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Fragments of May 4: A Photo That Foretold What Was to Come

A group of people meet on the edges of the Kent State University campus to march downtown as part of a moratorium march held on October 15, 1969.
A group of people meet on the edges of the Kent State University campus to march downtown as part of a moratorium march held on October 15, 1969.

Editor's note:  This story originally indicated that this photo was taken in the early Spring of 1970. It is from a march that took place on October 15, 1969.    When an editor at Life magazine approached Kent State University student Howard Ruffner to ask him about  sharing some of the pictures he had taken  from the weekend leading into May 4 or “any rally or activity that takes place” that Monday, he never imagined one of his photographs would be the front cover.

Howard Ruffner enrolled as a student at Kent State in March 1969, after serving in the Air Force after high school. While Ruffner began working towards a degree in broadcast journalism, he immediately wanted to put his photography skills to use, so he started working for the yearbook. The photos he took included one that would eventually be donated to the May 4 Visitor’s Center of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. It took place on October 15, 1969 and was a part of a national demonstration and teach-in that millions participated in against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. 

Ruffner also photographed the protest in the days leading up to May 4. He didn’t think much of it because he had taken so many photos along the way. As the weekend continued, Ruffner said he took pictures of everything from the ROTC building burning down and the arrival of the National Guard to the governor of Ohio visiting the burned-down ROTC building and people breaking curfew late at night. He included many of these in his 2019 book, “Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience of Kent State 1970.”

On May 4, Ruffner tried to capture as much as he could no matter what happened. But once the guard opened fire, Ruffner said he took one photo before ducking for cover. 

“I walked down the hill again and took pictures of crowds around people giving them, what they hoped were, life-saving help,” Ruffner said. “... Several girls came up to me and said ‘You gotta stop taking pictures. You can’t take pictures. You’re intruding on people’s private space.’ But at some point in time, what is it that people have to know and not know, and intruding on private space is something that had to be done.” 

Sarah Sheiman and Rachel Karas are students in Kent State University's journalism program.

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