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How 13 Seconds Changed Kent State University Forever

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tags: Vietnam War, historical memory, antiwar movement, Kent State, reconciliation



The Kent State shooting remains a watershed moment in American history. It sparked a nationwide student strike shortly thereafter and reverberated throughout the final years of the Vietnam War and the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. Folk rockers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young quickly released a song about the shootings. The incident was also regarded as a seminal moment in the founding of the band Devo—many of whom were from the area; founding member Jerry Casale was in the crowd during the shootings.

But for decades afterward, both the university and the town of Kent had a complicated relationship with the event. Civil and criminal cases resulting from the shootings wound their way through the courts in the ’70s, and the university sponsored commemorations for the first five years after the shootings but stopped—and then built a gym on part of the parking lot where students were wounded and killed. The university commissioned a sculpture by pop artist George Segal, then refused to display his creation, “Abraham and Isaac.” (It’s now at Princeton University.) The school even tried to rebrand itself as “Kent” because the next word in many people’s minds after “Kent State” was “shootings.”

“It was very contentious for a couple decades,” says Chic Canfora, a student activist on campus at the time of the shootings, who still lives in Northeast Ohio and has advocated for remembrance. “The university initially wanted to forget what happened and just make those of us who wanted to talk about it and heal and educate others about it to go away.”

But gradually, the university has come to understand its role in the healing process – and how the Kent State shootings fit into its mission as an educational institution. A museum on campus offers classroom space and displays artifacts related to the event, and incoming freshmen are required to read two books about the shootings: This We Know: A Chronology of the Shootings at Kent State by university professors Carol Barbato, Laura Davis and Mark Seeman; and Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, by two reporters who covered the shootings for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mike Roberts and Joe Eszterhas (yes, THAT Joe Eszterhas).

“It didn’t come easy and it didn’t happen overnight,” Canfora says.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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