Photographer recalls day protest turned to tragedy at Kent State

Friday, May 5, 2000

John Filo...
John Filo

NEW YORK — Photojournalist John Filo remembers the moment vividly. Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller was lying on the ground, “his body convulsing his last,” after a 13-second rifle volley that would instantly galvanize an entire generation.

“The amount of blood was like someone tipped over a bucket,” Filo said.

A photojournalism major at the university at the time, Filo shot rolls of film recording the tragedy and remembers ending the day with a left-hand pocket full of exposed film.

“But I couldn’t remember taking any one of those photos,” he recalled yesterday — 30 years to the day — for a hushed audience attending “Kent State: The Day the War Came Home,” at Newseum/NY.

The main photo out of that pocketful of film stared down from a wall montage in the auditorium to remind all who looked that one girl’s agonized reaction still triggers the memory of Kent State.

Kent State shooting photo...
In John Filo’s famous photograph, Mary Ann Vecchio shows her anguish next to a student’s body at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, on May 4, 1970.

Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a horrified Mary Ann Vecchio on her knees next to Miller’s body, became a symbol around the world of the day Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire at Kent State, killing four students and wounding nine others.

Filo, now photo operations manager for CBS, was the featured speaker at the Newseum program to mark the anniversary of the singular event that so fueled the anti-war movement. He was introduced by the editor who led the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Kent State 30 years ago, Robert H. Giles, now a senior vice president of The Freedom Forum.

In opening the program, Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, reminded the audience that today, “A full third of Americans are ready to waive their right to assembly. In fact, many Americans forget the core purpose of the First Amendment: to preserve the right to speak out about matters of public importance without fear of reprisal.”

“The First Amendment protects us from the government,” he said, adding that Kent State gave Americans a first-hand look at “what happens when government becomes overzealous and tries to curb public protest.”

The protest three decades ago grew out of President Richard Nixon’s announcement on April 30, 1970, that he was sending troops into Cambodia, escalating the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. American college campuses were in an uproar. Kent State was no exception.

For two days after Nixon’s announcement, Kent State students demonstrated on campus and off, buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution and then burned down the ROTC building on campus that Saturday night, May 2.

That same night, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes sent the National Guard onto campus with orders to break up any and all mass gatherings.

That’s when Filo thought he had actually lost a shot at fame.

He had left the campus to work on his senior portfolio, shooting “moss and teaberry in the hills of Pennsylvania.” When he returned on Sunday, May 3, the day was balmy, the campus calm, and students were playing frisbee with National Guardsmen. And Filo remembers thinking, “The biggest event of my college career was over and I missed it.”

So his decision to cover a scheduled noon student rally the next day, Monday, May 4, was motivated by his need to “look for a picture to capture student unrest; it was born out of frustration of missing the hard news.”

The entire student body turned out for the Monday rally, he recalled, and the Guard first lobbed tear gas to break up the crowds. One of the first pictures Filo took was of a student waving a black flag to a line of kneeling armed Guardsmen. He remembers being “very happy with my photo, after missing all the news of the weekend.”

“It was a keeper,” he said.

It was also critical evidence, as was Filo’s entire photo sequence, Giles said, “in trying to help the public understand one of the central questions out of Kent State, which was whether the National Guard was under any threat from the students.”

Two months after the events, the Akron Beacon Journal obtained a preliminary FBI report that found the Guard had never been in any danger.

“That version, based on the FBI findings, has become generally the accepted wisdom about the shootings,” Giles said.

But on that fateful Monday, as the students began gathering at noon, the entire National Guard contingent marched across the Kent State campus and up Blanket Hill. There a group of them turned and fired into the crowd. It was 12:24 p.m.

Filo at first thought “it was a scare tactic.” Then he saw Miller’s body. And he took Mary Ann Vecchio’s picture.

He said he never got scared until after the shouting and screaming had died down. Then he watched as a group of students asked a group of National Guardsmen, “Why did you shoot?”

And a Guardsman replied, “We’re going to shoot again unless you disperse.”

The chill of that statement stayed with Filo as he fled across the Pennsylvania border, he said. “I never returned home,” he said, “speeding away at 45 miles an hour in my Volkswagen.”

The chill, in many ways, stayed with many more.

“This event has become symbolic of the time it took place,” Giles said. “And for those of us who were there … it was a situation in which there was a great deal of ambiguity about our country and its role in Vietnam.”

Giles added quietly, “And in many of our minds and hearts, I think, it’s an unresolved experience.”