May the Fourth Nineteen-Seventy

The women's dormitory, Alexander Hall,
where two students at Jackson State peer from a 
window that was shot out by police on campus in 
May 1970. Jack Thornell/AP |  

By Michael Monasky | May 4, 2017 |

Two-score and seven years ago today a former convenience store owner, who sold stag films on the side, unleashed the Ohio National Guard upon the campus at Kent State University. The title of this article isn't a badly-pronounced Star Wars pun; it's the violent legacy of James A. Rhodes, four-term marathon governor of Ohio, whose bronze memorial in Columbus is that of a man at a brisk gait wielding a rectangular briefcase. Rhodes achieved what Ronald Reagan only dreamed; gun down a few punks to show militant youth who's boss.

On that fateful day, I was operating a computer at a now extinct corporation forty miles north of Kent that gave us those quaint credit card embossing machines, running a payroll for about 400 factory workers who eventually went on strike the following year. I imprinted the treasurer's signature on all their paychecks. I electronically sorted all the changes in personnel, pay grades, cost-of-living increases, etc. I was a seventeen-year-old college drop-out in low-level, Northeast Ohio industrial management. This was, and to some extent still is, the mainstay of Cleveland's failing, rust-belt industry.

What I heard next was not so much shock and surprise as knee-jerk reaction from the surrounding managers, their schadenfreude leaking into the frigid computer room like wafts of emphysemic smoke from break room cigarettes.  Did you hear what just happened? At Kent State? Should've shot more of them! At that point, being a college drop-out never felt so good. At least management couldn't point a finger of blame at me. Like Peter denying Jesus: No, I quit that campus mess; I'm the antithesis of white campus militant. I have security clearance here. Chrissakes: I “sign” your (and all of our) paycheck(s).

About a year later I bolted from the region, having drawn 137 in the compulsory draft lottery. Canada's colder than Cleveland. I knew why some militants had set fire to Kent's Reserved Officers' Training Corp building. The conflagration tripped the hair-trigger of the armory's M-1 rifle-fire on that quiet, verdant Commons. My college roommate was an incurious business major who wore obnoxious ROTC uniforms, which partially explained my exit from college. He was likely to become the archetypal lieutenant his own troops would assassinate. An unauthorized visit to an anti-war march in Washington, D.C., to protest Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, and the pre-release of Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers also contributed. A professor, whose activities were being clandestinely followed by G-men, passed his bus ticket to me, and the usual suspects participated: Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Weather Underground, and a kid wearing a sandwich sign that said “Fighting for peace” on one side; and on the other, “Is like fornicating for Virginity”. We all became virgins.

I survived the mandatory draft through the intervention of the Great Lakes Conspiracy to Save Lives, a spin-off from Phil and Dan Berrigan, Roman Catholic priests who'd burned Selective Service files with homemade napalm to thwart the process of drafting men for war. The Great Lakes' tactic was unique: instead of burning it, they pilfered the paperwork so that conscientious objectors could continue their petitions for non-combat experience. They sent a letter to all the young men explaining that they filled the office cabinets with balloons and streamers. They left a written message with the Selective Service draft board, admonishing them to celebrate their sons' lives, not to send them off to war to kill and die. The Selective Service was powerless to draft men without a complete file; young men were not required by law to repeat the filing. It was a catch-22 favorable to young, draft-aged men applied against their own government.

Neil Young wrote a song about Rhodes' folly, singing “soldiers are gunning us down”. It's tragically ironic to note that two people were gunned down at the Jackson State campus about ten days later in a hail of gunfire, not by the Mississippi National Guard, but by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and city police. Jackson's victims were black; Kent's were white. No one wrote a song about the black kids who died, one of whom was a track athlete; the other, father to a small child. Kent State's horror was committed in broad daylight; Jackson's happened in the dark. The Kent campus is primarily suburban and white; the Jackson campus is urban, and an historically black university. Anderson Hall, the women's dormitory which took the brunt of the Jackson police assault, still has bullet holes from the attack.

A full year before the Kent State shootings, South Carolina Highway Patrol officers killed three students, one of whom, 17-year-old Delano Middleton, was waiting for his mother to end her work shift, at the historically black South Carolina State University. It happened in February 1968 and is known as the Orangeburg Massacre; MLK, Jr. was assassinated in April, and Bobby Kennedy in June.

Orangeburg and Jackson are cruel evidence that there is no secure dissent for people of color. The unchanged, inexorable police prescriptive applied today is shoot first, ask questions later. This behavior has mired modern centurions in racist muck to the present day. It is unfair that the violent power of the state isn't acknowledged until white kids are gunned down.     

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