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On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of unarmed student protestors at Kent State University, but the story is much larger. “Fire in the Heartland,” a documentary by Daniel Miller, a professor, filmmaker and May 4 witness, is the story of Kent State students who stood up against racism and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and the escalation to the deadly shootings on May 4. The film will be shown Friday at the Kent Stage.
Candy Erickson and her husband, Rick who became leaders of the Students for Democratic Society; Bob Pickett, student body vice president in 1968; John Lewis, civil rights leader and Congressman; and Jerry Casale, art student and co-founder of Devo give personal accounts in the film.
“The 60s are remembered as a particularly colorful decade. It was also a decade of death. A decade that began with the assassination of Jack Kennedy then later Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and then the kids at Kent. It seems that those people who were effective at changing the system paid a terrible price,” said Kent SDS leader Jim Powrie.
On May 4, 13 of these young Americans were shot down by the National Guard in an act of violence against unarmed students that has never been fully explained. Four were killed. Immediately after, the largest student strikes and student protests in history swept across 3,000 campuses nationwide, punctuated ten days later by the shooting of African American students at Jackson State University.
Miller was born and raised in Ohio by his mother, an art teacher and civil rights activist, and had a brother who fought and was injured in the Vietnam War. He attended Kent State from 1968 to 1970. From a young age, he marched with his mother on fair housing strikes. At Kent, he was involved in the Kent Committee to End the War.
“You could pull up and park by the student union,” Miller said. “It's where the Pan-African studies is now. There was a huge atrium and fireplace and couches and chairs. I would play guitar and sing war songs.”
In 1968, with the death toll rising and the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite declaring the war “unwinnable,” the public turned against the war. Peaceful protests turned violent on the Kent campus.
On May 2, 2,000 students converged at the ROTC building and burned it down. At that point the Ohio National Guard invaded the city and campus.
James Rhodes, Republican governor of Ohio, is shown in the film calling the students “worse than the brown shirts. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
On the night of May 3, Miller was among a mass of students who marched to the office of then-KSU President Robert White. A university representative told the students the president would address them that night on front campus.
“Students believed the president was going to come and talk to everybody on whether national guard should be allowed on campus and then national guard showed up instead of the president,” Miller said. “They had fixed bayonets and they launched tear gas, helicopters flying over head.”
Miller was among nearly 100 students who were arrested and taken to the Portage County jail on May 3.
“It was crowded,” Miller recalled. “People were agitated. They didn't know what was going to happen.”
On May 4, Miller was handcuffed and loaded onto a bus to go to a mass arraignment.
“The bus went past blanket hill,” Miller said. “We couldn't see the killing fields, but the bus stopped. We could hear the firing, the screaming. We heard on the radios that the national guard had been shot by students. The guardsman went into full rifle mode with guns on us.”
Miller was the final person out of 100 arrested to be released. He later would find four students had been killed by guardsmen.
The film has recently been updated to include the aftermath of the shootings, continued anti-war protests at Kent State and the 1977 Tent City protest to prevent a gym being built on the May 4th site.
“When the students at Kent State see the film and learn the history,” Miller said. “It's about who we are as a nation in the heartland and the struggles that are always continuing to preserve economical and cultural justice. Those were under attack in the film. It also teaches us lessons that could not be more important than they are today.”
There will be a panel discussion and question and answer session after the screening. The panel members include Tom Grace, who was shot on May 4; Candy Knox, University of Oregon professor and Kent State SDS leader; Bill Whitaker, Kent SDS and Akron civil rights attorney; Chic Canfora, student activist and sister of wounded protestor Alan Canfora, public schools advocate and participant in Tent City in 1977; and professor Idris Kabir Syed, a faculty member of Pan-African Studies and faculty adviser to the May 4th Task Force from 2010 to present.