May 1970: A retrospective

The Ferncliff Mausoleum is remarkable for the serenity of the grounds that surround it and the imposing granite of its construction. Two great gold doors mark its entrance. It was May 2nd, two days before the forty-third anniversary of the Kent State killings. The day was warm and the sky a crystalline blue, both hallmarks of the season and much too beautiful and enticing for a journey to pay respects to one of the many fallen on that horrific day of so long ago. But history has its claims and marking that tragedy is necessary.

The hours traveling to Hartsdale, New York, where the mausoleum is located left only about fifteen minutes before the building and grounds of the cemetery would close. The person who searched for the location of the niche in this massive structure had difficulty locating the proper place. A member of the cemetery staff graciously led me down several corridors. Only a few minutes remained, but the years and history and grief had their claims.

I was left in the silence of the corridor, having passed countless crypts and niches. Among all of the ample stained glass windows, one depicting Christ stands out in my mind, one arm extended and stretching downward, his face full of sympathy that seemed limitless. And there, two niches from the top row and three from the border of the wall were the ashes of Jeffrey Glen Miller invisible behind marble inscribed with his name, date of birth, and date of death. A feeling of numbness and speechlessness and an intensity of grief that transcends time stood with me in that corridor.

John Filo’s iconic photo of Jeffrey’s lifeless body and Mary Ann Vecchio with outstretched pleading arms becomes as timeless in this space as the representation of Christ that I have just passed. And then in this silence more time for thought.

Jeffrey Miller had gone out into that day to protest the Vietnam War at Kent State University. It would be the last day of his life as the forces of darkness at Kent State and the hateful rhetoric of Richard Nixon would bring the war home to Ohio that day.

Governor James Rhodes used the atmosphere of hate created by Nixon and sent in the National Guard. The Ohio National Guardsmen would retreat to a hillock on the campus and fire live ammunition at the protesters below, Jeffrey being the student closest to the firing Guardsmen, killed instantly from a rifle bullet through his mouth. Another photo shows Jeffrey’s face, a pool of blood in front of him streaming away toward the edge of the access road where he had stood only moments earlier, exercising his right to vigorously protest against the seemingly endless wars in Southeast Asia and Nixon’s recently announced incursion into Cambodia (a war that would destabilize the government of Cambodia and usher in the eventual horror of the Khmer Rouge).

My steps were muffled by the Oriental rugs that covered the floor of the mausoleum. I think that they are meant to quiet the footsteps of mourners. I was now alone in this building at closing, and I exited through the gold doors with grief that was countered but not diminished by the brilliance and warmth of the sun on this early day in May.

By chance, my wife, Jan, spent a few years living in Hartsdale as a child. So we went to visit her old neighborhood that was only a mile or two from the cemetery. Just by luck, the current owner of the house where she lived was in the front yard working on his lawn and gardens. We stopped and had a friendly conversation about the neighborhood as it had changed over the decades. He mentioned a friend who lived not far from us in Western Massachusetts. During the conversation, he said that a famous actor lived next door to his friend. He identified a well-known movie that the actor had appeared in, and we went through the list of actors who had been in the movie. One was Jane Fonda (a great actor and antiwar activist), and at the mention of her name, he made disparaging remarks about her antiwar actions during the time he had been in the military in Vietnam. I thought it so strange that all of these decades later that the mention of a peace activist could bring up such powerful emotions.

The massacre at Kent State sent a chill through the peace movement that it would not recover from in a way that was revisited in how the Occupy Wall Street movement was repressed by police across this nation. Those murders in Kent, Ohio, ended an age of innocence. In the late 1980s, the late peace activist Abbie Hoffman said of the 60s peace movement, “It will never happen again.” (The Best of Abbie Hoffman, 1989) By 1970, while public opinion polls recorded that a majority of Americans were opposed to the Vietnam War, a majority of those polled expressed an antipathy toward protesters.

While 1968 was the defining year of worldwide revolution, 1970 can be seen as the year that dampened the era’s zeitgeist of what was possible.

Reflecting on the day as a fiery orange sun set over the Catskill Mountains to the west while we drove on the Taconic Parkway, I thought of the hopefulness with which Jeffrey Miller and those killed and wounded along with him at Kent State, and those killed and wounded at Jackson State a few days later, went out to face those days. Their heroism countered the organized violence of the government and they paid a terrible price.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at

One Response to May 1970: A retrospective

  1. James Phillips

    Today there are hundreds of people imprisoned in Europe for questioning or denying outright the supposed 6 million Jews exterminated by the Third Reich. This is wrong, very wrong and the hypocrisy is overwhelming, the hypocrisy of those claiming freedom of speech and freedom of the press while their governments imprison people for questioning the so called standard history we are fed.