Sanitizing the Kent State Massacre

John Paul Filo, who was a journalism student at Kent State University at the time – © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch – Fair Use

May 4, 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre at Kent State University (KSU). We were peacefully protesting the US invasion of Cambodia when the Ohio National Guard launched a teargas attack and then opened fire at us.

67 shots in 13 seconds left our campus strewn with dead and wounded. Four dead in Ohio – nine wounded, one paralyzed for life.

Ten days later, 75 Mississippi state police, armed with carbines, shotguns and submachine guns, fired 460 rounds into a dormitory at protesting students at Jackson State. The barrage left two dead and an unknown number of wounded.

And in between, rarely noted, was the largest black uprising in a southern city during the civil rights era.

On May 11, 1970, the black community in Augusta, Georgia rebelled, after the burned and tortured body of an incarcerated 16-year old retarded black youth was dumped by his jailers at a local hospital.

The rebellion left six African-American men dead – all shot in the back.


The invasion of Cambodia and killings at Kent sparked an unprecedented national student strike. Over 400 campuses were shut down and occupied by the students. Millions of people joined street demonstrations demanding an end to the war.

1970 marked a turning point in history as the majority of GIs came to recognize that Washington had knowingly sent them to die in a war that was unwinnable. Our movement became so powerful that, along with the determined resistance of the Vietnamese people, we forced the government to withdraw from Southeast Asia.

Ending the war, on the heels of the civil rights movement, was a tremendous victory for working people. The momentum gave rise to the rebirth of the women’s movement, the gay movement and other social movements that transformed the country.


For 50 years, Kent State University has attempted to rewrite the history of the antiwar movement and government involvement in the May 4 shootings. They have suppressed and censored the history of the mass antiwar actions on the KSU campus that involved thousands of students.

The presence of an armed FBI informant in the crowd, Terry Norman, has been documented – yet he has never faced public scrutiny. In the intervening years there have also been numerous revelations about FBI/CIA covert programs to disrupt the antiwar movement, but these remain shrouded in secrecy

For the 50-year commemoration of the massacre, in a breathtakingly crass act, the KSU administration initially named a former top CIA operative, Stephanie Danes Smith, to head the commemoration advisory committee.

Smith directed the largest section of the CIA and worked directly with Condoleezza Rice at a time when CIA international facilities were being used to conduct the systemic torture of civilians. Smith’s motto was, “Get there first and clean up your roadkill later!”

Following public outrage, Smith stepped down as the titular head of the committee. However, her most ardent supporters remain as central planners and official spokespeople for the commemoration – presenting the massacre as a decontextualized tragedy. A failure to communicate.


Over 58,000 US soldiers died in Vietnam. Over 300,000 were wounded. And then the veterans were tossed aside by a government more interested in waging new wars.

Over 2,000,000 Vietnamese, Laotians and Kampucheans died under 15,500,000 tons of bombs and millions of gallons of defoliants that devastated an entire part of the planet.

The university is attempting to hide the truth about the war and government disruption of the antiwar movement – all under the rubric of “reconciliation.” This sanitization of the massacre prompted a “Letter of Dissent,” demanding a transparent and antiwar commemoration, that has been signed by over 1000 antiwar activists of several generations.

We oppose the secrecy surrounding the planning and financing of the commemoration. We reject the honoring of the ROTC instead of the antiwar GIs. We demand an end to the coverup of government involvement in the shootings.

The administration’s spokespeople, packaged in a corporate speaker’s bureau as being antiwar activists, do not represent the antiwar movement and they do not speak for us.

For the day of May 4, the university has announced plans for an online program of angst-laden, moving visuals and nostalgia. There will be celebrity-studded performances by David Crosby, Graham Nash, Tina Fey and others. There will be no opposition to the war machine.

They want us to look at the bright and shining things. They want us to look away from the current US wars. Away from the permanent low-intensity warfare of drones, sanctions and unending occupations. Away from the homelessness and daily suicides of veterans.

But we cannot afford to look away. Today we face an unprecedented medical, ecological, social and economic crisis. We cannot continue to pour trillions of dollars into an insatiable war machine while healthcare workers go begging for masks. While our schools and restaurants are closed. While millions are unemployed. While lines at food pantries stretch for miles.

The finances and resources of society must be changed to go towards healing our planet and ourselves. The memory of the martyrs of Kent and Jackson cries out for us to continue the struggle for which they gave their lives – to demand money for jobs and education, not for war; to put an end to all US wars and occupations and sanctions.


Open Letter Calling for an ANTI-WAR COMMEMORATION of the KENT MASSACRE, May 4, 2020

Mike Alewitz was a founder and chairperson of the Kent Student Mobilization Committee to End the War (SMC). He was an eyewitness to the massacre of May 4 and a leading activist in the national student strike. Alewitz is an internationally renowned muralist and Professor Emeritus at Central CT State University. Alewitz can be reached at