This afternoon I had the pleasure of receiving a personal tour of the May 4th Center at Kent State university by Jerry Lewis, Emeritus Professor who was not only present when twenty four Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire killing four and wounding nine, but had been standing in the parking lot roughly 10 yards behind Sandy Scheuer, who had been about five yards behind Allison Krause.
Lewis was a young faculty member at Kent State that day, and during the period following the shootings he played a central role in preventing even greater bloodshed. In the minutes after the shooting a large number of students staged a sit-down protest, thus defying the Guard’s order to disperse and vacate the area. Lewis and other faculty were serving as Marshalls, and had been trying to de-escalate tensions prior to the 13 seconds of gunfire that loosed 67 bullets on the unarmed protestors on campus. The Guard had threatened to fire again, and was reforming a firing line when Lewis and his colleagues finally convinced the protesting students to obey the order to disperse.
The Center opened in 2012, and if you find yourself in the Akron, OH area, I urge you to take a ride out to Kent and spend half an hour or more touring the Center and the grounds where the protests of President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, the burning of Kent State’s ROTC building, and ultimately the shootings took place. The Center is very well conceived and powerful.
To have had the opportunity to be accompanied throughout the space by Lewis, and then led outside and told about the sequence of events, and stand by the memorial to each student who died and hear his personal account was moving and wholly unexpected. After showing us the fourth of the set of memorial lights which mark the location of the fallen students, Lewis walked about 10 yards deeper in the parking lot, then turned around and pointed back up the hill where the Guardsmen had stood that day. We followed his pointed finger and then heard him say “This is where I was standing when they opened fire.” It sounds almost hokey to say, but that simple sentence made me feel like I was transported from a cold day in February, 2015 to a warm day in May, 1970. He then asked one of us, Christine Sierra, to stand next to him, shoulder to shoulder, so he could illustrate how that group of 24 guardsmen, who had been walking away from the protestors, turned back and opened fire. He explained that he saw the smoke from the rifles before he heard the sound, and, having served in Vietnam, knew what that meant, and dove for cover, scrambling behind a nearby car. From that vantage he got his first view of Scheuer, dead on the ground, and then Krause, who had been felled by three bullets in her back.
If you would like to hear Lewis and others discuss the shootings (and the further shooting of unarmed protestors 10 days later at Jackson State), check out this NPR episode from 2010. Lewis co-authored an essay with his colleague and fellow Marshall that day, Tom Hensley. They have also co-edited a book on May 4th.