“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.” That refrain from Neil Young’s song “Ohio” about the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, is embedded in the nation’s collective memory. The lesser-known song on the B-side of that record, Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” may have inspired the title to Susan Erenrich’s elegy to the victims of that day, The Cost of Freedom: Voicing a Movement after Kent State 1970 (Kent State University Press, 336 pp. $34.95, paper; $24.99, Kindle).
The book is an assemblage of genres—including a single photograph, a short song, and a 37-page treatise on the historic preservation of the site—dealing with the violence at Kent State University that May day, its aftermath, and its influence on the community and the nation. Erenrich thoughtfully divides this anthology into ten accessible sections.
Susan J. Erenrich is a professor at American University and a social movement documentarian. She previously edited Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change. The Kent State story is a personal one for Erenrich. She was a Kent State student in the late 1970s and was deeply involved in the May 4 Task Force, the student organization responsible for commemorating the anniversary of the shootings.
The fiftieth anniversary of the shootings has brought no less than ten recent books on the events that add to an already robust bibliography of the episode. Erenrich’s book seeks to differentiate itself by its focus on justice issues and its call for the future. The books is a collection of primary source material, though it does not focus on contemporaneous accounts of the events, but rather on the later reflections of students and administrators.
There is a palpable catharsis in many of the accounts, and though the reflections are heartfelt and earnest, many were written 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years after the fact. The essays can veer to the polemical and the writers to self-indulgence, which is entirely understandable as many of their lives are divided in half—one before May 4, 1970, and one after. There are entries that are not directly Kent-related by Patricia Mosley and the former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Weatherman Mark Rudd.
The one contemporaneous account of the events, by then Kent State senior Constance Nowakowski, describes protestors on acid throwing bottles at the police, breaking windows indiscriminately, burning the American flag, burning the ROTC building, and cutting hoses firefighters tried to use to douse the flames. This provides context for the tragedy that would ensue, but does not explain or excuse the senseless killings. The Scranton Commission was correct in finding the shootings “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
From a historical perspective, the pieces on post-facto legal activities are compelling and informing. William Whitaker, an Akron trial lawyer who represented the Kent 25—the moniker given to the protesters indicted for criminal activity in connection with events leading up to the shootings—offers an excellent one, as does Sanford Jay Rosen, the lead civil attorney for the dead and wounded students.
Noteworthy among the essays from the students directly affected by the shootings is the piece by John Cleary. An amateur photographer, Cleary, a freshman, was not part of the protests. He was observing and photographing the days’ events when he was shot in the chest. Cleary had a quiet determination not to allow May 4th to define his life. He finished his studies at Kent and went on to a career in architecture.
The shootings at Kent State still reverberate. This collection is a written monument, a fitting memorial to all those killed, wounded, or scarred by the events of May 4, 1970.
–Daniel R. Hart