Cleveland writer and artist Derf Backderf (aka John Backderf) was only 10 years old when the National Guard descended on Kent State in May of 1970 and killed four students after firing into a crowd of protestors.
But like many, the tragic events left a lasting impression on him, and, he says, a lasting impression on the college and area.
In Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, whose name is borrowed from a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, Backderf combines personal experience — while Backderf wasn't on campus, he did witness those same National Guardsmen violently shutting down a tucker strike just a few days before they were sent to KSU —with extensive research and interviews to tell the story of those four students and those four days.
The result is a work of journalism and art that shows the reader what happened 50 years ago, and why it's all-too-sadly relevant today.
During a time where widespread Black Lives Matter protests have been sweeping the nation in the wake of the heinous killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of law enforcement, the parallels are clear.
“It’s almost a mirror image, isn’t it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It circles back to 1970, which was one of the worst years we’ve ever had. Apparently we’ve learned nothing on the journey. So, yeah. Here we are.”
Backderf thinks that the thing people may not recall from that era is the menacing feeling lingering over society.
“All of these great forces were just tearing the nation apart just kind of came crashing together, inexplicable. And it happened to reach a climax at Kent State. It could have happened anywhere, it just happened happen there,” said Backderf.
What is the biggest thing that the general public didn’t understand about the era?
“The general belief for people who don’t know the history that well, (they think) it was some kind of horrible accident that happened at Kent. And it really wasn’t. I mean, it was likely a malevolent act. There was a lot going on behind the scenes and that’s what this story is about. And the four people that got swept up in it.”
While Backderf was still a child at the time and part of a younger generation, he says that growing up in Ohio around that time tattooed the incident into his psyche.
As far as Kent State University goes, Backderf believes there’s still a palpable sadness that is experienced in the town and at the university dating back to the tragic shootings.
“They embrace that past now, but it wasn’t always the case. They were openly antagonistic to it for many, many years. It only started to change when they opened the May 4th Center in 2012.”
Buy the book here or at your favorite local bookstore.