual, racist law enforcement officials victimizing black people in Mississippi.
ROBERTS: Can you tell us the story of what happened that day?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, okay. Well, to its credit, Kent State is always included in Jackson Sate, so we never want to make cite and make you think that Kent State is not respecting regarding what happened a few days after the tragedy on this campus. But students at Jackson State campus on John Roy Lynch Street in Jackson, Mississippi, was a major thoroughfare. And motorists would drive through the campus making racist epitaph, making secular innuendos against some of the black female students on that campus.
And things just came to a head when law enforcement officials marched onto the campus in front of Alexander Hall women's dormitory. And shortly after midnight, a bottle broke on the pavement and law enforcement officials fired over 200 rounds of bullets into a women's dormitory from the bottom floor to the top floor. And the miracle of that particular night, although it was tragic, that only two students were killed that night - James Earl Green, a high school student at Jim Hill who was on his way home from a part-time job and Philip Lafayette Gibbs, a junior, a pre-law major from Ripley, Mississippi, who was standing in front of the dormitory when the police opened fire without warning.
ROBERTS: And what could you possibly tell students? In the aftermath, how did you keep total chaos from erupting?
Mr. YOUNG: Dr. John Peoples, in his book "To Survive and Thrive: The Quest for a True University," credits me with coming on the scene immediately thereafter and start reciting some words that I had heard in Washington, D.C. in 1963, go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama. Go back to Louisiana. Go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities knowing that somehow the situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. And I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.
Those words and my voice had a calming effect on some of my fellow students who have been traumatized by the tragedy that just taken place on that campus. And I remember the blood-curling scream of Mary Gibbs when somebody told her it was her brother, Phillip Gibbs, who was one of the students who had been killed that evening. And we stayed out on the lawn of Alexander dormitory until the sun came up singing freedom songs and continued to recite some of Dr. King's words throughout the night.
And the next morning, Dr. Peoples ended the semester at Jackson State in 1970. And some of us - many students went home but some of us stayed on to try to bring attention to what had happened on the campus of Jackson State that morning.
ROBERTS: Gene Young is a civil rights activist who was a Jackson State student during the killings on May 14, 1970. He's also a former professor at Jackson State and he joined us from member station WKSU in Kent. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. YOUNG: Thank you.
ROBERTS: We owe a big thank you to WKSU. They helped organize today's program, as well as letting us use their studios and they shared the audio slideshow with stories and photos of that day. You can watch that slideshow on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.
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