May 4th, 1970, The Day My Generation Lost Its Innocence


Submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Weekend Contributor

I was going to write this last weekend on the actual 44th anniversary of a very sad event.  For some reason, I had a hard time focusing on what I wanted to say, in light of the many emotions that were going through my head.  I don’t want the anniversary to go by without writing about the personal significance that day in May had on my life, and I believe on the lives of many in my generation.  The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by John Filo, included above from Wikipedia, is one that I have never forgotten.  Nor should anyone forget it.


I can’t believe that 44 years have elapsed since that fateful day in May, 1970.   On May 4th, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired upon unarmed student protesters, killing four of them and wounding and maiming several others.  I will never forget that day because I was a Freshmen at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and when the news of the student killings broke, I thought a bomb had gone off in my head.  I wasn’t overly political at that point in time, but that somber event changed all of my prior thinking.

I was just short of my 19th birthday and I remember that day as my personal coming of age experience.  I was no longer just a young college student.  I was now a member of a class that was shot down by soldiers on a campus not too far away from mine, and in many respects, very similar to mine.  The fact that agents of the government could fire upon peaceful protesters was so extraordinary that it felt like a kick in the groin to myself and many other students on my campus and on campuses throughout the country.  Along with the killing of two students at Jackson State University(f/k/a Jackson State College) around May 14th, it looked and felt like it was open season on college students.

Indeed, I was “watching” a protest that turned ugly on May 11th, 1970 when elements of the Illinois State Police and the Illinois National Guard attacked the crowd of students that I and friend were in the middle of and chased down and beat some of us and arrested a large group of innocent students.  I can still smell the pepper spray from that warm evening.  I was one of the unlucky ones who were arrested that night.  That event which started as a protest against the killings at Kent State turned into a night in Jackson County Jail in Murphysboro, Illinois.

After getting arrested and fingerprinted and receiving my first full body cavity inspection, I was literally thrown into a cell designed to hold 4 prisoners, which was already holding 8-10 of my fellow students when I was thrust upon them. After spending most of the early morning of my 19th birthday in the lockup, my head was spinning from the tear gas and pepper gas used by the authorities the night before and from the lack of sleep in that overcrowded cell.  I realize that my little experience pales in comparison to what the students at Kent State and Jackson State had to endure, but the whole event opened my eyes to something that I have never forgotten.

My country and my state would not allow me and my college classmates and friends to express ourselves as the U.S. Constitution provided in the First Amendment. I felt like I was a second class citizen in my own country and state.  Shortly after my arrest, Southern Illinois University was closed down for the semester and many students grades were negatively impacted by the decision to close down early.  Many other campuses across the country also closed down early in response to the demonstrations and protests that were being held on a daily basis.  So once again, my grades were impacted negatively because of the closure and I was placed on social probation by the university, all because I was expressing my Constitutional rights.  Did the Government or the Illinois State Police care about my rights?  No, because I was just a student who got in their way.

After the summer ended and I was acquitted of the charge of “unlawful assembly” in a court of law, I was still left on social probation by my university even though I was found not guilty of any wrongdoing.  Once again, I felt helpless in my own university because I was labeled a trouble maker even though I had done nothing wrong or illegal.  It took many months and years for an investigation into the Kent State killings to take place and as you might have guessed, it was pretty much a whitewash job.  The National Guard claimed that they were fired upon even though there was little or no evidence backing their claims.

Even President Nixon lambasted the students in interviews following the sad event.  I saw this as another example of the college students being treated as if they had less rights than the National Guardsmen or any other citizen.  (I highly recommend a book titled, “Kent State, What Happened and Why”, by James Michener, which discussed all of the evidence and facts surrounding the shootings and came down to the conclusion that the Guardsmen illegally and improperly fired upon the unarmed students.)

The events surrounding the Kent State killings still resonate in my head and I became more politically involved and aware because of Kent State and my arrest shortly after.  My big brother was in Vietnam at the time and this weighed heavily upon me, but I had just been slapped in the face by my University, my State and my Country and I now had a duty to expose any and all wrongdoings of our government in prosecuting the war in Vietnam.  After all, the students at Kent State and Jackson State were killed while protesting our country’s immoral actions in Southeast Asia.

I made a pledge to myself that I would not allow any government of this country take advantage of any so-called “lesser” citizens for any reason.  I also promised myself to never trust my government again without verifying the facts.  The phrase heard a lot during those “Days of Rage” was “My country, love it or leave it”.  Well, it was my country too and I wasn’t about to leave it just because my rights were being violated.  It became my duty to do whatever I could to right the wrongs and to help the disadvantaged overcome the odds.  It was also critical in my decision to become a lawyer.

Have I been able to help “right the wrongs” by my country since 1970?  I may have helped some, but probably not as many as I would have liked, but every day I attempt to even the odds against the little guy. It has been 44 years and I am physically not the same person, but it feels as if it was just yesterday.  I often relive the events of May of 1970 and as I pledged to myself 44 years ago, “never again”.  The Occupy Wall Street protests reminded me of the anti-Vietnam war movement in some ways.  Those protesters were also mistreated and maligned by an ever-growing police presence. They too may have been changed forever by their experience standing up to governmental power.

Never again will I sit and let someone else stand up to a government gone astray.  I can still hear the screams of the students in the video of the event and I can still see the picture of the young girl kneeling over a dead student  and I can still hear the words of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song of the day, “Four Dead in Ohio”.  Peace to all of you and I hope that the parents and loved ones of the victims have been able to find some peace in the past 44 years.  I hope the Mothers of those lost or maimed, if they are still with us,  can also find some peace on this Mothers Day.

I will continue to remind everyone that I can, every year,  that those students did not die in vain.  They did not die in vain because they spurred on an anti-war movement and they altered my life forever and I believe the life of our country.  Their fate is a stark reminder of what kind of power a government has and an example of what a government should not do.  What do you think?

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231 thoughts on “May 4th, 1970, The Day My Generation Lost Its Innocence”

  1. Nick Spinelli asked bettykath, ” Do have a number of comments in mind that I should be limited to?”

    I guess that bettykath’s comment was deleted. Sorry that I missed it.

  2. You can still smell the pepper spray from an incident in May of 1970? Pepper spray didn’t even become available until 1973. I think you are misremembering your youth. I can assure you that you weren’t pepper sprayed in 1970.

    1. Ryan – some of us have created memories, ones we think we had, wished we had, and now we tell others that we had.

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