From inside his tiny, 250-square foot efficiency on the Kent State University campus, Subash Shah sensed something big was brewing.
How could he not?
Fifty years ago today, troops from the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd gathered to protest the Vietnam War. Four students — including a young woman Shah had gotten to know from working as a graduate counselor — were killed and nine others injured.
The tragedy — nearly 70 rounds were fired in 13 seconds — shocked the nation, much as you would expect, and quite possibly tilted public opinion against the war. At least that’s what history books and political scientists tell us.
To Shah, a retired professor at Winston-Salem State University, May 4, 1970 is as much about individuals than historical events and the anniversary about remembering those whose lives were lost or irrevocably changed.
“Every May 4 I think about it,” Shah said. “It was a turning point for the country.”
Shah, a proud native of Zanzibar, started work on his master’s degree at Kent State in the fall of 1969. To help pay for it, he worked as counselor in a freshman dormitory which housed about 100 students.
A young man named Barry Levine lived on Shah’s floor, and he frequently brought his girlfriend, a fellow freshman named Allison Krause.
“I knew them by first name,” Shah said. “I still remember her face. She wore flowers in her hair and walked barefoot a lot. Barry, too. … I told them once, ‘You two are really innocent flowers.’”
Protests sporadically roiled the Kent State campus, same as elsewhere. But Kent State, Shah remembered, was hardly a bastion of unrest. Many of its students were local to northeastern Ohio, sons and daughters of working and middle-class Americans who were the first in their families to attend college.
But the events of May 4 — and of the days leading up to them — changed that impression for the outside world. “We had no idea the situation would evolve the way it did,” Shah said.
President Richard Nixon authorized American troops on April 30 to invade Cambodia, a neutral nation, to hunt down North Vietnamese troops hiding there and disrupt their supply routes. Anti-war activists saw Nixon’s order as a betrayal of a campaign promise in 1968 to end the war.
On Friday May 1, students planned a pair of unrelated demonstration on campus. One, at noon, would be to protest the war. A few hundred people showed up; students buried a copy of the Constitution and a couple veterans burned their discharge papers. The second demonstration, scheduled for later in the afternoon, was an outlet for black students to push for greater minority hiring and building a black cultural center on campus.
“Something was brewing, but I couldn’t figure out what,” Shah said.
A friend, Howard Wiley — who, as luck would have it, grew up in Winston-Salem — felt it, too. He’d gone to Kent State because the school was a pioneer in African-American studies and had become involved with a group called the Black United Students.
“There was a convergence of movements and activism– anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-colonialism, civil rights,” Wiley said. “Unless you were there at that time, you wouldn’t be aware of the range.”
The next two days provided more clues. A campus ROTC building burned and disturbances spilled over into town. The governor of Ohio blamed “outside agitators” and the National Guard moved onto campus.
“It was literally a military base,” Shah said. “I remember thinking, ‘How are they going to keep (people) calm with those kinds of armaments.”
Indeed, something big was brewing.
Issuing a warning
Shah and Wiley ventured out the night of May 3 to check things out. Students had planned to protest the presence of the Guard by holding a sit-in.
Shah said he didn’t want to go — “I was on a student visa and I had a big family who hoped to emigrate, too” — but Wiley talked him into it.
What they saw, Shah said, was disturbing. Soldiers pushed students at bayonet point back toward campus. Some were beaten with rifle butts. Helicopters flew overhead and tear-gas used. Students — Shah and Wiley among them, escaped by being pulled through windows at the library.
“We knew all hell was going to break loose on Monday,” Shah said.
There, they came up with a plan. Shah would speak to foreign students and Wiley would warn black students to keep their distance.
“You know the movement Black Lives Matter?” Wiley asked. “That was our consciousness, too. We were aware of black students being shot elsewhere so we urged them not to participate in the noon rally (Monday). Black and international students would be easy targets.”
The next day, Shah said, he went and taught the same 11 a.m. class he did every Monday. When it ended, he went to lunch in the student union. Wiley was there, too, when they learned what had happened in those 13 seconds.
“Right after we sat down, students ran in screaming and crying and shouting ‘They’re killing us. They’re killing us,’” Wiley said.
Four students — including Shah’s friend Allison Krause — died. Wiley and Shah both think of that day often, not just on anniversaries.
“It altered my life dramatically,” Wiley said.