By Harold C. Ford
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio”
…Ohio, Lyrics by Neil Young
For many, if not most, graphic publications conjure up images of comic books with fanciful tales and accompanying illustrations. Author-artist Derf Backderf smashes that stereotype with his just-released Kent State, Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams ComicArts, 2020), a sobering account of the shootings at Kent State University 50 years ago on May 4, 1970 that left four dead, nine wounded.
Kent State is not Backderf’s first graphic telling of a very grim tale. He grew up in Richfield, Ohio and attended Revere High School where one of his classmates was future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. That connection led to authorship of My Friend Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts, 2012).
Beyond the basic facts:
Many are familiar with what happened on May 4, 1970 as summarized by Charles Kochman, editorial director of Abrams ComicArts, in his Editor’s Letter which introduces the book:
“Fifty years ago, tear gas explodes on a college campus in Ohio. More than one hundred U.S. National Guard troops advance, bayonets fixed on their rifles. Sixty-seven shots are fired in thirteen seconds.”
“Nine unarmed college students between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three are wounded. Four, ages nineteen and twenty, are shot and killed—Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder.”
Backderf’s book goes beyond the headlines and tells the day-to-day stories of Krause, Miller, Scheuer, Schroeder and their divergent paths that led to that tragic day in May. His well-researched account will amplify their lives in the context of a troubled college campus in a war-torn nation.
- Bill Schroeder, 19, may have been the unlikeliest of the four fatalities. Schroeder was enrolled in ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, studying to be a psychologist in the U.S. Army. A camera hobbyist and basketball enthusiast, he began to doubt his nation’s military mission in Southeast Asia.
- Sandy Scheuer, 20, had no doubts about the Vietnam War; she hated it. But she loved dogs. A generous spirit led her to serve as a speech tutor and to donate blood. She planned to call her parents on the evening of May 4 and congratulate them on the day of their wedding anniversary. That call never happened.
- Jeff Miller, 20, a psychology major, had transferred from Michigan State University. He loved to play drums. Angered by the presence of the National Guard on the Kent State campus, he decided to join the May 4 protest, his first. It would be his last.
- Allison Krause, 19, decided to attend Kent State during a high school visit. An Honors College enrollee who felt she was not academically challenged, she planned to transfer out of Kent State. On the morning of May 4, she told a worried dormmate, afraid to leave the room, not to worry.
Kent State, of course, hardly happened in a political or social vacuum. Along the way, younger readers in particular will learn about a national crisis fostered, not by an invisible virus, but rather by a very visible and messy war. It was a war fought on two fronts: in the jungles of Vietnam and on the streets of America, including those in Kent, Ohio.
- “In April 1969,” Backderf writes, “an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) rally (at Kent State) devolves into a fistfight with rightwing students and campus police…A week later, an expulsion hearing…turns into a melee…There are 60 arrests.”
- On May 1, 1970 a confrontation between law enforcers and dissident youth turns into a full-blown brawl in the Water Street bar district of Kent.
- On May 2, 1970 student protesters set fire to the ROTC building on the Kent State campus. Local law enforcers and newly arrived National Guardsmen respond with tear gas and brute physical force.
- On May 3, 1970 800 National Guardsmen occupy the Kent State campus; another 400 patrol the town. Continuing violent confrontations and wild rumors stoke tensions on both sides anticipating the noon hour rally the next day, an event that ends very, very badly.
Consumers of Kent State will meet Terry Norman, 21, a criminal justice major, gun owner, and informant for law enforcement. (Five law enforcement agencies are working on or around the Kent State campus in 1970.) Norman carries falsified identification and a camera with which he compiles a photo portfolio of campus activists. Informant activities are pervasive throughout the nation.
“Under orders from the Nixon Administration and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,” writes Backderf, “the Bureau is spying on and disrupting, often by illegal means, all organizations deemed a ‘threat.’ The FBI is now a constant presence at Kent State.”
Flint caught up:
The Flint area was not spared the anguish of the Vietnam War.
- According to a michigan.gov website, 144 persons from Genesee County perished in the Vietnam War.
- The University of Michigan-Flint campus was shut down by students in response to the Kent State shootings. Over four million students at over 800 universities and colleges took part in student strikes.
- One of the largest political demonstrations in Flint’s history unfolded on May 5, 1971, at Willson Park when an estimated 5,000 persons gathered to protest the war.
- FBI agents, headquartered in the Federal Building at 600 Church Street, surveilled Flint area activists, this reviewer included, as part of its COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) which spied on an undetermined number of Americans, likely millions, from 1956 through 1971.
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com. He was one of the organizers of the May 5, 1971 demonstration in Flint pictured above.
Photograph by John Darnell taken at the moment National Guardsmen
Opened fire on students at Kent State University, May 4, 1970
Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer
Images shown at schema-root.org, posted at google, yahoo, You Tube
An estimated 5,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters gather at Flint’s Willson park, May 5, 1971; from the archives of The Flint Journal
Organized by New Majority to End the War (I was an organizer); endorsers of the rally included the Flint City Council, Flint Chapter of the ACLU, Genesee Community College Student Government, Flint College of the University of Michigan Progressive Club, Urban League of Flint, Flint Area Peacewatch, New Democratic Coalition, Citizens Coalition for quality Education, United Teachers of Flint