Sixty-seven rounds of ammunition were fired over 13 seconds. They killed four students, wounded nine others, resulting in one permanent paralysis. It was May 4th 1970. The scene was Kent State University in Ohio. Unpopularity of the Vietnam War was at its peak that spring, and with the invasion of Cambodia a week before, the tension was fever-pitch. The Ohio National Guard fired at students protesters.
Among the most potent images to emerge from the incident is this photo of 14-year-old runaway from Florida Mary Vecchio wailing over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of the slain students. John Filo was in the student photography lab when the shots rang out. He ran outside. “I didn’t react visually,” he recalled. “This girl came up and knelt over the body and let out a God-awful scream that made me click the camera.” Other photographers also captured the scene from other angles. That photo captured Mary Ann’s raw grief and disbelief. The Kent State Pietà, it’s sometimes called.
Filo’s photo reached AP via a small Ohio daily. The New York Times used it on the front cover, three columns wide. Newsweek had it on its cover and NBC’s Huntley Brinkley Report held the image on screen for seven seconds, in silence. It would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The bullets were supposed to be blanks, but the shooters later testified that they used the real ones because they were in fear for their lives, which was doubtful based on their distance from the protesters. “Triggers were not pulled accidentally at Kent State”, Time magazine wrote.
The tragedy at Kent stateset off a nationwide student strike participated by no fewer than eight million students. Two thirds of colleges in New England closed. In California, Governor Ronald Reagan closed 121 colleges of the state education system. Hundreds of colleges and universities came to a standstill. Vecchio was accused by Florida’s Governor Claude Kirk of being planted by the Communists. She later ran away from home again, sent to a juvenile home, and was arrested for loitering and marijuana possession. She later admitted that the picture “destroyed my life”.
An anonymous editor had airbrushed the fence post above Mary Ann Vecchio’s head (see the Cleveland Plain Dealer front page above). The altered photo was reprinted in many magazines, including Time (Nov. 6, 1972, p. 23; Jan. 7, 1980, p. 45) and People (May 2, 1977, p. 37; April 30, 1990, p. 117).