While we’re on the topic of Vietnam, we should talk about another incredibly famous photograph from the war. The thing about this photo, though, is that it’s not of a soldier or Viet Cong or anyone directly involved in the war at all. It’s a picture of students. Well, kind of.
In late April of 1970, President Nixon announced that the Vietnam War would expand into Cambodia. On May 1, students at Kent State University began protesting this decision. The next day, the National Guard were called in, and students burned the ROTC building to the ground. Based on comments made by Ohio’s governor, everyone believed all control was handed over to the National Guard. All rallies, including the one planned for May 4, were thought to be banned. (However, since no formal statement was made, it’s still debatable whether the rally was illegal.)
On May 4, despite the ban, a crowd of 3000 students and 100 National Guardsmen formed in the open grassy area called the Commons. A policeman commanded students to disperse; when this didn’t work, the Guard was ordered to use tear gas to force the students out of the area. Students shouted and threw rocks at the Guardsmen, but the Guard advanced as directed and managed to somewhat calm the crowd. As they were returning to the Commons, 28 Guardsmen turned around and fired toward the students. Within 13 seconds, between 61 and 67 shots were fired. That’s between 4.7 and 5.2 shots per second. (For perspective on what that sounded like, pull out your phone and open the stopwatch. Tap your finger on the desk 5 times within 1 second.)
Jeffrey Miller, standing 270 feet from the Guardsmen, had just thrown a tear gas canister back at the Guard when he was shot in the mouth and killed. Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway from Florida, ran to Jeffrey Miller and cried for help as she knelt next to him. Vecchio later discovered that of her two friends she made in her short time on campus, one (Alan Canfora) was injured and the other (Sandra Scheuer) was killed. John Filo, a senior photojournalism major at Kent State, was like many other students in the assumption that the Guardsmen were firing blanks, so he had not run for cover. When Jeffrey Miller was shot in front of him, Filo began photographing the scene. His image of Vecchio kneeling over Miller was published in newspapers across the country and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Back in Florida, Vecchio’s father saw the Filo’s photograph in the newspaper, immediately recognized his daughter, and sent for her return. She was expected to become a spokesperson in her area for campus protests, but because she was so young, she didn’t understand enough of the country’s politics to take on that task. Florida’s governor made matters worse by accusing Vecchio of being a communist, which turned both her school and people across America against her. At 14, Vecchio was receiving thousands of envelopes filled with hate mail, some saying she was responsible for the four deaths at Kent State. “It really destroyed my life,” Vecchio admitted years later. She was arrested various times afterward for petty crimes, marijuana possession, and prostitution, but according to Vecchio, “the police have been unnecessarily harassing me.”
It wasn’t until 1995 that Vecchio started to feel comfortable with the photograph and her “fame.” It was at a conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Kent State shootings that Vecchio first met John Filo, and she said the meeting “really made me feel whole again.” “I’m glad she doesn’t hate me,” Filo confessed. Though Vecchio had avoided school for several years after the shooting because of the harassment, she did return to get her high school diploma and became a manager at a casino.
Though there were several songs written about the Kent State shooting, the most popular one is “Ohio” by CSNY. If you haven’t heard it, or if you just want to listen to it because it’s a great song, here’s a lyric video. It also has some interesting video clips from the event. I didn’t make it, so don’t judge me for the grammatical errors.