On May 4, 1970, after a weekend of student rallies against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia — an R.O.T.C. building was set afire during the protests — National Guardsmen called to the campus by Gov. James A. Rhodes shot into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four students and wounding nine others.
This is an excerpt from today’s New York Times obituary for Joseph Kelner, who was hired by the mother of one of the students who died at Kent State. Kelner became chief counsel for the students who were shot (or their family members) in a lawsuit against 29 defendants: Governor Rhodes, Robert White (the president of Kent State at the time of the incident), and 27 National Guardsmen. The case went to trial in 1975 and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants.
Yet an appellate court reversed the verdict. Ohio officials subsequently offered $675,000 to settle the case. Although Kelner advised the plaintiffs against settling for that amount, they decided to accept the offer.
In 1980, Kelner wrote that the Kent State shootings resulted in a “monumental cover-up” by the government. Previously, Kelner had written the following in response to a New York Times Op-Ed defending the National Guardsmen:
We, the older generation, have much to answer for. … We were too permissive of our own government. We stood by passively while our elected officials inched us into the bottomless pit of Vietnam. While our land, water and air were polluted and fouled for decades by profit-hungry industry, we were reticent and compliant, each of us devoting our energies to the pursuit of happiness and material gain… The college kids simply cannot see us spending hundreds of billions on Vietnams and ABMs while our cities rot and people are hungry. They see our priorities aborted and our principles perverted to favor a military-industrial complex. So they protest.