Out in the world, when people talk about the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, they call it “Kent State.” But in the small town of Kent, 35 miles south of Cleveland, and on the university campus, they call it “May 4th.”
It was 40 years ago Tuesday that the shootings — which killed four people and wounded nine others — stunned the nation. Even at the height of the Vietnam War protests, no one imagined that government soldiers would fire real bullets at unarmed college students.
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“I saw the smoke come out of the weapons, and light is faster than sound, and so I knew immediately [they] were not firing blanks. So it was almost instinctive to dive for cover,” remembers Jerry Lewis, who was 33 and teaching sociology at Kent State in 1970.
Often, at tense times, Lewis served as a faculty marshal. He had some Army training and was worried about bayonet attacks and butt strokes with M-1 rifles. He hadn’t thought about live fire.
Lewis says that when he takes people to the scene of the shooting on the Kent Commons, he likes to point out a particular mark — a perfectly round bullet hole in a steel sculpture.
“This is what an M-1 bullet, .30-caliber bullet, does to steel,” he says. “And the artist, to his credit, has refused to fix this. So, ironically, the [National] Guard created their own memorial.”