On May 4, 1970, one of the most shameful events in the history of American protest — and there are more than a few of those — took place at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Then-president Richard Nixon, who had been elected in part because of his stated tendency toward ending the Vietnam War, had just escalated the conflict by invading Cambodia, and at Kent State, a throng of student activists were gathered in opposition to the action. The National Guard was called in to put down the protest, and they did so not with tear gas or bullhorns, but with bullets. From hundreds of feet away, guardsmen opened fire on the crowd, killing four unarmed students and relegating themselves to halls of historical infamy for all time.
The incident was memorialized in the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song “Ohio,” which was penned by Neil Young in the immediate aftermath. The song captured the absolute fury of the band and the American public toward the very idea of the government, as Graham Nash told interviewer David Hoffman in 1990, “killing our own children … in support of a secret policy of slaughter on a mass scale.”
The lyrics are sparse and succinct: “Soldiers are gunning us down,” Young sings. “What if you knew her / And found her dead on the ground?” Although the tune didn’t exactly affect massive change — Nixon was re-elected in 1972, and the war dragged on until 1975 — it captured the anguish of the public in that horrifying moment, and it’s been called the greatest protest song of all time.