“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio.”
(“Ohio” lyrics by Neil Young)
On Thursday, April 30th, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that American forces were moving into Cambodia.
The following week the national guard murdered four students at Kent State University. For many this was a life-changing moment. It helped drive me into the Vietnam moratorium marches. What I didn’t know then was it wasn’t just four dead in Ohio made famous by the Neil Young song. There were many others at Jackson State university and elsewhere. The level of violence was hard to fathom. It’s 50 years since those murders were ordered by US President Richard Nixon. Trump seems capable of the same.
Both candidates for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Trump and Biden, avoided the draft that would have put them in Vietnam. But that’s not unusual for US presidents. Clinton and Bush Jr both used influence to avoid conscription into the US military to get out of going to Vietnam. Yet all four supported going to war against Iraq. We postthis article by Jill Lepore that appeared in the New Yorker this week.
The article claims that the working class in the United States supported the murders, at least one section of it. I wonder if this was true. Didn’t unions lead the opposition against the Vietnam War. At least here in Australia both unions and students opposed the war. A lot of students supported the Vietnam War as well especially at conservative Campuses like the Queensland of University.
On 4th September 1971, the University Democratic Club invited a South Vietnamese consular official to come and speak in favour of the war in the Indochina university of Queensland. This ended in several arrests and police marching around the Circular Drive at the St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. It became later known as the Quang incident. Semper Floreat, the Student newspaper later reported an attack on the UQ Army Regiment HQ on campus earlier in the week:
“On Wednesday 2nd September 1970, a group of university students of various affiliations, from RSSA to ROC, occupied the Queensland University Regiment Building. Some 200 were involved in the occupation, fifty of whom barricaded themselves inside and proceeded to destroy what files and military maps were available. The other 150 were gathered in front of and behind the grounds, several of who resisted attempts of some military personnel to close the gates.Inside, the decision was made by the meeting to destroy military property. No physical violence occurred or was suggested. Slogans were also written on walls, placards and maps inside the premises.”
The following year anti-war activists firebombed the building that housed arms manufacturer, DuPont, at their Jephson Street office in Toowong near the University. – Ed.
The deadly episode stood for a bitterly divided era. Did we ever leave it?
Phillip Lafayette Gibbs met Dale Adams when they were in high school, in Ripley, Mississippi, a town best known as the home of William Faulkner’s great-grandfather, who ran a slave plantation, fought in the Mexican-American War, raised troops that joined the Confederate Army, wrote a best-selling mystery about a murder on a steamboat, shot a man to death and got away with it, and was elected to the Mississippi legislature. He was killed before he could take his seat, but that seat would have been two hundred miles away in the state capitol, in Jackson, a city named for Andrew Jackson, who ran a slave plantation, fought in the War of 1812, was famous for killing Indians, shot a man to death and got away with it, and was elected President of the United States. Phillip Gibbs’s father and Dale Adams’s father had both been sharecroppers: they came from families who had been held as slaves by families like the Jacksons and the Faulkners, by force of arms.
In 1967, after Gibbs and Adams started dating, he’d take her out to the movies in a car that he borrowed from his uncle, a car with no key; he had to jam a screwdriver into the ignition to start it up. After Dale got pregnant, they were married, at his sister’s house. They named the baby Phillip, Jr.; Gibbs called him his little man. Gibbs went to Jackson State, a historically black college, and majored in political science. In 1970, his junior year, Gibbs decided that he’d like to study law at Howard when he graduated. He was opposed to the war in Vietnam, but he was also giving some thought to joining the Air Force, because that way, at least, he could provide his family with a decent apartment. “I really don’t want to go to the air force but I want you and my man to be staying with me,” he wrote to Dale, after she and the baby had moved back home to Ripley to save money.
The Jackson State campus was divided by a four-lane road called Lynch Street, named for Mississippi’s first black congressman, John Roy Lynch, who was elected during Reconstruction, in 1872, though a lot of people thought that the street honored another Lynch, the slaveholding judge whose name became a verb. It was on Lynch Street, just after midnight, on May 15, 1970, that policemen in riot gear shot and killed Phillip Gibbs. He was twenty-one. In a barrage—they fired more than a hundred and fifty rounds in twenty-eight seconds—they also fatally shot a seventeen-year-old high-school student named James Earl Green, who was walking down the street on his way home from work. Buckshot and broken glass wounded a dozen more students, including women watching from the windows of their dormitory, Alexander Hall. Phillip Gibbs’s sister lived in that dormitory.
That night, as the historian Nancy K. Bristow recounts in “Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College” (Oxford), students at Jackson State had been out on Lynch Street protesting, and young men from the neighborhood had been throwing rocks and setting a truck on fire, partly because of something that had happened ten days before and more than nine hundred miles away: at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students and wounded nine more. They fired as many as sixty-seven shots in thirteen seconds. “Four dead in Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would sing, in a ballad that became an anthem. “Shot some more in Jackson,” the Steve Miller Band sang, in 1970, in the “Jackson-Kent Blues.” In the days between the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, police in Augusta, Georgia, killed six unarmed black men, shot in the back, during riots triggered by the death of a teen-ager who had been tortured while in police custody. At a march, on May 19th, protesters decorated coffins with signs: 2 Killed in Jackson, 4 Killed in Kent, 6 Killed in Augusta.
Two, plus four, plus six, plus more. In 1967, near Jackson State, police killed a twenty-two-year-old civil-rights activist—shot him in the back and in the back of the head—after the Mississippi National Guard had been called in to quell student demonstrations over concerns that ranged from police brutality to the Vietnam War. And, in 1968, at South Carolina State, police fatally shot three students and wounded dozens more, in the first mass police shooting to take place on an American college campus. Four dead in Ohio? It’s time for a new tally.
This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings, an occasion explored in Derf Backderf’s deeply researched and gut-wrenching graphic nonfiction novel, “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” (forthcoming from Abrams ComicArts). Backderf was ten years old in 1970, growing up outside Kent; the book opens with him riding in the passenger seat of his mother’s car, reading Mad, and then watching Richard Nixon on television. “Kent State” reads, in the beginning, like a very clever college-newspaper comic strip—not unlike early “Doonesbury,” which débuted that same year—featuring the ordinary lives of four undergraduates, Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder, their roommate problems, their love lives, their stressy phone calls with their parents, and their fury about the war. As the violence intensifies, Backderf’s drawings grow darker and more cinematic: the intimate, moody panels of smart, young, good people, muddling through the inanity and ferocity of American politics yield to black-backed panels of institutional buildings, with the people around them saying completely crazy things, then to explosive splash pages of soldiers, their guns locked and loaded, and, finally, to a two-page spread of those fateful thirteen seconds: “boom!” “bang!” “bang! bang! pow!”
Backderf’s publisher has billed his book as telling “the untold story of the Kent State shootings,” but the terrible story of what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970, has been told many times before, including by an extraordinary fleet of reporters and writers who turned up on campus while the blood was still wet on the pavement. Joe Eszterhas and Michael Roberts, staff writers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, both of whom had reported from Vietnam, reached campus within forty-five minutes of the first shot—they rushed in to cover the growing campus unrest—and stayed for three months to report “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State,” their swiftly published book. Eszterhas went on to become a prominent screenwriter. Philip Caputo, a twenty-eight-year-old Chicago Tribune reporter who later won a Pulitzer Prize and wrote a best-selling memoir about his service in Vietnam, was driving to Kent State, from the Cleveland airport, when the news about the shots came over the radio. “I remember stepping on the gas,” he writes, in the introduction to “13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings,” a series of reflections on his earlier reporting. “I entered the picture late,” the best-selling novelist James A. Michener wrote. “I arrived by car in early August.” He stayed for months. The Reader’s Digest had hired him to write “Kent State: What Happened and Why,” providing him with reams of research from on-the-spot reporters. The political commentator I. F. Stone cranked out a short book—really, a long essay—titled “The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished.” So many books were published about the shooting, so fast, that when NBC’s “Today” show featured their authors the result was a screaming match. Before introducing them, the host, Hugh Downs, gave a grave, concise, newsman’s account of the sequence of events:
On Thursday, April 30th, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that American forces were moving into Cambodia. On Friday, May 1st, students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, expressed their displeasure at the President’s announcement. That night, there was violence in the streets of Kent. On Saturday, May 2nd, the R.O.T.C. building was burned, National Guardsmen moved onto the campus. On Sunday, May 3rd, students and Guardsmen traded insults, rocks, and tear gas. On Monday, May 4th, the confrontations continued. There was marching and counter-marching. Students hurled rocks and Guardsmen chased students, firing tear gas. The Guardsmen pursued the students up an area called Blanket Hill. Some Guardsmen pointed their rifles menacingly. And suddenly, it happened.
Nearly all accounts of what happened at Kent State begin the way the “Today” show did, on April 30, 1970, when, in a televised address, Nixon announced that the United States had sent troops into Cambodia, even though, only ten days earlier, he had announced the withdrawal of a hundred and fifty thousand troops from Vietnam. Students on college campuses had been protesting the war since 1965, beginning with teach-ins at the University of Michigan. By 1970, it had seemed as though U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam was finally winding down; now, with the news of the invasion of Cambodia, it was winding back up. Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise to restore law and order, warned Americans to brace for protest. “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” he said. “Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”
Nixon’s Cambodia speech led to antiwar protests at hundreds of colleges across the country. Campus leaders called for a National Student Strike. Borrowing from the Black Power movement, they used a black fist as its symbol. The number of campuses involved grew by twenty a day. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but others were violent, even terrifying. In some places, including Kent, students rioted, smashing shop windows, pelting cars, setting fires, and throwing firebombs. In Ohio, the mayor of Kent asked the governor to send in the National Guard.
Nixon hated the student protesters as much in private as he did in public. “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses,” he said the day after the Cambodia speech. He had long urged a hard line on student protesters: antiwar protesters, civil-rights activists, all of them. So had Ronald Reagan, who ran for governor of California in 1966 on a promise to bring law and order to Berkeley, a campus he described as “a rallying point for communists and a center for sexual misconduct.” In 1969, he ordered the California Highway Patrol to clear out a vacant lot near the Berkeley campus which student and local volunteers had turned into a park. Patrolmen fired shots, killing one student, and injuring more than a hundred. Reagan called in the National Guard. Weeks before Nixon’s Cambodia speech stirred up still more protest, Reagan, running for reëlection, said that he was ready for a fight. “If it takes a bloodbath,” he said, “let’s get it over with.”
May 4, 1970, the day of that bloodbath, fell on a Monday. The Guardsmen at Kent State started firing not long after noon, while students were crossing campus; there seems to be some chance that they mistook the students spilling out of buildings for an act of aggression, when, actually, they were leaving classes. Bill Schroeder, a sophomore, was an R.O.T.C. student. “He didn’t like Vietnam and Cambodia but if he had to go to Vietnam,” his roommate said later, “he would have gone.” Schroeder was walking to class when he was shot in the back. Jeff Miller, a junior from Plainview, Long Island, hated the war, and went out to join the protest; he was shot in the mouth. Sandy Scheuer had been training to become a speech therapist. Shot in the neck, she bled to death. Allison Krause, a freshman honor student from outside Pittsburgh, was about to transfer. She’d refused to join groups like Students for a Democratic Society, which, by 1969, had become increasingly violent. (Her father told a reporter that she had called them “a bunch of finks.”) But she became outraged when the National Guard occupied the campus. On a final exam, she had tried to answer the question “What is the point of history?” “Dates and facts are not enough to show what happened in the past,” she wrote. “It is necessary to analyze and delve into the human side of history to come up with the truth.” She had lost her naïveté, she told her professor, in a reflection that she wrote at the end of the exam: “I don’t take the books as ‘the law’ anymore.” Her professor wrote back, “A happy thing—that.” She had gone out to protest the invasion of Cambodia.
Thirteen seconds later, with four students on the ground, the shooting seemed likely to start up again, until Glenn Frank, a middle-aged geology professor, grabbed a megaphone. “Sit down, please!” he shouted at the students, his voice frantic, desperate. “I am begging you right now. If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don’t want to be a part of this!” Finally, the students sat down.
Students elsewhere stood up. Campuses across the country erupted. Demonstrations took place in four out of every five colleges and universities. One in five simply shut down, including the entire University of California system, and sent their students home. Students marched on administration buildings, they burned more buildings, they firebombed, they threw Molotov cocktails. And they marched on Washington. This magazine declared it “the most critical week this nation has endured in more than a century.”
But one of the most violent protests was a counterprotest, as David Paul Kuhn points out in his riveting book “The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution” (Oxford). For all the talk of tragedy in the nation’s newspapers and magazines, a majority of Americans blamed the students. They’d had it with those protests: the destruction of property, the squandering of an education. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemen were fighting in Vietnam, young people who hadn’t dodged the draft; most of them came from white, blue-collar families. Kent State students were shattering shop windows and burying the Constitution and telling National Guardsmen to go fuck themselves? Four dead in Ohio? Fifty thousand servicemen had already died in Vietnam, and more were dying every day. (It’s worth noting that both Trump and Biden avoided the draft: Trump said he had bone spurs; Biden got five student deferments and later cited asthma.)
On May 7th, three days after the shooting at Kent State, as many as five thousand students thronged the Manhattan funeral service of Jeff Miller. As the mourners marched through the city, scattered groups of construction workers, up on girders, threw beer cans at them. The mayor, John Lindsay, had declared May 8th a “day of reflection,” and closed the city’s public schools. A thousand college students turned up for an antiwar rally, hoping to shut down Wall Street: “One-two-three-four. We don’t want your fuckin’ war! Two-four-six-eight. We don’t want your fascist state!” They were met by construction workers, many of whom had come down from the Twin Towers and not a few of whom had buried their soldier sons, or their neighbors’ sons, in flag-draped coffins.
Joe Kelly, six feet four and from Staten Island, was working on building the elevators at the World Trade Center. He said he’d reached his “boiling point,” and headed over to the protest during his lunch hour, joining hundreds of workers in yellow, red, and blue hard hats, some carrying American flags, many chanting, “Hey, hey, whaddya say? We support the U.S.A.!” and “Love it or leave it!” Kelly thought the students looked “un-American.” The students called the hardhats “motherfucking fascists.” Kelly punched a kid who, he said, swung at him and knocked the kid down. While police officers looked on, more or less approvingly, the workers attacked the protesters, clubbing them with tools, kicking them as they lay on the ground. Some of the policemen dragged hippies out of the fight by their hair. Even some Wall Street guys, in suits and ties, joined the hardhats. Lindsay had called for the flag at City Hall to be lowered to half-mast. The construction workers swarmed the building and forced city workers to raise the flag back up. Other workers chased undergraduates from Pace University back to campus, breaking into a building on which students had draped a white banner that read “vietnam? cambodia? kent state? what next?” Pace was next. Students tried to barricade the buildings while construction workers broke windows and leaped inside, shouting, “Kill those long-haired bastards!”
Two weeks later, at the White House, Nixon received a memo from his aide Patrick Buchanan. “A group of construction workers came up Wall Street and beat the living hell out of some demonstrators who were desecrating the American flag,” Buchanan reported. “The most insane suggestion I have heard about here in recent days was to the effect that we should somehow go prosecute the hardhats to win favor with the kiddies.” He advised the opposite tack: abandon the kiddies, and court the hardhats. The day before, a hundred and fifty thousand New York construction workers, teamsters, and longshoremen marched through the streets of the city. The Daily News called it a “parade for nixon.” They were trying to make America great again. Nixon invited the march’s leaders to the White House, where they gave hard hats as a gift. Nixon was well on his way to becoming the hero of the white working class, men and women, but especially men, who left the Democratic Party for the G.O.P. “These, quite candidly, are our people now,” Buchanan told Nixon. They were Nixon’s, and they were Reagan’s, and they are Trump’s.
On May 7th, the day of Jeff Miller’s funeral in New York, signs were posted all over the Jackson State campus:
Meet in Front The Dining Hall
At 2:00 P.M. Today
To Discuss Cambodia.
A small crowd showed up. Two days later, only about a dozen Jackson State students went to a rally in downtown Jackson. One student leader recalled, “The kids at Kent State had become second-class niggers, so they had to go.” They had found out what he and his classmates had known their whole lives: what happens when the police think of you as black.
It’s not clear that Phillip Gibbs went to any of those rallies, but, in high school, in Ripley, he’d joined sit-ins aiming to integrate the town swimming pool, an ice-cream shop, and the Dixie Theatre. In “Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College,” published in 1988, Tim Spofford argued that Jackson State had never been a particularly political campus. But Jackson had in fact been very much in the fray of the civil-rights, antiwar, and Black Power movements. In 1961, students at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College—another historically black school—had held a sit-in in an attempt to desegregate the Municipal Library, in nearby Jackson. After the Tougaloo students were arrested, students at Jackson State marched down Lynch Street, toward the jail where the Tougaloo protesters were being held; they were stopped by police with tear gas, billy clubs, and attack dogs. Two years later, the civil-rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated at his home in Jackson. The next year, his brother, Charles Evers, who had replaced Medgar as head of the state’s N.A.A.C.P., tried to calm campus protesters after a female student was nearly killed by a hit-and-run as she crossed Lynch Street. Police came and shot at the students, wounding three. The local press was not inclined to support the protesters. “Did you hear about the new NAACP doll?” a columnist for the Jackson Daily News had asked. “You wind it up and it screams, ‘police brutality.’ ”
A lot of students at Jackson State couldn’t afford to get involved. In the wake of the 1970 shootings, one student said, “Mothers are out scrubbing floors for white folks and sending these kids to Jackson State. ‘You’re doin’ better than I ever did,’ they tell the kids. ‘You better stay outta that mess.’ ”
Still, by May 13, 1970, five days after the Hardhat Riot in New York, there were plans, or at least rumors about plans, to burn the Jackson State R.O.T.C. building. That night, students threw rocks at cars driving down Lynch Street. “Havin’ nigger trouble on Lynch Street?” one squad car asked over the police radio. When students started setting fires, the governor called in the Mississippi National Guard, but, before they could arrive, the all-white Mississippi Highway Patrol turned up. Jackson State’s president, an alumnus, met with students the next morning; they told him that they were angry about Cambodia, the draft, and Kent State, and also about the curfew for students in the women’s dormitory and the lack of a pedestrian bridge over Lynch Street. He called the police chief and asked him to close Lynch Street overnight; the police chief initially refused.
That night, a rumor spread that Charles Evers, who was now the mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and who had a daughter at Jackson State, had been shot. As the National Guard had done at Kent State, the authorities at Jackson State insisted that the police and patrolmen had identified a sniper. (No evidence has ever corroborated these claims.) A few minutes after midnight, law-enforcement officers began firing. In the morning, the college president closed the campus and sent the students home.
“So we’ll film the show without an audience, and edit in the gasps of wonder later.”
Time called what happened in Mississippi “Kent State II.” After Phillip Gibbs’s wife, Dale, learned that her husband had been killed, she found out she was pregnant, with her second child. This one, Demetrius, graduated from Jackson State in 1995, and has had a hard time explaining what happened to the father he never knew. “If I try to tell people about the shootings at Jackson State, they don’t know about it,” he has said. “They don’t know until I say, ‘Kent State.’ ”
In “Steeped in the Blood of Racism,” Bristow insists, “Jackson State was not another Kent State.” Bristow blames white liberals for failing to understand the shootings at Jackson State as a legacy of the Jim Crow South’s brutal regime of state violence, and for deciding, instead, that what happened at Jackson State was just like what happened at Kent State. She faults the Beach Boys, for instance, for a track on their 1971 album, “Surf’s Up”; even though they had noted the specific racial nature of the events at Jackson State (“The violence spread down South to where Jackson State brothers / Learned not to say nasty things about Southern policemen’s mothers”), these lines appeared in a song called “Student Demonstration Time,” which, Bristow laments, “told listeners the Jackson State shootings belonged in a litany of crises on college campuses.”
That was more or less the verdict of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, appointed by Nixon in June, 1970. It wasn’t a bunch of whitewashers. The nine-person commission, chaired by William Scranton, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, included the president of Howard University; the first African-American justice to sit on the Louisiana Supreme Court; a black member of the Harvard Society of Fellows studying the history of racism; and, as its only active military member, the first African-American Air Force general, a former commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. After holding public hearings in Kent and Jackson, the Scranton Commission concluded that most campus unrest had been peaceful, that it was a response to racial inequality and the war in Vietnam, that it wasn’t mayhem, and, also, that it wasn’t unusual. “It is not so much the unrest of the past half-dozen years that is exceptional as it is the quiet of the 20 years which preceded them,” the report asserted, noting that Americans who attended college from the nineteen-forties to the early nineteen-sixties had formed a “silent generation.” As far as the commission was concerned, the modern era of campus unrest began on February 1, 1960, when four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down at a “Whites Only” lunch counter in Greensboro. Nixon rejected the report.
It’s this argument—that white and black student protesters can be understood to have been involved in a single movement, for racial justice, free speech, and peace, led by the fight for civil rights—that Bristow, bizarrely, rejects as a white-liberal fantasy. If it was a fantasy, it was also Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s fantasy. In 1967, after King first spoke out against the war in Vietnam, people asked him why, saying, “Peace and civil rights don’t mix.” Their response saddened him, he said, because it suggested that “they do not know the world in which they live.”
A question, lately, is: Which world do Americans remember? The Scranton Commission concluded that the shootings at both Kent State and Jackson State had been unjustified. It did not, however, urge the prosecution of the shooters, something that a lot of people who wrote books about Kent State urged but that James Michener opposed. “It would be an exercise in futility,” he said during his commencement address at Kent State, in December, 1970. In his five-hundred-page book, “Kent State: What Happened and Why,” Michener blamed the protesters and, especially, outside radical agitators, who, like the snipers, seem to have been mostly an invention of the authorities. Joe Eszterhas and Michael Roberts called Michener’s book “a Magical Mystery Tour of innuendo, half-truth, carefully-structured quotation and anonymous attribution.” They concluded that the National Guardsmen, exhausted, poorly trained, and badly led, had committed murder. “There was death, but not murder,” Michener insisted.
A week short of the first anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, Michener, Eszterhas, Roberts, and I. F. Stone appeared on that panel on the “Today” show. “Hugh—obviously, this will be a free-swinging affair,” Downs’s producer noted, in the show overview. By the end of the hour, the guests had nearly come to blows. “Jim, don’t you believe in American justice?” Eszterhas asked, after Michener continued to insist that a federal grand-jury investigation would be a waste of time, because no jury would convict the Guardsmen. “How do you know that?” Roberts asked. Michener: “Because it has been the history throughout our country. The law doesn’t run its course.” At this point, even Downs jumped in: “Aren’t you in effect indicting the American system of justice?” Stone tried to read out loud from a statement by Kent students. Michener shouted him down: “I won’t let you read that.”
That spring, the New York Times ran a long investigative piece, “jackson state a year after,” by Stephan Lesher, a legal-affairs correspondent. Alexander Hall was still pockmarked with bullet holes. Lynch Street had been closed to traffic, but with a tall chain-link fence, which made the campus feel like a prison. “No one has been punished,” Lesher wrote. “No one is going to be”:
No one—least of all Jackson’s blacks—expected a different outcome. . . . Yet, there is a barely perceptible chance that the Jackson State violence will be remembered as more than simply another brutal chapter in Mississippi’s disregard for black humanity.
No one has been punished, and no one is going to be. Except everyone’s been punished, the whole nation has suffered, and will keep on suffering, until the shooting stops. That will take a political settlement, a peace, that the nation has needed for a half century. And it will require a history that can account for Greensboro, and Berkeley, and Kent State, and the Hardhats, and Jackson State, all at once. King made a prediction: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” It turns out that the corridor of time is longer than he could have known. ♦
Published in the print edition of the May 4, 2020, issue, with the headline “Blood on the Green.”
Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and the host of the podcast “The Last Archive.” Her fourteenth book, “If Then,” will be published in September.