By Emma Austin, F/G Scholar
When she gives tours of the site where four students of Kent State University were murdered by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970, Mindy Farmer, director of the May 4 Visitors Center, stops at each memorial marking the exact location each of the four students was shot.
“I want people to know something about them, who they were,” Farmer said. “That’s something we’ve only just started to learn as we’ve researched them.”
Allison Krause was an honors student at Kent State, and she was participating in the protest against the Cambodia invasion when she was shot and killed in the Prentice Hall parking lot, about 330 feet from the Guard.
Jeffrey Miller had just transferred to Kent State four months before he was killed during the protest. While the most common photo of Miller shows him with a neat haircut in a suit and tie, Farmer said he had changed a lot since that photo was taken; he was politically active and became part of the counterculture movement.
Neither Sandra Scheuer nor William Schroeder were protesting, but both were caught in the gunfire while walking between classes. Scheuer studied speech therapy, and Schroeder was a psychology student training with the ROTC at Kent State.
“I think there are lots of people who still want justice, who still feel like no one was held accountable that people were murdered,” Farmer said. “I do think memorials help, and I think education helps.”
Making sure this education is available to the public, and especially to students at Kent State University, is Farmer’s job as director of the May 4 Visitors Center.
Prior to coming to Kent State, Farmer, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from WKU, was the education director at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, which she described as “a really interesting challenge.”
The library was originally created and funded by Richard Nixon and his friends. His daughters eventually petitioned to have the government make their father’s library part of the federal presidential library system. Farmer and her colleagues were left with the task of taking the exhibits created by Nixon from Nixon’s perspective and making them nonpartisan.
One challenge was redoing the Watergate gallery. As it was inherited by the federal libraries, the entire museum was built around the idea that every visitor knew what Watergate was. Farmer said the exhibit wrote off Watergate as “Nixon fell on his sword, saved his staff—his staff had gone rogue.” The rest of the museum focused on his accomplishments.
The omissions based on the assumption that everyone knew about the not-so-praiseworthy affairs of Nixon’s presidency were evident throughout the museum, Farmer said. The panel dedicated to the Kent State shooting was vague and didn’t say who did the shooting.
For many years after the shooting, and still today, misinformation and misunderstanding have surrounded the nation’s memory of what happened May 4. It was the Ohio National Guard who shot the students, and Farmer rewrote the panel at the Nixon library to acknowledge that.
The students were protesting on campus in response to Nixon’s announcement of the Cambodia invasion. Demonstrations were held throughout the weekend, causing the mayor to request the National Guard be sent to Kent. By the time they got there, a large demonstration on campus was underway, and the ROTC building was burning to the ground.
Two days later—Monday, May 4—another large but peaceful protest was held on campus. The guard tried to disperse the crowd using tear gas, to which some students responded by throwing rocks and picking up the tear gas canisters and lobbing them back at the guard. Seeing the crowd would not disperse, the guard advanced on the protesters up Blanket Hill.
At 12:24 p.m., a number of guardsmen turned and fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others.
Farmer said she believes public understanding of the events of that day is getting better, but much remains a mystery despite the abundance of witnesses. It’s still unknown why the guard fired, and there are still questions about the ROTC building.
“The facts of a story don’t change unless there’s new evidence, but in general the facts of a story are known,” Farmer said. “It’s the interpretation of them that changes, and every generation has a new interpretation, they have a new reason why this is relevant.”
Almost every freshman at Kent State sees the visitors center historical exhibits, giving Farmer a responsibility she said she takes very seriously.
In her four years as director, Farmer has seen people make different connections to May 4—in 2014, people compared the incident to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by a police officer.
Today, Farmer hears comparisons to school shootings and the importance of young people voting.
“Every generation brings their new comparisons, and that’s always a new way to understand this,” Farmer said. “I think that’s really important.”