I was at Whitehall-Yearling High School, in a suburb of Columbus Ohio.
I didn't know the world was going to change.
I came of age in the Sixties. Walter Cronkite showed me the world every night on channel 10, the CBS affiliate. I saw Jack Kennedy speak in Berlin and murdered in Dallas. I saw the dogs, fire hoses and clubs in Selma, Birmingham. Watts and Detroit went up in flames. I watched too many cities burn. I saw Martin Luther King say "I have a dream." I watched the aftermath of his being gunned down in Memphis.
I watched in awe as Bobby Kennedy campaigned for President in 1968. I saw the hope he brought to America. I was moved by the impassioned crowds, the soaring rhetoric. Bobby's speech the night Martin died, in the ghetto of Indianapolis, from the back of a flatbed truck was what may be the best speech of the last half of the twentieth century. In June of '68 Cronkite, like he did with JFK, tried to make sense of Bobby's death in L.A. for a stunned nation.
The Soviets crushed the Prague Spring. The United States and The Soviet Union were locked in a deadly dance of madness. Walter reported every night. The Sixties were not just fun, sex and music.
And there was Vietnam.
Always Vietnam. It wound itself through the psyche of America like a vicious parasite, dividing the nation. Young versus old. Longhair versus hardhat. Hawks and Doves. If you were white and had some means at all you could beat the draft. If you were poor or black you were in Saigon. The children of privilege supported the war and draft knowing they would never be in harm's way.
We young hit the streets to protest this travesty of a war. We tried to open the eyes of America to issues that festered and needed attention. We were called Commies. Un American. All we heard was Love it or leave it. My country right or wrong. It was the closest a white kid could ever get to being black. Stopped and searched for your looks. The way you were dressed. The music you were listening to. Police violence directed at you without recourse. America.
The anti-war protests were dismissed by many as the work of the East and West coast elite intellectuals. Columbia and Harvard. UCLA and USC Berkeley. The middle of the nation was rather quiet as the big cities dealt with the anger of their children. There were protests but they were smaller in scale and rather well behaved.
The times they were changing.
Something we have never learned here in the US is when you violently try to crush a movement you risk radicalizing that movement.
There were calls for violent resistance and revolution. There were bombings. There were a few kidnappings. Protests turned into riots as rage built. And the body-count went on.
LBJ was the first President since Lincoln to use the word divisiveness in a speech. America for the first time in a century was poised for a civil war. All the bottled up issues we'd been in denial about were boiling and bubbling to the surface. Like the Civil War, the United States was turning upon itself. Father against son. Brother against brother. Mother against daughter.The racial divide was explosive. The war was not only a foreign policy issue it was a racial issue as well. It was a generational issue. The protests were the largest ever seen. Washington was a city under siege by it's own offspring.
In 1968 Bobby Kennedy may well have won the Presidency. On that night in June, in the Kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel, the future was irrevocably changed. We'll never know how America would be today.
Instead Richard Nixon, consummate politician he was , devised "The Southern Strategy" and "The Silent Majority" riding the politics of race, us versus them and fear to the White House. His vaunted "Secret Plan" was not to end the war but to win power at all costs. It blew up in his face.
There was a convergence of actions that would change the Nation occurring.
The SDS and others were wanting to show that opposition to the war wasn't simply a coastal rebellion by the intelligentsia. A show of widespread support in the heartland was needed.
The other action was Nixon invading Cambodia.
No one knew how badly this was going to end.
At the end of '69 and into 1970 members of the SDS and other groups spread out through the Big 10 talking to and organizing students across the midwest. I met a woman in an apartment just off the Ohio State Campus. All of us talked about the war and stopping it. I left after about an hour or so. It wasn't till years later I realized I had likely been talking to Bernadette Dohrn.
The war and events of '68 had pushed this white kid from a white blue collar suburb far to the left. I'd grown up on John Wayne and the Lone Ranger. We were the good guys I couldn't square that with what was happening in 'Nam. Many of us had that problem. We might be a bunch of naive white kids in the midwest but we were pissed.
The tinder was ready. All we needed was a spark. We just had to wait for Nixon to do something outrageous and arrogant. As usual the Trickster didn't disappoint.
In the spring of 1970 Nixon ordered an incursion into Cambodia. There was heavy resistance from the North Vietnamese Army. We suffered high casualties. A helicopter pilot during that invasion had a life expectancy of about thirty-five seconds. Unfortunately we weren't at war with Cambodia. Nixon also neglected to mention this little invasion to Congress or the American people.
When the story broke there was worldwide outrage. The Nixon administration was doing frantic damage control as college campus' across America exploded into chaos.
Here in Ohio to cope with a Teamster's trucking strike Gov. Jim Rhodes had called up the National Guard. When Ohio State and the other Ohio colleges erupted in protest Rhodes deployed an already exhausted Guard to quell the outcry.
Even in 1970 Ohio State was a huge University dominating a large portion of the north side of Columbus economically and socially.We high school kids went to campus to buy music, clothes and just to hang out with the Hippies. Or get into the bars, with a friends Draft Card, to see bands and maybe learn how to score.
Like most protests the one at Ohio State started as a non violent student strike on April 29,1970. The protests were about the creation of a Black Studies Department and adding Women's Studies to the course offerings. Campus buildings were picketed. The Ohio Highway Patrol(which has authority over State property)barricaded roads and moved in with loaded firearms and mace. The situation went to hell in a handbasket.
The crowd moved off campus and on to High St. A group of about 2000 students(and this High School Senior) gathered at the intersection of North High St. and 15th Avenue, the entrance to the OSU campus. There stood large iron gates that were a gift of an early twentieth century class. The students closed those gates symbolically closing the University. The reaction from the Ohio Highway Patrol and The Columbus Police Department was swift and brutal. The intent was to crush these "radicals"
Bricks and Molotov Cocktails were thrown, store windows were smashed and there was looting.
The protest at Ohio State was now massive and in response to police overreaction turned extremely violent. As usual the Columbus Police Department came in swinging. Badge numbers were concealed. The infamous "D" Platoon cut a bloody swath through the protesters.
A few weeks earlier Vice President Agnew had advised police treat protesters as enemies. He suggested police should imagine protesters as Nazi Brown Shirts or Klansmen wearing white sheets and act accordingly. CPD took Agnew's advice to heart.The CPD used tear gas and live ammo on the crowd.
This was my first experience with tear gas, a billy club and the full force of a nascent police state . It wasn't the last.
This confrontation went on into the night until at 10 PM Governor Jim Rhodes deployed the National Guard.
The sight of tanks and armored personnel carriers rolling down the streets of an American city and on a Major College campus stopped the disturbance that night. An occupying army does seem to have a chilling effect. In the aftermath it was discovered seven people had been shot and wounded.
A little side note During the day OSU Football Coach Woody Hayes tried to stop the violence, unsuccessfully. During the entire student revolt Hayes would be the only member of The Ohio State University's Administration to actually talk to the students in person.
The next day on April 30th 4000 students took to the streets again in response to Nixon and Cambodia. The violence continued throughout the day. There were 400 arrests and 131 were injured in clashes with the Ohio National Guard.
Over the next week there were occasional confrontations as The Guard and law enforcement kept the area shut down. There were checkpoints manned by troops.Tanks and halftracks rumbled down the major north/south thoroughfare of Columbus Ohio. A couple weeks later I was on campus for a State American History Achievement Test competition.(I placed second) The cloying smell of tear gas still hung in the air. The Ohio State University Campus looked like Prague in '68 after the Soviet's moved in. Troops were everywhere, M-1's slung over their shoulders.
Security was stifling as news of the shootings at the much smaller Kent State University broke. On May 6th OSU closed until the 19th.
Like many I was shocked and angry when the killings at Kent State occurred. I became more liberal. (Radical to some of my friends. even today) The culmination of the Sixties had instilled a deep distrust of Government and the GOP. Rhodes and Nixon were responsible for that. I actively disliked Jim Rhodes and despised Richard Nixon.
Nixon's public response was to the KSU shootings was callous and pandered to his "Silent Majority" base. The tone and other comments by members of the Administration implied it was the dead students fault they were gunned down. John Halderman cited Kent State as the start of Nixon's slide into paranoia. It would culminate in Watergate and the attendant shenanigans.
Nixon's hard line pushed me farther and farther left. I made it a point to participate in every action against the war I could. I protested in favor of establishing women;s studies and African American History departments at Ohio State. I joined hundreds of thousands nationwide in the two Moratorium marches.
Kent State galvanized the left. It resulted in the nomination of George McGovern, our version electorally of Barry Goldwater. Nixon's use of race and fear was nearly overt. Massachusetts stood alone in opposing the reelection of Tricky Dick
The Pentagon Papers were leaked. My Lai and other war crimes became public. America was finally turning against the Vietnam war, slowly, but irrevocably. We signed a peace treaty the day after Lyndon Johnson died. We could have gained the same terms four years earlier but Nixon kept the war going to insure his reelection. The additional names on the wall are his legacy to venal, political fuckery.
The Sixties are remembered for peace, free love, civil rights, the mainstreaming of the Women's Movement and music. It was all of that and more.
Yeah, Rock and Roll changed the day The Beatles hit the States.
America finally responded to the Legacy of Reconstruction and acted to end Jim Crow.
A social upheaval unprecedented in American history unfolded in a decade.
In the space of five years I completely remade myself. I rejected ideas my parents had instilled in me. I embraced equality not as a concept but as a way of life. I rejected war as a first response. I rejected blind patriotism. If you love your nation it is a duty to make it better.
I am liberal. I wear that term as a badge of honor.
I participated fully in that era. I learned lessons that have served me well.
That time has left scars that still affect America today.
We've yet to come to terms with the aftereffects of Vietnam.
The Right today is trying to undo all the advances we made in equality and social safety nets. They condemn that decade for being responsible for all of America's social woes. My response to them is shut the fuck up. We are now fighting new battles in a war I thought we had won. I took beatings then and am prepared to again. Unfortunately, I don't heal as quick as I once did.
The huge violent revolt at Ohio State is largely forgotten now. The State and City tried to play down what happened in the national press. Kent State also pushed all the coverage off the front page.
Kent State, Ohio University and Ohio State cost Jim Rhodes the Republican nomination for Senate in the Tuesday May 8th primary. Rhodes would serve two more terms as Governor. He has a statue and a 30+ story State office tower named after him. Both are on E. Broad St. across from the State House.
The Oval, a large grassy open area in the heart of OSU's campus is crisscrossed with foot paths. The brick walkways were replaced with asphalt because the bricks were thrown in 1970.
The massive iron gates at 15th and High were replaced with two ornamental concrete columns to prevent them from ever being shut again.
The National Guard Unit deployed at Kent State was cleared of wrongdoing in a Grand Jury. No one was disciplined for violations of The Army Field Manual for having loaded weapons in a riot situation. It is still not clear if there was an order to fire. The initial claim of firing in response to a sniper collapsed nearly immediately.
Crosby Stills Nash and Young wrote, recorded and released "Ohio" in about thirty days. The urban legend is Neil knew one of the four killed that dark day.
A monument to the slain and wounded at KSU had been built and dedicated on campus. The Site itself is on the National Historic Register.
I attended an anti war protest when we launched the invasion of Iraq. I took some flack from some young frat rat and managed not to kick his pompous, privileged ass. People who had no intention of serving cheered on the uncalled for invasion. Vietnam redux.
When Occupy Columbus was forming I went to an organizational meeting in the small amphitheater on the Oval at OSU. As I was talking old times with some contemporaries, I overheard a remark from a young woman. She told a companion the people in the Sixties ruined protesting for everyone. I may have told her she was ill informed, pretentious and elitist. She glared at me scornfully as she adjusted her Coach handbag. The protest outfit she was wearing likely cost more than I pay in rent. But she wanted to protest income inequality, bless her heart. Later she made a statement that men's ideas on women's rights were irrelevant since they were the oppressor. I left. Yeah, I am turning into the cranky old guy bitching at the kids for getting on my lawn.
We need to remember the past in order to change the future. That is the forlorn dream of historians.
We need to fight these battles again to restore America's place as a great nation. Unfortunately we are fighting battles today in wars I thought we had won.
America has a rampant resurgent racist rhetoric going mainstream as we are hell bent to reestablish the worst of our past under the guise of tradition and patriotism. Racism is no longer covert as many embrace it calling the 60's as the reason America is now, godless and in decline. We demons on the left are vilified as Un-American.
Love it or leave it? Not so much. I put up with that shit over forty years ago, not going to do it now.
Let's learn our lessons and move forward.
Remember these people
From the May 4th Memorial at KSU--"Inquire, Learn, Reflect."