1995 Restrospective

Nadine Brozan, "Chronicle," New York Times, April 25, 1995, Sec. B, Pg. 4.

In 1970, John Filo, a student at Kent State University, snapped a photograph of an anguished Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of one of four students killed by the National Guard during demonstrations there. The photo won a Pulitzer Prize for Mr. Filo and became the emblem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, but the photographer and the subject never met until Sunday.

They were brought together at a conference at Emerson College in Boston commemorating the 25th anniversary of the uprisings at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., over the United States bombing of Cambodia.

"It was finally time for us to meet," said Mary Ann Vecchio Gillum, who was a 14-year-old runaway from Miami at the time and who now uses her married name. "It was my destiny that I go there, but I had no idea my picture was being taken."

She said that after it appeared around the country, "I was terrified of the police and the Government, so I went underground for several weeks." She agreed to a newspaper interview in return for a bus ticket to California, but, she said, "the police showed up, took me into custody and sent me home."

After that, "I couldn't function," she said. "I kind of rambled until I met my husband, Joe Gillum." The couple moved to Las Vegas, Nev., where Mrs. Gillum, 39, is a cashier in the Sahara Hotel coffee shop.

Mr. Filo, 46, now the deputy picture editor at Newsweek magazine, said the encounter brought a sense of relief and closure.

"I always worried about this person," he said. "I placed this child under a microscope for a long, long time and caused her immense difficulty. I am so happy that she is now happy."

Photos: On May 4, 1970, Mary Ann Vecchio, then 14, became the subject of a famous photograph after National Guardsmen killed four demonstrators at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. At a conference in Boston on Sunday, she finally met the photographer, John Filo. (Photographs by The Associated Press)

Vicki Goldberg, "In a Rifle's Flash, a Lasting Icon of a Nation's Pain" New York Times, April 30, 1995, Sec. 2, Pg. 38.

A STUDENT NAMED JEFFREY Miller lies dead on the ground, but the picture is about a girl screaming, and the sight of that silent cry still makes something inside clench up like a fist. Photographs are the swiftest keys to memory; they unlock events and eras and feelings in the blink of an eye.

The Vietnam War is tied up in a handful of corrosive pictures: Malcolm Browne's photograph of a Buddhist monk calmly immolating himself to protest his Government's policies, Eddie Adams's picture of the South Vietnamese chief of national police blowing out the brains of a Vietcong suspect on a Saigon street, Ron Haeberle's pictures of the My Lai massacre, Nick Ut's image of a little girl so badly burned by napalm she has ripped off all her clothes and is running straight toward us. In John Filo's photograph of a girl screaming about death on an Ohio campus, taken 25 years ago on May 4, the war came home.

That war has not left us alone in the intervening years; indeed, the country's wounds have not healed but festered. That has been amply shown in the reaction to Robert McNamara's confession in his just-published book, "In Retrospect," that as Secretary of Defense he knew the war could not be won but never said a word. Every television news show from "Prime Time Live" to MacNeil/Lehrer either had McNamara as a guest or brought the original hawks and doves back to battle over his revelations. Newsweek excerpted McNamara's book. Time did a cover story on Vietnam. Life reprinted the major photographs of the war. The journalist Neil Sheehan, who had written brilliantly on the war, returned to Vietnam for The New Yorker.

Long before all this, on April 30, 1970, President Nixon, having promised the country peace, announced that American troops had invaded Cambodia. Protests flared on many campuses. (Before they even started, Nixon, unaware he was being taped, was caught complaining about "bums blowing up campuses.") After students at Kent State University torched the R.O.T.C. building, the Governor of Ohio called in the National Guard.

Some demonstrators threw rocks. The Guard replied with tear gas, then suddenly opened fire without warning. To judge by the delayed reactions of the people in the John Filo photograph, most assumed the soldiers were shooting blanks, but Ohio was one state that permitted the Guard to carry live ammunition. The kneeling girl cannot contain her anguish at discovering she has just seen someone killed. Has there ever been another major news photograph that focused not on an action or even on its aftermath but on the moment of recognition?

When the shooting stopped, four students were dead, eight or 10 (reports varied) were wounded and one was paralyzed for life. As if in fulfillment of the war's evil talent for tearing the country apart, our soldiers were now firing on us.

The picture hit the front page on May 5. By May 6, students at 115 American colleges were reported to be on strike. Fearful of violence, Gov. Ronald Reagan asked the entire California state college system to close until May 11. When demonstrators converged on Washington, troops were secretly installed in the White House basement in case of "invasion." H. R. Haldeman, one of the President's right-hand men, later said Kent State had marked the beginning of Nixon's down-hill slide to Watergate.

The shooting magnified the country's deep divisions. On May 25, Newsweek published a poll asking who was primarily responsible for the student deaths. Eleven percent said the National Guard; 58 percent said the students.

The girl, Mary Ann Vecchio, was not a Kent State student but a 14-year-old runaway (some accounts said 15) whose parents found her after the picture was published. The Governor of Florida said she was a Communist plant. At last report, she was married, living quietly and working as a cashier in a Las Vegas coffee shop.

John Filo, then a photography student and now a picture editor at Newsweek, sold the picture to a news service but refused to allow its reproduction on T-shirts and posters. People simply stole it.

Kent State built a gym on the hill where the shooting occurred to prevent its being declared a national historic landmark. Five years ago, a monument was finally dedicated -- but the real monument is a photograph that lodged in the nation's mind years ago.

Photo: Kent State -- On May 4, 1970, a teen-age girl happened onto the shooting of a student at Kent State University -- Robert McNamara's confessions about the conduct of the war have proved that the country's wounds have not healed but festered. (John Paul Filo)

Nadine Brozine, "Chronicle," New York Times, May 4, 1995, Sec. B, Pg. 2.

MARY ANN VECCHIO GILLUM, whose agonized face became the symbol of an era when she was photographed at the Ohio National Guard shootings at Kent State University, had the second of two momentous meetings with a figure connected to that event yesterday.

Last week, Mrs. Gillum met John Filo, the photographer who snapped the photograph of her kneeling by Jeffrey Miller, one of four Kent State students shot to death by the Guard on May 4, 1970, during protests against the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia. A teen-age runaway, she had stumbled onto the scene.

Yesterday, she met ELAINE HOLSTEIN, Mr. Miller's mother. Both women had returned to the university for a two-day commemoration of the event. Mrs. Gillum was also in a play last night called "Kent State: A Requiem," by J. Gregory Payne, a professor at Emerson College in Boston.

"Dr. Payne introduced us," Mrs. Gillum said. "We were scared, but we held hands, we hugged each other, we cried. We didn't know what to say, so we just hugged each other till we could say something." When Mrs. Gillum finally spoke, she said, "I just said I was so sorry."

Mrs. Holstein was equally moved by the encounter. "That picture had been haunting me for years, and I was afraid to meet her," she said. "I'm glad I finally did and that she's O.K. She suffered from this, too."

Joseph Kelner, "Kent State at 25" New York Times, May 4, 1970, Sec. A, Pg. 25.
Joseph Kelner was chief counsel to the victims of the Kent State shooting and their families.

In this season of historic anniversaries, Kent State deserves notice. It remains a testament to the malignant power of inflammatory rhetoric from officials who, in the service of narrow ambition, create the conditions for tragedy.

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops were summoned to control a student rally protesting President Richard Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia. The troops fired tear gas grenades and fixed their bayonets. They marched about and without warning, fired their M-1 rifles. Four students were killed and nine wounded.

Imprinted in the nation's consciousness, even now, is the Pulitzer-prize-winning photo of Jeff Miller, his body lying on a roadway 270 feet from the firing line In a pool of blood streaming from his head. A young woman hovers over Jeff's body, her hands raised to the sky, a stark display of shock and dismay that such a shameful, gruesome event could occur in America.

Jeff's mother, Elaine Miller, retained me a few days after he was killed. She said she wanted justice, not money. I wanted the same, and took the case on a pro bono basis.

It was a time of division and turmoil. A few days before the shooting, President Nixon had described protesting students everywhere as "bums." Thus inspired, Ohio's Governor James Rhodes - then locked in a fierce campaign for the Republican senatorial nomination - came to Kent State, where the old ROTC building had been set afire by persons unknown. On May 3, in a closed meeting, he made a fiery speech to the National Guard, then held an explosive press conference.

"We are going to eradicate the problem," he roared. "These people just move from one campus to another and terrorize the community. They are worse than the brownshirts and Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes."

The next day, 500 students gathered on the campus green. Orders to disband were Ignored. Shots rang out. Federal, state and local investigations later showed that 67 M-1 rifle shots were fired by the Guard in 13 seconds. The student closest to the firing line was 60 feet away.

A commission headed by the former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton found the shootings "unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable." -Yet after the shooting, polls in Ohio showed overwhelming support for the Guard. The students had asked for it, the polls suggested, and they got what they deserved.

We went to trial in 1975, In Cleveland's Federal Court, with a civil action against Governor Rhodes, his adjutant general and the guardsmen. Amazingly, the anti-student sentiments were still alive. During jury selection, some prospective jurors announced,"I can't be fair. The students caused all this trouble."

Not surprisingly, in the fierce anti-student climate fueled by Mr. Nixon and Mr. Rhodes, the 9 to 3 jury verdict favored the defendants. Though the verdict was reversed upon appeal because of errors by the trial judge, the result was wholly unsatisfactory. I learned then what we all know now: the fires of hate are kindled easily by shallow ImpressIons and by reckless officials. They shape public opinion and jury verdicts. They poison the system of justice.

After losing the appeal, and faced with a second trial, Ohio offered to settle. The exhausted plaintiffs and their families, contrary to my advice, agreed to accept the paltry sum of $675,000 in settlement. The settlement included a statement of regret signed by Governor Rhodes and the other defendants. It was an insipid solution.

History will record that our Vietnam adventure was reckless and that our students were right, terribly right. But at what a ghastly cost!

J. Gregory Payne, "Kent State Questions Remain Unanswered," (Letters), New York Times, May 12, 1995, Sec. A, Pg. 30.

To the Editor:

While I was pleased by the attention paid to the anniversary of the Kent State University killings, I was disturbed by the paucity of serious deliberation on the questions that remain unanswered. Having visited Kent State for this historical observance, I was more than alarmed at the revisionist and unsubstantiated claims about that fateful day in May.

Most disturbing was the statement in the university's commemorative brochure that "students burned down the R.O.T.C. building" on May 2, 1970. This statement runs counter to every credible source, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation report and Justice Department findings.

Such false data invite acceptance of the apologia that the shootings were justified, based on the fact that students were guilty of arson.

The President's Commission on Campus Unrest concluded that the shootings were "unwarranted, inexcusable and unnecessary."

Furthermore, a secret memo, discovered by an NBC reporter in 1978, revealed that President Nixon issued an "eyes only" directive to Attorney General John Mitchell shortly after the shootings stating, "There will be no Federal investigation of the incident at Kent State."

Who set the R.O.T.C. fire May 2? Why didn't the authorities arrest those responsible? Why did the National Guard ignore the constitutional rights of the students on the Kent State Commons May 4, in what they F.B.I. called a "peaceful rally"? Why did 28 guardsmen stop their march, spin around 180 degrees, walk back up a bill and fire for 13 seconds at unarmed students hundreds of feet away in a distant parking lot and not at students closest to them?

Is it not time to pass the lanterns on to the next generation to seek the answers?

J. Gregory Payne
Chairman, Communication Studies
Emerson College
Boston, May 7, 1996

Read an expanded version of this commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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