RBG founding partner Sandy Rosen, who represented the families of the victims of the Kent State shootings as special counsel for the ACLU in the 1970’s, delivered the keynote address on Friday, May 4, 2012 in Kent, Ohio at the 42nd commemoration of the Kent State shootings.    Excerpts of the address were reprinted in The Recorder on May 4, “Seeking Justice in Their Memory.”  Full text of the speech is set out below.

On May 4, 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students participating in a demonstration against the Viet Nam War on the Kent State campus. Four students were killed and nine were wounded.   More information about the commemoration program and continuing efforts to reopen an investigation into the shootings is available at may4.org.

Rosen also participated in an educational forum the evening of May 3 on the Kent State campus that included civil rights activist Melba Pattillo Beals, one the Little Rock Nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957; Mark Seemans, KSU professor who facilitated May 4 site Historical Landmark recognition at the US Department of Interior; 1969 Kent State SDS leader Howie Emmer; and several survivors of the Kent State shootings.

42nd Observance of the Kent State Shootings
May 4, 2012
Sanford Jay Rosen

We gather here each year to remember our lost loved ones and friends and to rededicate ourselves to seeking justice in their memory.

There is a pessimistic French saying that translates as: “The more things change the more they stay the same.”  [“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”] As we bear witness here today, it is both true and yet not true!

Surely high school senior Maia O’Meara’s presence today, and her work — creating Project Vietnam and working to build a school library in Vietnam — give us all cause for optimism and hope.

My family history and my involvement in representing the victims of the Kent State shootings also help put the lie to pessimism.

My father’s mother, Aida was born to a prosperous Jewish family in the Ukraine, then part of the Czarist Russian Empire.  She fled the Czar’s oppressions of Jews and others in 1905 with her husband and two sons.  Neither son survived the journey.  A new family was born and prospered in America.  Perhaps because of her unspeakable suffering, Aida had an innate sense of injustice which I think I acquired from her.

A couple of years after I was born, my late wife Catherine was born — just three weeks after she was smuggled into the United States in her mother’s belly.  Pregnant Jewish ladies were not allowed into the United States on visitors’ visas just before our entry in to World War II.  So far as I know, the Nazis murdered all of my mother-in-law’s family on her mother’s side.  My wife, her siblings and their children and grandchildren are all who remain of that side of Cathy’s mother’s family.

By May 4, 1970, my wife and I were raising a family in the safety and security of America, in the sure and certain knowledge that with all of its faults — and there were many — America was the best and safest place for us to live.  I knew this even though we had suffered the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I knew this even though I had received death threats because of my work, and because my family lived in a racially integrated neighborhood.

When I heard about the shootings at Kent State, my confidence was shaken.  Sure, soldiers had shot and killed civilians before in America.  But somehow a new line had been crossed — this was the first time it had happened on a white college campus; this was the first time that white middle class citizen soldiers had shot white middle class students.  My closest African-American friends were as shaken as I was, fearing that since American soldiers were killing white students on college campuses, all hope was lost for them.

That three of the four students who were killed, and one of the nine who were wounded, were Jews was a strange and especially tragic turn of fate to those of us whose parents or grandparents had been the victims of vicious pogroms and Hitler’s “Final Solution” in the “old country”.  Sandy Scheuer’s death was all the more poignant and ironic.  Like my wife’s parents, Sandy’s father, Martin had fled the Holocaust to find a safe and secure home in the middle of America.

But America in the 1970s was not Hitler’s Germany, despite the war and the terrible rift in our country that had developed at that time.  Our legal system had not been co-opted by the government.  Ministered to by the late John Adams, of the United Methodist Church, the wounded students and the families of all the victims came together as the Kent State Family and dedicated themselves to holding those in power accountable for their actions.

The Kent State Family’s determination to see the damages cases through to the end and to continue to seek full disclosure of what caused the shootings has, in fact, provided the template for other victims of great tragedies.  Since then, others like many relatives and friends of the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103  bombing  and the survivors of September 11th have organized themselves as united families of the victims.

I was not involved in the first trial of the civil rights damages case, which was lost in 1975.  Aryeh Neier, the ACLU’s Executive Director asked me to handle the appeal from that loss.  He told me that I could not expect to win; it was hopeless.  He said that for the sake of history, the appeal had to be taken.  “It should not be written,” he said, “that they did not appeal, therefore they acquiesced.”  I agreed to take on the appeal, but decided that it had to be handled as though we could win.

In 1977, several months after the appeal was argued, the Court’s Clerk called and told me that we had won.  He was almost as happy as I was.  The Court had reversed the trial court, unanimously, and sent the case back to the trial court.  I became lead counsel for the retrial.

The Judge who presided at the first trial withdrew from the case and was replaced by William K. Thomas who, after the shootings, had tried and favorably decided the Kent State illegal search and seizure case, and had ordered expunged an illegal  state grand jury report that had excoriated the students at Kent State.  We knew him to be a no-nonsense fair judge.  He certainly proved us right.

Early in the pretrial proceedings, all parties and their attorneys agreed that Judge Thomas could act as a settlement judge.  He interviewed the surviving victims, and examined some visible scars resulting from the shootings.  As an experienced judge in Northern Ohio, he proposed the settlement figure of $675,000 total for all the victims.  My clients agreed (with some difficulty) on the condition that the defendants each sign an acknowledgment that the victims had been done wrong.

The actual words of that statement were hard fought.  John Adams met privately with the parents of the students who had been killed before they agreed to the settlement.  I have wept only twice that I can recall in public since I have been an adult.  One of those occasions was when the parents and John came out of their meeting, having made the difficult decision to accept the settlement and end that part of their fight for justice and accountability.

As with almost any settlement, there is buyer’s remorse.  For a long time I would wake up from a dream in which I was able to try the cases for a third time, and achieve a total victory.  But that was just a dream.  The victims’ decision to settle was right at the time it was made.

Despite the settlement, I strongly believe that additional investigation should take place to find out whether orders to shoot were given and, if so, by whom — right up the chain.  The Department of Justice should reconsider its recent decision not to investigate further.  As a start, the Justice Department should authorize or secure release to the public of the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that led to federal indictments and then unsuccessful prosecutions of several guardsmen, just as the Nixon-Watergate transcripts were made public in 2011.

Some things seem to have stayed the same or even gotten worse since May of 1970.  Gun violence, fear mongering, government over-reaction to national security concerns, and ugly political divides remain at large in the world and America.  Wealth disparity has become obscene, and women’s health care is under assault.  And we continue to fill our prisons and jails beyond the breaking point.  We now imprison more people than any other country in the world, creating what an Ohio State University Professor, Michelle Alexander, has aptly described as “The New Jim Crow.”

But much has changed.  The Kent State shootings and the Kent State Families fight have changed the way that police and military are trained in dealing with civil disorders.  I know of no police or government lethal force shootings or any killings to mark the recent Occupy demonstrations.

In the 60s and 70s our country was almost pulled apart due to divisions over ending government sponsored racism and the war in Vietnam.  Despite the painful divisions we are suffering, I sense no risk the country could be pulled apart.

And a lot of other things are changed and much improved.  Discrimination against persons of color, disabled people and women is both illegal and largely excluded as subject to debate in our principal political dialogue.  Gay rights has emerged from the shadows.  Today, America has an African American president.  Three women have been Secretary of State; one was a serious presidential contender.  Who dreamed this all to be possible in the spring of 1970?

My wife and I were in Berlin, Germany in June of 1960, fifteen months before the Wall separating East and West Berlin was erected.  Being Jews, and my wife the child of Holocaust survivors, that trip to Germany was fraught with tension.  Last month, I returned to Berlin with one of my daughters, and felt no such tension.  Berlin and the Berliners were in our faces with acknowledgement of the Holocaust and German responsibility for it.  We attended a Passover Seder, in peace and safety at the Berlin Jewish Community Center.  As President Obama incanted last month on  Holocaust Remembrance Day:  “Never Again.”

Gays also were targets of the Nazis’ genocide.  In Germany, however, unlike in this country, gays can now freely marry and if a German gay citizen marries a foreigner, that partner can become a German citizen through that marriage.  Yes, we have miles yet to go in this country.  How ironic that Germany is lighting some of the path.

One Sunday in 2000 I had a casual conversation with a retired Marine I met in a shop.  He had mustered out as a Gunnery Sergeant, in fact he was the second most senior non-commissioned Marine officer at the time of his retirement.  He had served two full tours in Vietnam, the last one ending with the evacuation from Saigon in April, 1975.  When I told him that I had represented the victims of the shootings at Kent State, he was obviously disturbed — “They were murdered”, said he.

Even now, more than 40 years after the shootings and more than 30 years after the settlement, I continue to mourn for the lost lives of young men and women who had been so full of promise.  I mourn as well for all those members of the Kent Sate Family who have passed on since I first joined the family.

Today I am thinking about the retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant’s reaction to the Kent State shootings.  It was similar to many that I have heard around the world, from people born and living in countries long used to wholesale slaughter of civilians by police and military forces.  Educated, politically aware people the world over find it difficult to place the Kent State events in America, that best great hope for the world at large.  It simply does not matter that measured on any world scale, very few were killed or wounded at Kent State.  To the world, it simply should not have happened in America.  We gather here each year to honor our commitment to the fallen and to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.