On This Day, Years Ago
Widening the Lens of Local History
One of the most powerful tools public historians use is a simple question: Do you remember . . .? Of course, we have to frame the question within the scope of contemporary history–that is, within our life time and near-field memory. Simply living through life authorizes us to bear witness to the world around us. If we lived through it, and remember it, and can share a story about it–we can and should include it in the historical record.
Contemporary history exists on all levels, whether it’s something grand on the international stage such war or a house fire in your local community; if we lived through it we all have something to say about it. This is the essence of oral history work, documenting and preserving accounts of lived experiences.
When we are reminded of historical events such as the 50th anniversary of the May 4th shootings at Kent State University, Ohio (something within the lifetime and memory of many of us) local historians should take the opportunity to ask: Do you remember . . .
Memories of lived experiences can be rich, but they are always interpreted through subjective social, economic, and political lenses–past and present. Our lives are three-dimensional, and so we tend to contextualize and colorize our experiences with emotions, sights, and sounds. In fact, skillful oral historians make effective use of photographs and music as memory cues (aka, contemporary history artifacts).
One of our most significant contemporary history artifacts is John Filo’s iconic 1970 Pulitzer Prize photograph of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming while kneeling over the dead body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. The image stirred powerful reactions in millions of Americans, including singer Neil Young. Inspired by Filo’s photograph documenting the Kent State shootings, Young wrote, recorded, and released the iconic protest anthem, “Ohio,” in a matter of weeks.
50 years later, the photograph and song remain perhaps the most most iconic symbols reflecting not only the tragedy at Kent State, but also a turning point of the anti-war movement.
So, do you remember this photograph?
John Paul Filo/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
The shooting at Kent State University in Ohio lasted 13 seconds. When it was over, four students were dead, nine were wounded, and the innocence of a generation was shattered. The demonstrators were part of a national wave of student discontent spurred by the new presence of U.S. troops in Cambodia. At the Kent State Commons, protesters assumed that the National Guard troops that had been called to contain the crowds were firing blanks. But when the shooting stopped and students lay dead, it seemed that the war in Southeast Asia had come home. John Filo, a student and part-time news photographer, distilled that feeling into a single image when he captured Mary Ann Vecchio crying out and kneeling over a fatally wounded Jeffrey Miller. Filo’s photograph was put out on the AP wire and printed on the front page of the New York Times. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and has since become the visual symbol of a hopeful nation’s lost youth. As Neil Young wrote in the song “Ohio,” inspired by a LIFE story featuring Filo’s images, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio.” ~Time Magazine, 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time
Do you remember this song?
One day in the middle of May, almost exactly [50 years ago, Neil Young was hanging out at the house of his road manager, Leo Makota, in Pescadero, California, when his bandmate, David Crosby, handed him the latest issue of Life magazine. It contained a vivid account and shocking photographs of the killing of four students by the Ohio national guard during a demonstration against the Vietnam war at Kent State University on 4 May. Sitting outside on Makota’s sunlit porch, Young took a guitar proffered by Crosby and, in short order, wrote a song about the killings: Ohio. “I remember getting nuts at the end of the song, I was so moved,” Crosby told Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough. “I was freaked out because I felt it so strongly, screaming, ‘Why? Why?'” Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian
Do you remember the times?
“I saw the muzzle flashes. ‘Oh, my god.’ ” — Couple implored students to avoid Kent State protest, then watched shootings in horror
Jim, 80, and his wife, Paula, 77, who was also a student at Kent State that day, have never attended a May 4 commemoration. The couple rarely talks about that day, but they recently dusted off their memories in their Medina home with the front-yard sign, “Hate has no place here.” Jim said he was previously reluctant to talk about the shootings because “anything I would say might only add to more controversy. “Both Paula and I have avoided any of the May 4th commemorations because we see the same political rhetoric of that era being played out today in our current political climate,” he added.
Josef Morales, of Shamokin in Central Pennsylvania, served two tours in the Army. Morales said he was in Vietnam in May and didn’t learn about Kent State for weeks when he saw something in a newspaper. “I was mad,” he said. “I was distressed that American soldiers were shooting Americans. I didn’t really know what the circumstances were until sometime later. I was never angry over protestors against the war — I was mad at people like Jane Fonda who were supporting the North Vietnamese. I’m a little foggy about those days, but I remember me and the guys, grunts we were called, just didn’t understand what was going on at home.”
Reflecting on those days 50 years ago through today’s mindset [says Vietnam veteran Buzz Meachum], “most people have no idea what influence the ’60s had on those of us who lived through it and survived it. It’s kind of like a PTSD of history.”
Art Limann was a junior journalism student at Kent State during the shootings. It’s been 50 years, but Limann said he still remembers nearly all of that day. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” Limann said. “It’s hard to believe. I didn’t know what it was. I did think it was firecrackers. I didn’t know it was gunfire. It didn’t dawn on me until I got to the window what had actually happened.” Limann watched the event unravel through the viewfinder of his camera from the safety of his dormitory. There were bodies on the ground and people going crazy and it was just totally surreal,” he said.
Is anyone asking: What's your Kent State story?
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DO HISTORY TODAY
We’ve long advocated for historical engagement focusing on the present. Doing contemporary history work (i.e., engaging current events as historical events) is among public historians’ best practices. It demonstrates not only wise forethought and perspicacity, but it also reveals something profound about an organization’s operating philosophy, understanding, and values.
WHAT’S ON YOUR HISTORY CALENDAR?
We’ve written before in Local History Matters about the need for local museums and historical societies to re-think how they do local history–especially regarding the use of current events and oral histories to engage their communities in real time. One way to do this is to create a contemporary history calendar to remind us of important events, anniversaries, and other historically significant things that recur annually, such as the Kent State shootings, the September 11 attack, or other historical phenomena in our near field memory (i.e., within our lifetime).
At The Social Voice Project, we strongly encourage public historians, local museums, and historical societies to engage history in real time by doing history in real time. Here’s what can be done:
Create a contemporary history calendar of events and other historical happenings that occurred within our lifetime.
Create an archive of contemporary history as a resource for commemorating things on the calendar.
Use oral histories to capture, preserve, and share personal recollections of contemporary history.
Engage and inspire the public through exhibits and displays focused on current events.
Communicate contemporary history through outreach and media efforts: town halls, debates, seminars, forums, newsletters, online articles, videos, history podcasts.
PUBLIC HISTORY MATTERS
At The Social Voice Project, we celebrate history and people through our community oral history projects that give us a chance to look, listen, and record the voices and stories of our time. We encourage all local historical societies and museums to capture, preserve, and share their communities’ lived experiences, memories, customs, and values. Future generations are depending on it.
Contact TSVP to learn more about our commitment to public history and technical assistance in creating community oral history projects.