As Kent State prepares for the 48th Anniversary on Friday of the Ohio National Guard shootings on campus that left four students dead in 1970, the May 4 Visitors Center will mark the day with a number of events leading up to the site’s recognition as a National Historic Landmark, one of only 76 such locations in Ohio.
That declaration was initially sought in 1977 when the University announced plans to build a gym annex on the site of some of the events of May 4, 1970, but not enough time had passed to properly evaluate the historical impact.
This year’s anniversary is the first since the release last fall of Ken Burn’s documentary series “The Vietnam War” which aired on PBS. The events of May 4 figured prominently in the series, but it almost didn’t, Burns admitted in a podcast about the series with the Washington Post.
“In fact to tell you the evolution, the mention of the death of those students was one line in the original draft of the script and then went on a little bit to reactions to it and the shutting down of the campuses,” Burns said.
But as fate would have it, Burns was invited by friends to give a talk at Kent State totally unrelated to the Vietnam project. “In my down time they asked if I'd like to see a little permanent exhibit that they had put up and erected in one of the college buildings,” he recalled of the May 4 Visitors Center which was formally opened in 2012.
“I went in and it was so stunning and so beautifully done in a relatively small amount of space and the imagery and the movies and the interpretation was so loving that I remember calling up Sarah Botstein and saying ‘look we have to just expand this, we have to expand this I have to get somebody out here, you got to hear this audiotape of the gunfire, you got to hear this other thing.’”
“So what was a mention and then a dismount became that very long set piece that is agonizing because you realize so much of what happened really changed the color of the war,” Burns told the Post.
For the director of the May 4 Visitors Center, Mindy Farmer, the reaction of Burns was exactly what they envisioned when they opened the museum.
"To be included in that documentary was really important and we’re happy to have shaped his perception of it because until you come here, unless you remember it or experienced it, you just can't get the same feeling, the same understanding," she said.
The popularity of the series also exposed them to a wide range of future visitors.
"We've had many people come through that said they came because of the Ken Burns coverage of this absolutely," Farmer said. “We’re happy to get the word out about what happened here.”