Nick Saban understands the power of protest in this country. He also knows the horror of unnecessary violence aimed at those who would dissent.
Americans of a certain age remember the slaying of four Kent State student protestors at the hands of the Ohio National Guard in 1970. Saban was there on campus that day. It was his freshman year at Kent State. Alabama plays Kent State this weekend at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and Saban recalled the shooting on Monday.
At the beginning of his news conferences, Saban gives a few opening remarks before fielding questions from reporters. This time, he joked that he’s getting so old he can’t remember many of the games he played at Kent State. He will never forget May 4, 1970, though. That day is burned into his psyche like a scar.
“To have students on your campus shot, killed and — actually, didn’t see it happen, but saw the aftermath, right after it happened — it made me have a lot of appreciation for a lot of things,” Saban said.
Saban saw the gunshot wounds of victims after the massacre. Four were killed and nine were wounded. The average distance of the students killed from the guardsmen who fired upon them was 345 feet. To this day, it remains unclear why the Ohio Army National Guard started shooting.
“So, nobody could ever quite figure out how that happened,” Saban said. “It seemed pretty unnecessary, but I had class with one of the students that were killed, Allison Krause. I didn’t know her or anything that well, but it was a pretty chilling experience and something that makes you view things a little bit differently, and certainly have a much better appreciation of not taking for granted life itself.”
The night before the massacre, Ohio’s governor called the protesters un-American during a news conference, and called them dangerous and labeled them as different and worse than communists.
“We’ve seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups,” governor Jim Rhodes said. “They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police, and at the National Guard and the highway patrol. This is when we’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms.
“And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community,” Rhodes rambled on, “they’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element, and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”
Krause was an honor student at Kent State, and she was killed while protesting something she believed in. So was student Jeffrey Miller. He was shot at 245 feet. A bullet went through his mouth and out the back of his head. Sandra Lee Scheuer was walking to class. William Knox Schroeder was a member of the campus ROTC battalion.
They did not die in vain, says Saban.
“It probably had more to do with stopping the war in Vietnam than anything that happened,” he said.
The state of Alabama is more than familiar with the power of protest, of course, and the political forces that would distort the perception of a group of people. To demonize those who look differently, or believe differently, or speak differently, or act differently shaped this state from its inception, and continues to frame it still.
A few weeks ago here, there was an incident at a high school football game that captured the current discord of this nation in arresting terms.
Before the playing of the national anthem, a stadium’s personal-address announcer suggested that anyone who didn’t stand for the song should be executed. “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem,” reported the daughter-in-law of the PA announcer on Facebook, “you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots AT you since they’re taking shots FOR you.”
The entire stadium cheered with delight.
Beyond disturbing, the announcer’s public commentary was also grossly misplaced. The peaceful protests of American athletes around the country during the playing of the national anthem have absolutely nothing to do with the military. Police brutality and social injustice against people of color are the reasons Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and Arian Foster, among others, have decided to take a stand by kneeling.
“I love my country, and I have the utmost respect for the servicemen and women who have — for hundreds of years — sacrificed on our behalf,” said Kenny Stills, a 24-year-old wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins who has knelt during national anthems. “It is because of them that we have the freedom to help give a voice to the voiceless.
“But it’s time for us to come together in solidarity. To acknowledge as a national community, that we have to treat each other with more love and respect. That the overwhelming number of innocent people being killed right in front of our eyes is wholly unacceptable. And to demand justice for the victims of these often senseless acts, together.”
On Monday, video footage was released of another unarmed black man being shot and killed by police. This time, the shooting happened in Tulsa, Okla. The man’s name was Terence Crutcher, and the Justice Department announced it is opening a federal civil rights investigation into his killing.
“They shot and killed a man and walked around like it wasn’t a human being,” said Kaepernick, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who started the protest of kneeling during national anthems.
Kneel away, my brother.
“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” said Thomas Jefferson, and we have all heard that many times in the last few weeks. But it is more than even that. We teach the importance of protesting in our schools every year, and in our culture every day. It is not only encouraged behavior, it is protected by the very first amendment of the Constitution. Número Uno, folks. That’s who we are.
Voting is a form of protest. Religion is a form of protest. This country was founded by Protestants, and the very laws of this country encourage protesting. Lawyers, man, they get paid whether your protest is right or wrong.
Rock & Roll and rap are forms of protest. Who protested louder, Ice-T or Johnny Cash? To dissent, to protest, to challenge authority: these are our legacies to the world.
The woman at the Alabama high school football game finished her Facebook post about her father-in-law PA announcer with these words: “I desperately needed to see some good in this world after a disheartening week. May our God bless All His children (even the ungrateful ones) and this incredible country in which we live.”
To go from cheering rhetoric about firing upon protesters in one sentence, to invoking a prayer in the next — and all on social media, of course — might be the single worst representation of these confusing times. Perhaps instead of cheering hollow words and praying for people who think differently, we can, for a moment, reflect on the past in an attempt to find our way forward.
Pray that Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Freddie Gray, the Bible study class in Charleston, the policemen in Dallas and now Terence Crutcher did not die in vain. This country can be incredible, but it takes hard work and, unfortunately, sometimes learning from tragedy to make it so.
“It actually made me appreciate the fact that law and order is very important,” Saban said of the Kent State massacre, “but it also made me appreciate the fact of what those students were trying to express in terms of the Vietnam War or the demonstrations that they were having.”
Joseph Goodman is a senior reporter and columnist for Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.