Image of a book cover featuring an illustration of soldiers on the left side with guns firing toward the words: "Four dead in Ohio"
Image of a book cover featuring an illustration of soldiers on the left side with guns firing toward the words: "Four dead in Ohio"

In Kent State, an epic rendering of the massacre and its prologue

Reading Derf Backderf’s latest “nonfiction graphic novel” is an immersive experience. Once I started Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, about the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, I forgot I was reading, following along as tensions became hostilities and erupted in increasing violence. I found myself lost in the book’s power to recreate the conditions of the event, recreate the animosity of government leadership, recreate the feelings of the students.

I am so impressed. Even though he was only 10 years old at the time, Backderf gets it right: the frustration of the KSU students, their anger at President Richard Nixon for escalating an unwanted war in Vietnam, their fear of the military draft, their horror of being sent off to battle and possible death in a foreign country. (I was not an eyewitness, but I was a KSU student that year. His words and images ring true.)

He sets the prologue from his point of view as a kid living in Richfield, Ohio, unaware of the chaos of the outside world. One day in April 1970 the Ohio National Guard moves into his town, sent to quell the Teamsters Union strike. Soldiers, weapons, trucks — heady stuff for a boy of 10. But it becomes personal: “Soldiers line the streets of my town and point their guns at the fathers of my schoolmates, dads I know, men I see at the town diner, or who watch my Little League games.” And on television, Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia and expansion of the hated war.

Then we’re plunged into the activities in Kent on May 1 through 4. Students are, to say the least, unhappy with the president’s actions. Mix that with alcohol at the bars in downtown Kent, and nothing good can come of it. The ensuing riot downtown not only causes property damage, but also turns the townspeople against the students. Public officials who are out of their element are forced to make rocky decisions, and rhetoric from politicians becomes heated.

After the Reserve Officer Training Corps building on campus is burned on Saturday night, Ohio Governor James Rhodes calls in the National Guard. The law-and-order governor, with an election coming up, has sent out the Guard 40 times in two years, more than any other U.S. governor. But the Guardsmen are tired from duty at the strike; some are edgy and angry, others want no part in patrolling students. The students resent having their campus taken over by an invading army, having curfews imposed, and being forbidden to meet in groups. On Sunday night, “What had been an antiwar protest became, with the crackdown, a protest against the National Guard.”

Sunday night, the “Night of the Helicopters.”

By Monday, May 4, Guardsmen are impatient, students are aggravated, military leaders are out of their element, politicians are getting more involved, and some of the orders aren’t even making sense. “Rhodes’s insistence on keeping the university open while stripping students of their right to assemble freely was completely illogical and probably illegal,” writes Backderf. Guard General Robert “Canterbury cites Rhodes’s declaration of martial law, which the governor had neglected to officially issue, and the powers the general believes are granted to him under the oft-cited Ohio Riot Act, a law that, in fact, doesn’t exist!”

The students call for a noon rally. The Guard is ordered to break it up. The students may not understand that the rifles pointed at them contain live ammunition. Noise, chaos, confusion, 13 seconds of rifle fire. Four students are dead. Nine more are wounded. What happened? Was there an order to fire? “It seems this is one of the questions that will never be answered,” says the author.

National Guardsmen open fire on Kent State students.

Through oral histories and personal interviews with victims’ friends, Backderf introduces us to victims Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder, letting us see them as likable teenagers. We follow them over the course of those early days in May, leading up to the catastrophic event that would link their names forever.

Backderf ties together multiple sources and perspectives to give a sort of 3D view of the tragedy. He really did his research. In fact, much of the notes section at the back is narrative, and it’s as fascinating as the main body. He reveals details I’ve never found before and includes documentation, suggesting where we can go for more follow-up. He calls out false rumors and outright lies, of which there were many: “Rumors roar through the Guard ranks, becoming progressively more preposterous. … Civilians in town chime in with more outlandish claims.”

So, why did it happen? It was a confluence of election-year politics, beautiful weather, damaging misinformation, bad decisions, poor leadership, and sheer coincidence. At heart, the tragedy at Kent State is a murder mystery that may never be solved.

Government leaders inciting violence, peaceful protests turning into riots, police killing unarmed citizens — think it couldn’t happen again?

Be advised: The dust jacket cover is in color, but the rest of the images in the book are black and white.

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.