William Moses Kunstler
Speeches at Kent State University

May 4, 1992

Normally I don't speak from notes, but I thought today was so important, particularly since it's a Monday and, as you all know, they died on a Monday here. And because it is the 22nd anniversary and, because our Kent family has grown over the years, we even include those who were not even born when those tragic events took place. So I felt I had to write down what I wanted to say so that it came out right and it is dedicated to the entire Kent family, living and dead. And the entire family at Jackson State and some of the other places where people laid down their lives so that others might be free.

It is hard to believe that twenty-two long years have passed since the terrible events that took place on this campus, and which have been associated with it, in the eyes of the world, ever since. I arrived in Kent a day or so after the shootings and was privileged to be able to help to form the legal team that was eventually so successful in getting rid of the state prosecutions. I can still remember making a fiery speech to wall-to-wall students at the Kove on May 6th, 1970. A Kove which is no longer there which went up in flames some time later, with, I hope, no connection with my words.

As I look at the world today, I am reminded of that plaintive question in Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the song that seemed to characterize the utter futility of the so-called war in Vietnam in particular and all wars in general, "Oh, When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?" Since the end of the Vietnam experience, our country has been engaged in tragic military involvement in such other Third World countries as Lebanon, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, and Honduras, to name but two handfuls.

On the domestic front, in one urban center after another, young Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics have been murdered in the streets by police officers who understand that they are carrying out the will of the dominant population. Even as we speak here, burnt-out buildings are still smoldering in south-central Los Angeles and the ghettos of other cities, generated by outrageous acquittals in a case in which police brutality was so graphically recorded by a private citizen. Even today a National Guard bullet has ended another young life in that benighted city. The Supreme Court, once the bastion of our most fundamental freedoms, is now engaged in a frenzied crusade to destroy the Bill of Rights, and to make sure that, as the only western nation to sanction capital punishment, we kill those on death row as swiftly and as brutally as possible, whether they be innocent or guilty or were afforded due process of law. We have become the charnel house of the Western World.

At first blush, it seems that the young people who were shot down in the parking lot at the base of Blanket Hill gave up their lives for a dream that died with them. It's all too easy for many, in the nineties, to regard the struggles of the past as aberrational and those living who participated in them as anachronisms. And yet we know, down deep in our hearts, that our comrades did not die in vain, that the pain of those whose bodies were torn by National Guard bullets was not uselessly endured, and that Arthur Hugh Clough was correct when.he wrote, 130 years ago, in another time of international crisis:

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labor and the wounds in vain.
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking 
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Comes silent flooding in, the main
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

In from, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

Several years ago, author E.L. Doctorow delivered a most unusual commencement address at Brandeis University in which he reminded his listeners that our country, at the end of the seventies and through the eighties, had lost much of the spirituality that was so evident in the day when Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, Jeff Miller, and Bill Schroeder, and hundreds and thousands of America's finest young people jeopardized their educations, their careers, and even their lives to rise up and demand that their country live up to the promises of its professed principles. Mr. Doctorow ended his address with words that were as shocking as the truth sometimes is. As he put it:

It's my view that in the last decade or so of life in our country...we have seen a national regression to the robber-baronial thinking of the nineteenth century. This amounts to nothing less than a deconstruction of America - the dismantling of enlightened social legislation that had begun to bring  an equity over half a century to the lives of working people, to rectify some of the terrible imbalance of racial injustice and give a fair shake to the outsiders, the underdogs, the newcomers... We may have in fact broken down as a social contract, in our time, as if we were not supposed to be a just nation, but a confederacy of stupid, murderous gluttons. So that, finally, our country itself, the virtue, the truth of America, is in danger of becoming a grotesque.


The thirteen seconds that it took the members of Troop G of the 2nd Squadron, 107th Armored Cavalry, of the Ohio National Guard to fire the bullets from their M-1 rifles that took four lives, crippled Dean Kahler for life, and wounded eight others, created a national revulsion against the incident itself and the tragedy of Vietnam that it personified. The closing of most of our colleges and universities generated by it was hard proof that the young people of this nation were not going to tolerate the indecencies perpetrated at home and abroad by the zealots in command. Although we didn't know it then, the die had been cast and it was only a question of time before our awful incursion into Southeast Asia would come to an end. For this, we owe eternal thanks to the restless shades of Allison, Jeff, Sandy, and Bill as well as the 56,000 of their contemporaries who surrendered their lives in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam.

Today, it is imperative that we, the living, re-dedicate ourselves to the eternal and endless struggle for peace, justice, and freedom that has been waged, in one form or another, since humankind existed in organized societies. Like Herman Melville's great white whale, evil is perhaps as unconquerable as it must be unconquering. Ahab goes down, lashed to the huge mammal's back, the Pequod and all its crew are swallowed up in the raging sea, with one exception, Ishmael, the cabin boy, forever goes back to sea. In the words of the freedom fighters of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau, "La lutta continua."

Our victories may well be small ones but we must fight for every possible beachhead, without hope of shortly arriving in green pastures, but secure in the knowledge and belief that, only through constant and persistent resistance to the seemingly inexhaustible forces of oppression will we not only be able to hold back the night but to advance our slow but steady march to a cleaner and a better day. This is perhaps what G.K. Chesterton had in his mind, in his poem, "The Vision of the King," when he has the Virgin Mary visit King Alfred, the Saxon monarch, on the night before the Battle of Athelny with the invading Danes, to inform him that, while he will surely be defeated on the morrow, the fight must go on.

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yes, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises ever higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you
And heaven and iron cope.
Do you have joy without cause
And faith without hope.

Incidentally, these words were the only ones published by the London Times on its editorial page the morning after the successful evacuation of the British and French armies from Dunkirk in the spring of 1940 so that they could live to fight another day.

Bernard Berenson, the great authority on Renaissance art, once described what Michelangelo must have had in mind when he carved his David out of a block of Carrera marble. The statue, he said, carried a message across the centuries, not simply of a fabled Biblical event, but of a young man on another hillside so long ago who pondered whether he dared to put the rock held loosely in his right hand into his sling and hurl it at the Philistine giant. Like Eliot's Prufrock, he must have wondered to himself, "Do I dare, do I dare?" In one way or another, these moments of potential jeopardy in pursuit of the ideal must come to us all, in one way or another, and the measure of our personal integrity is just how we respond to them. The four who died here and those who stood beside them on May 4, 1970, have fully and bravely responded to the central challenge of their time. May we all do the same for those of our era. If we do, they could have no finer memorial than this.

Some years ago, at another May 4th, right on this campus, Ron Kovic, as I am sure many of you may remember, gave an enormously moving address about his own experience, as a Marine, in Vietnam. When he finished, he pushed his wheelchair back alongside that of Dean Kahler, put his arms around him, and, in a voice I shall never forget, screamed, "Now Vietnam and Kent State are forever united." As I prepare to sit down, I hope that all of you, whether you were present then or not, will keep that image in mind and vow that the answer to the eternal question,'When will they ever learn?' must be "some time" and not "never." The memories of all of our dead, civilian and military, as well of those in other countries slaughtered in our name, certainly deserve no less.

Thank you.

  Kunstler Page   Previous Speech   Next Speech


Hit Counter