April 29, 2010

May '70: 1. Finally On Our Own...

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own…

Forty years ago today, on Thursday, April 30, 1970, Richard Milhouse Nixon, the president of the United States, appeared on television for a special announcement about the Vietnam War. He told us that US troops, tens of thousands of them, had moved into Cambodia, expanding an already prolonged and costly war into another country. He claimed it was a necessary step toward ending the war, and toward insuring that the US would not be perceived in the world as "a pitiful helpless giant."

Nixon's announcement kicked off the most intense wave of campus struggle this country has ever seen, a month of bitter and exhilarating clashes which triggered huge changes that echo to this day. May, 1970 also changed forever the lives of some significant number of the hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of students and others who took part.

Today that incredible upsurge, which pretty much shut down the 1969-70 school year throughout much of the American higher education system, is remembered mainly through one of its most dramatic events--the killing of four students at Kent State University by a sustained fusillade of gunfire from Ohio National Guard troops occupying their campus.

For forty years, the veterans of those days and younger activists have struggled to keep alive the memories of Kent State and of the subsequent police murders of two more students, this time at a traditionally Black college in Mississippi, Jackson State. We have succeeded in this, helped in part by that amazing mnemonic, Neil Young’s heartbreaking song, "Ohio," which opens with the couplet at the start of this piece.

But we have, in significant ways, lost the memory of the vast eruption which Kent State and Jackson State were a part of, and whose flames the killings provided so much fuel for.

Over the course of next month, I hope to recall--in a series of posts under the heading May '70--some of that legacy, for OGs like myself who were there and for younger folk who may never have learned much at all about the events in question. I will draw on my own memories and those of friends, along with some Internet surfing, especially in the early posts. Ideally, others whose lives were shaped during that heady month will come forward to weigh in with their own thoughts and memories.

There is one final thing I’ll spell out in this first post. You can consider it a reminder for the veterans of those days. Or call it context for young folks who may find it hard to believe that, for instance, in the first week of May 1970, more than 30 ROTC buildings around the country burned or were bombed. 30. More than four a day.

The Vietnam War had created a deep, deep fissure in the American body politic, deeper than anything since the Civil War. And this time the divide was not sectional. It ran through every part of the country, divided communities, split classes, sundered families. If anything, it was generational (though that itself is a big overgeneralization). As we sang along with Phil Ochs:

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall

And it was that split--between the young and the America we had grown up in--that made us sense, in May of 1970, that we were finally on our own…

Click here for the next installment.


Kitchen Window Woman said...

I remember. I am so glad that you are writing this. It all needs to be said, placed on paper, or on some kind of electronic wind.

Keep on Keepin On. My family and I are with you.

KWW - blogger name

Richard T Lennox said...

I had just received an invitation from Ohio University to attend a 40 year graduation 'celebration' that was denied that spring cause of the campus closure. The theme song was "Let it Be", (should have been "OHIO" and I might have gone back). The spring was full of political/philosophical discussions on the ;green instead of classes. What happened at Kent State That spring would have happened at OU (a 4 hr drive south)
... It was the death of a lot, that spring, mostly my naivete... and the belief that Amerika could ever be anything else than a right wing bully... and it has proved its stripes in the 40 years since. Thanks for the forgotten piece of history lost.

Anonymous said...

It was May 1970 when I was awarded a Honorable Discharge from the Marines as a Conscientious Objector. I had become a War Resister when home on leave after Boot Camp in the late Spring of 1969 and it had taken a year for my process with the Marines to evolve. I recall that in my squadron there were very few loyalists; most of us were turning our back n the US and on the Marines, on what we referred to among ourselves as "The Death Culture". As for me, I did not know what the Hell it meant to be a CO; It was simply that I was a country boy who was refusing to war against another rural people on behalf of "Civilization"; only later in the pursuit of a college degree did i begin to study Marxism Feminism and Ecology,

Frank Arango said...

"The Vietnam War had created a deep, deep fissure in the American body politic, deeper than anything since the Civil War. And this time the divide was not sectional. It ran through every part of the country, divided communities, split classes, sundered families. If anything, it was generational (though that itself is a big overgeneralization)."

But there were deep class and national divisions. Most of the G.I.s who had come home to join the anti-war movement had been grunts in the military and were from the working class. (I was one of them.) And the most militant fighters on the May, 1970 barricades in Seattle, for example, were working-class youths, not university students, plus a sizeable contingent of Native Americans.

Anonymous said...

The militant reaction at Kent State to the increased bombings in Soitheast Asia did not just happen.

That spirit had been growing for years on our campus.starting with the Kent Comittee to End the War with their weekly protests.
The Trotsky group of young people who leafleted and debated the war with many who passed by them between classes.
Then there was the Students for a Democratic Society.
It had been started some years earlier by George Hoffman.I did not know George very well and he died a few years ago. According to his friends he was trickster and an astute creator of many projects in Kent.For me it was the record store that George helped to create that was remarkable. It was run as a community based venture.

A round 1967 SDS at Kent began to change. The Sixties were an explosive time in our counties history. Assinations, Civil Rights Movement, MLK, Malcoum X, the Black Panther Party, and a little latter the take over at Columbia Unversity in New York and draft counseling. Not to mention the Selma March, the dogs and fire hoses and bullets used on the Freedom Marchers. Four little girls killed in bombing of a church in Birmingham ,Alabama, civil rights workers murdered trying to register peopl to vote, the killing of the Kennedy's, MLK assinated, Vietnam War,the women's movement and much more added to the intensity of those years .

Into this violent and relentless stew SDS was changing into a much more militant organization. President Johnson promised to end the War in his 1964 presidential campaign said he would end the war. Instead he escalated it. So much for electoral politics.

We began to think of imperialism and race intersecting domestically and in the US foreign policy.
SDS began to embrace anti-imperialist and anti-racist positions as the foundation of our problems in the US.

Out of this understanding came a much more militant prospective and actions based on that understanding.

Kent State SDS became much more militant in 1968 and the close of the Sixties.

We were also part of the beginnings of the Weatherman era and the demise of SDS as a participatory democratic organization.

However,militant actions that took place in 68 and 69 helped set the table for May 4th and the preceding days.

Some people got jail time for those actions. I think that willingness to take risks, helped others to do the same.

The John Browns of our history became our heroes. The discovery of how racism was deep in our culture and economic life. It,racism,was like a marinade in which soaked until seeped into every aspect of our lives.

There is very good book by Jeff Berger that describes the Weatherman period.

I just wanted you to know that Kent State did not just happen and different forces help shape the events that led to May 4th.

As far as know Kent and people from Jackson State have attended each others events to honor those who died.

It is not my intention to describe everything or everyone who was involved in the politics that led to May 4th . These are just my reflections at this particular place and time.

One last comment. It was no accident that what took place at Kent State was in the great industrial mid-west. The working class there has a great history of militant action to secure decent living conditions for the working people. It is a tough working class area.
And we are the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of that working class.

Take care, Grampy

These are small sampling

redlion said...

I was already up here in Canada by then, had been for two years. What teh events of May '70 confirmed for me was that my exile was going to be a long one. My ex and I were already helping many war resisters find a new home here ... eventually we helped about a division's worth of potential cannon fodder remove themselves, both draft avoiders and the already-inducted, including more than a few regulars. We were aware that it was only a personal solution, we were not going to stop the war. Indeed it was stopped by the near-mutinous state the army was in by '73-74 ... and in a sense we had helped build that, both in Canada and at home.

Never forget, never let the State forget!