Kent State massacre and ‘Ohio’

May 7, 2010

On May 4, 1970, Ohio State National Guard military reservists murdered four students at Kent State University. The students were peacefully protesting against President Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

The killings stunned American youth into a convulsive protest movement that shook Nixon’s government and contributed to forcing the US ruling class to reverse its South East Asia war plans.

The upsurge even found an expression on the pop music charts.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had released their gentle, hippy-tinged song “Teach Your Children”, before Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. The band was already associated with the anti-war movement: one of the song’s first performances was at a San Francisco anti-war rally.

The song was inspired by a famous Diane Arbus photograph Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, in which a horribly grimacing child holds a war toy. Nash’s lyrics commented on the interaction of values parents transmit to their children and those that the children adopt as their own.

The song was profitably on its way to the top of the charts when the Kent State killings happened.

Crosby, Stills Nash and Young immediately pulled the song from the shelves and released Ohio, which Neal Young wrote the moment he heard about the slaughter. Featuring a harsh, martial beat and the opening lines “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own” the song voiced the disillusionment that was shaking the USA to its foundations.

There have been many pop music protest songs before and since, but this is the only time that a group deliberately chose to terminate sales of a successful song in solidarity with a mass movement.

[In May 1970, British artist Richard Hamilton made a print marking the massacre. This work, and contemporary responses will feature in the exhibition Kent State — Four Decades Later, which runs until July 18 at the Sydney University Art Gallery.]

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