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. Keebler – since the last time Jonathan deleted he did not name and shame, we don’t know. However prior to that, for the last couple of days for sure, you have lost some commenters, not just comments.

  2. Rep Cummings is coming up on ethics charges on his dealings with the IRS. I don’t think cutting his mike is the worst thing that is going to happen to him.

  3. Yes, BK it’s always a pleasure to have you here. Please stay around, I got a feeling there’s going to be some changes here soon. Yes, for some reason people are only reacting to two people around here. But, to be fair the professor is deleting probably in equal proportions. He does try and be fair. You’ll see what I mean, stick around. We are reminded of whom the moderator is.

  4. bettykath, Ironic. Folks who know me will tell you I am very self disciplined. One of my favorite sayings is, “The only discipline worth a damn is self discipline.” You cannot run a successful small business for 30 years w/o self discipline. You can’t keep diabetes under control w/o self discipline. I’ll stop there. I always have liked you bk. Nothing you said here changes that one bit. I ask just one thing. Read the comments here and elsewhere of late. There are new people here that Jonathan has to continually delete, for doing what you have accused me of. I am constantly urging that comments get back to substance. I get my balls busted for doing that. “Are you the moderator?” I have no expectation of changing your mind. Just expressing mine. This place is better when you’re here regularly. If you restart comment regularly, I think you’ll understand what I just said.

  5. Do you mean the Viper anti-theft device?

    Apt name for something coming out of Issa’s liar.

  6. Feynman,

    What was that car anti theft device Issa claims his fortune from? Now, I know it’s probably a lie but his brother is a convicted felon. He took the rap for his brother. You know all those family values espoused by the GOP leaders. It’s more like NIMBY.

  7. About that House committee?

    It’s chaired by Darrell Issa. He’s a piece of work. Car thief, suspected arsonist, had to settle with insurance company, involved in car fraud, used a gun when firing an employee, drives around in a car with assorted weaponry, cuts of the mic of ranking minority member Rep. Cummings, told IG to only look into Tea Party groups who complained of IRS targeting.

    That House committee debunked Juan Cole?

  8. nick, my wish is for a bit of self-control, self-discipline, something along that line. It really isn’t necessary for you to chime in against every comment.

  9. bettykath, Do have a number of comments in mind that I should be limited to?

  10. rafflaw – I am only going to talk about Benghazi. If you want to deflect, so be it, but I am not travelling down that road with you. The new info includes all sorts of possible cover ups for the President, who appears to have been in debate prep while it was going on. SOS Clinton was seemingly MIA as well. This was an 8 hour running gun battle.

  11. raff, thanks for your post. I can see why it would take a lot to write of these experiences.

    Elaine, thanks for the posts about Cecily McMillan. Cecily is one more political prisoner to show who has the power.

    Unfortunately the war against protestors and the citizens generally is on-going and with a frequency that tends to dull the senses if it doesn’t outrage them.

    Coming to a police force near you:

  12. No Paul. I have seen the new information. It is the same political garbage. Let’s count up how many souls have been lost in attacks on embassies and see how many continuing investigations were made. Start with Reagan…

  13. Elaine, is my not criticizing a conservative source on this thread dispositive?

  14. Nick,

    You didn’t criticize Paul’s sources on this thread. Maybe bias is in the eyes of the beholder. Heck, I was even criticized for only using leftist/liberal sources for one of my posts even when I used The Weekly Standard as a source. I never knew that magazine was considered liberal. I guess maybe it was when I used it.

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