May 4 is one of those dates, like 9/11. For those of a certain age, we’ll always remember where we were on May 4, 1970, how we responded to the news of four students killed in a college town somewhere in Ohio, and what we did after. 

Ohio Humanities has responded over the years by providing grants to Kent State University to help it interpret the events of May 4 when four students were killed and several others were wounded during a Vietnam War protest. Those grants included support to collect oral histories and present the stories of that infamous day.

Every year for fifty years, KSU has been the scene of commemorations that mourn the losses on May 4, and which pledge to find peaceful solutions to dissent and discord. Sadly, in 2020, those events have been canceled due to the global pandemic. But even with our lives constrained by social distance and travel bans, we can contemplate the legacy of May 4—the lives lost or forever altered, the response of government to violence, the renewal of commitments toward peaceful, equitable solutions.

I recommend two books that place the Kent State shootings in context: David Hassler’s May 4th Voices and Above the Shots by Greg Wilson and Craig Simpson. Both rely on the oral histories collected by KSU, eyewitness testimonies to the events leading up to the catastrophe on May 4, the events on that day, and the aftermath. 

May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970, first premiered in 2010 as a readers’ theatre performance featuring the first series of oral histories gathered. The compelling script was published by Kent State University Press in 2013. In a narrative that is raw and startling, the drama captures the confusion felt by many eyewitnesses. The script is now accompanied by a DVD of the original performance and a teacher’s guide.  

Published six years later, Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings offers a more measured interpretation of the May 4 events. Incorporating new material and an even larger cast of participants, Above the Shots explores more than the before and after of the Kent State shootings. Authors Wilson and Simpson explore the role of memory—what we remember of that day and how we interpret memory. 

In 2010, the area of Kent State where the May 4 tragedy unfolded was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. When life returns to normal and travel restrictions are lifted, plan a trip to Kent State to walk the interpretive trail; be sure to include time to visit the May 4 Visitor Center. The university will hold virtual commemorations beginning on May 1; for information about virtual activities, visit May 4 Kent State 50.