As the month of May rolls around again, I am reminded of two dates from that month: May 4th and May 14th. These are the anniversaries of the 1970 murders of student antiwar protestors at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi by military and lawmen. These murders marked a turning point in the war and the protest against it. The antiwar movement grew up with those murders. Now, protest meant risking one's life. The U.S. government had made it clear once and for all that it would tolerate only so much dissent. Of course, African-American and other protestors of color-and the revolutionary anti-imperialist wing of the antiwar movement-had known this all along. After the original burst of anger that brought millions into the streets and shut down universities and high schools around the country, many protestors put away their banners and raised fists for a life with less confrontation. The rest of us reaffirmed our commitment to do whatever it took to stop the war.
I've jotted down some memories from those days in early May 1970. My dad returned from Da Nang, Vietnam in February of that year, where he had spent the previous year as an officer in the Air Force. I had become more opposed to the war during that same time. I was in ninth grade.
We moved to Frankfurt am Main in March 1970. Within a week, my siblings and I were back in school. The junior high I attended was on the other side of the city on a military compound. It had been a German women's prison prior to its utilization as a school. The school building was surrounded by a twelve foot high wall. Each of its corners held an empty guard tower. Most of the students felt that prison was an appropriate metaphor for their experiences there. I made a few friends pretty quickly.
This always happened on military bases since most of the students were always in transit, but the fact that I owned some rock records that hadn't made it to the Post Exchange or into the German music stores certainly helped. With most students feeling that the epicenter of our (counter)culture lay in the U.S., anyone who arrived from the States and was just a little bit hip was milked for updates on what was really happening. Neither the Stars & Stripes newspaper nor the Armed Forces Radio Network were providing that kind of news. The only news the Stars and Stripes was really good for was sports news, and that wasn't something I discussed with my new counterculture friends.
When I awoke on May 1 that year, I was, like many other people in the world, incredulous and pissed off that Nixon had sent troops into Cambodia. Although my political awareness was still relatively unformed, it had taken me no time to realize that Richard Nixon was a pig. Still, I didn't think he or anyone else would actually expand the war in Southeast Asia when everybody--including my dad--wanted it to end. When I went to the kitchen for breakfast my father was still there and we had a short debate about the invasion before he headed off to work. That interaction got me fired up for a day of debate. Sure enough, even though homeroom was run by the gym teacher (a man with the last name of Agnew who usually didn't talk about anything other than sports), we spent the whole class period arguing about the war. By the time civics class came up right before lunch, some of the more radical students (whom I was just beginning to know) were trying to organize some kind of protest. However, since the weekend was coming up, nothing concrete was devised.
When we got back to school on Monday, May 4, most of us who cared had heard the news reports all weekend about the massive protests taking place all over the US against Nixon's move into Cambodia. In addition, the German students had kept the police busy all weekend in Frankfurt with constant rallies and marches against the invasion, of which I attended at least one. By noon on Monday, some hastily drawn posters began appearing on the walls of our junior high urging students to protest the war on Wednesday, May 6, by wearing black armbands and refusing to go to homeroom. Of course, as soon as the posters appeared, they were ripped down by administrators or a pro-war student or teacher. One girl was suspended when she refused to remove a poster she had just put up. That night I found some black material and made myself an armband.
Like always, I turned on the radio when I awoke the next morning, May 5th. I liked to listen to the news, especially when something big was happening. I was not prepared, however, for the news that morning. Nor do I think I will ever forget how I felt when I first heard it. Four students had been shot dead in Kent, Ohio by the National Guard while protesting the war. Several others were injured. I knew what Dylan meant when he sang of his tears of rage. My eyes were brimming over with such tears and my heart was pounding in anger and disbelief. I didn't say much as I got ready for school. My mom was silent as I read the Stars and Stripes report on the killings over Cheerios. My older sister and I talked about them while we ate.
I put my armband on while waiting for the school bus. Upon arriving at school, I searched for some of the kids most involved in the antiwar planning. In homeroom, Mr. Agnew read a memo from the principal expressing regret over the slayings in Ohio, but warned that no protest of any kind would be allowed at Frankfurt American Junior High School. The gym teacher (who I was beginning to believe opposed the war as much as I did) looked around, noting that three or four of us wore black armbands, and said nothing. One of the guys asked if he could read something relevant to the current events and the teacher said yes. Steve took out a copy of the text to Arlo Guthrie's antiwar poem "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" and began reading, complete with four-part harmony. By the time he finished, class was over.