A 2004 memorial speech Dr. J. Gregory Payne gave at Plainview High School for the dedication of a memorial for Jeff Miller who was a student there before going to Kent State.
Thank you for this opportunity to be a part of this wonderful commemoration. To remember Jeff and to pay respects for his love of life and and all of those who were blessed by his all too short presence here. I know that his mother, Elaine, his brother, Russ and the nephew -------------that he never saw are comforted by the leadership of Scott Cohen and the senior class in establishing this scholarship in Jeff's honor. I know that all of us here feel his presence - his spirit and his promise. That is why this is so important to establish this award and for Plainview High School to commemorate one of it's very own whose life and death serve as an important lesson to all of us here today - and with this award - a reminder for all future genrations of one important message. Our government is only as good as the people we elect. And that is why each of us here have an opportunity and obligation to take an active role in our democracy. To become involved in the political process, to find a candidate that best represents our views, and to vote in every election we can take part in. One thing I ask you to remember today for Jeff - Our government is only as good as the people we elect. To have good people in office - all of us here have to make sure we particpate in the political communication process.
Why is this a part of the legacy of Jeffrey Miller, and the four other students who died at Kent State on May 4 - almost 35 years ago next week? Because so much of what on that fateful day on Blanket Hill at Kent State Ohio is rooted in the failed leadership - a failure of leadership at all levels, as the President's Commission of Campus Unrest found. A failure of leadership at the local level with the ineptitude of the local authorities. The University and city failed to work together to deal withthe problem early on; a failure of leadership at the state level, where Governor James A Rhodes exploited an explosive situation to further his own political career. A failure in leadership where Governor Rhodes exascerbated the situation by referring to students at Kent State the day before the shootings as "the worse type of people we harbor in America, worse than the nightriders and vigilantes," A failure in leadership when Governor Rhodes gave the national guard a rhetorial carte blanche when he said in a speech which they heard, "here at Kent we are not going to treat the symptoms, we are going to eradicate the problem" There was a failure of leadership at the national level - where President Richard M. Nixon - who had pledged in his election to the presidency in l968 to gring us together - chose to aggrevate rather than conciliate a country that was experiencing its "most divisive time in American history since the Civil War." To understand the tremendous polarization and disregard for rights guaranteed in our democracy - recall that Vice President Spiro Agnew, only a few weeks before the shootings at Kent State, told a group of college presidents that "the next time you see a group of students waving placards and chanting anti-war slogans, just pretend they are brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly."
The lesson of May 4, 1970 is one of failed leadership. May 4, 1970 is, as Peter Davies, book title describes it , "A Challenge to the American Conscience," And that is why it is so important with commemorative events like this one today that the lessons of Kent State continue to resonate with your generation and with each successive generation of Plainview students. Contrary to the initial reports and public support of the guard's actions, of a sniper starting the shootings, that the guard were forced to fire - the truth finally did emerge. But it only did so because of the resolve, the determination, the love of her son and her country - that Elaine Holstein, the other parents, and advocates from all walks of life who joined together in puruit of truth at Kent State. When President Richard M. Nixon tried to shift the blame to the students with the public comment, "When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy," in other words, the students got what they deserved, The President's own Commission on Campus Unrest refuted this outrageous and inrresponsible claim by concluding, "that the shootings were unwarranted, unnecessary and inexecusable." When Vice President Agnew, Governor Rhodes and Guard Officers claimed the guard were forced to fire to save their own lives, the report of the FBI - which was under the supervision of J.Edgar Hoover, hardly a sympathetic voice for student dissent - concluded tht the "self defense argument was fabricated subsequent to the event." The hundreds of photos taken by students in photo journalism that day on Blanket Hill give lie to the claims of the biased and discredited Portage County Grand Jury Report that argued the Guard were "forced to fire." One has to recall the ethical leadership context that characterized the country in 1970 and beyond. It was two years before the Watergate break in, yet many would argue that Watergate ethics were very much practiced at all levels of the administration. When President Nixon, in a secret memo later made public by NBC, ordered there to be no federal grand jury into the shootings at Kent State, the public pressure and zealous work of those in pursuit of the truth finally did cause the rusted wheels of the justice department to be set into motion. How involved was President Nixon in efforts to squash the investigation into what occurred at Kent State? One only need to speak with his legal advisor, John Dean, who intimated to me in an interview for my book that it was Dean's belief that "Kent State could be one of the most sordid skeletons in the Watergate closet."
The terrible tragedy of this failure in leadership and its terrible toll that day in Ohio cut four lives short, wounded 9 others, and seriously questioned the belief in our system of government to an entire generation. Sandy Scheuer, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Jeffrey Miller were killed at Kent State. Dean Kahler was paralized, and 8 others - including my good friend Alan Canfora - were wounded with the 64 rounds of bullits from M1 rifles at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. Because of this failure in leadership at all levels and the communication crisis that was brought about by such ineptitude, we will never know exactly what career an ROTC student and gifted athlete from Lorain Ohio, Bill Schroeder, would choose. Would Bill have been the teacher who provoked students to ask why. We will never know how Sandy Scheuer, whose father and mother escaped Nazi Germany so their family could have freedom, would use her speech pathology degree she was pursuing at Kent State? How would Allison Krause, a tall beautiful honor's student from Pittsburg grace the life she lived so fully. And, how would one of Plainview's own, Jeffrey Miller, who shared the hopes and dreams of so many of you here today - how would Jeff, the intellectually curious and have contributed to making the world around him a more humane and civil place.
We do know from those who knew him, from those who loved him, from those who cared for him and for whom he cared, that Jeff was a very creative and caring person who valued his family and the special relationships that he had with each person he touched and who sought to touch him. In my work on Kent State over these past 35 years, I have had the privleige of talking to hundreds of people who knew Jeff and who will always miss him, his smile, his encouragement, his passion for life. We hear alot about family values in the media and in political camapigns. For those of you who want to to understand the importance of family I invite you to read the letters Jeff wrote to his grandmother in Miami after the death of Jeff's grandfather. excerpt.
There are probably some of you today who wonder why after all of these years that it is important to remember Kent State. You grieve for Jeff Miller and his family and for those who were killed. Yet you wonder how does what happened at Kent State in l970 affect you today? What possibly could be similar now to then? What is the lesson of Kent State in 2004? I would argue that there are many similarities between now and then. Let's think of a few. Then, you had a country that was very divided. According to the President's Commission - the most divided since the Civil War. Today, we have a country that is split virtually down the middle in terms of our poltical and idelologoical support. Today, we the American people basically are where we were during the Florida re-count. Spllit down the middle. Then, you had a president who had pledged to "bring us together" in his campaign, and after his election - continued to drive us apart with his rhetoric and policies. Today, we have a president who pledged to be inclusive , yet after his selection in the most controversial election in the history of our country, has to many been exclusive in his leadership style and policlymaking. Then, you had a war in Vietnam that was controversial not only here but around world. Today, a war in Iraq has divided us from most of the rest of the world.
What this mandates is that each and everyone of us here get involved in politics, in advocacy in how our government works locally, nationally and internationally. As a testament to Jeff who was out on that hill demonstrating his rights of assembly guaranteed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights - I challenge your generation and those future ones at Plainview to remember that our government is only as good as the people we elect. Be a part of the process, Get involved. Remember for those who refuse to study the lessons of Kent State - it is not history - it's tomorrow.