Sometimes trivia searches can end in some surprising revelations.
It may just be one of those strange coincidences of history, but I’m a firm believer that nothing happens purely by coincidence. Rather, I believe there are those times when all of the right elements align and things happen for reasons we can’t entirely explain.
To back up, I should probably start by explaining that all of these connections began to make sense to me recently while drafting an article on the Kent State University and Jackson State College shootings which took place in the spring of 1970. It had occurred to me that there were important historical parallels between what happened then and recent events that are happening now, in the wake of Ferguson and the rash of police killings. Although they are very different tragic events, resulting from very different ideologies, they do share a common thread-that is, the irony of young people being gunned down by the civil servants sworn by duty to “serve and to protect.” In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have reason to fear either the police or American soldiers. These are the people we, as citizens, are supposed to be able to look to for protection.
In the case of the Kent State shootings, the students had felt justified in rallying to protest Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, further escalating a war that many had falsely hoped was drawing to a close. They thought that their guaranteed constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech and Right to Assembly would protect them. At least four of them paid with their lives; many more would carry the wounds of that day for the rest of their lives.
I was only six years old when the Kent State shootings happened, and like so many of the events that happened during that volatile time, I had never really given it much thought other than to lump it in my mind with all the usual montage of violent images from that era-Civil Rights demonstrations, riots, assassinations, hippies, Woodstock, Manson, etc. But one day, I randomly ran across a video of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” a song that had been written and recorded less than two weeks after the events of May 4, 1970. And although I had seen the images many times before, for some reason that day, I felt an emotional connection to them that I had never felt before. Perhaps it was because I had already been feeling depressed over all of the sadness in the world. There had been so many senseless deaths in the news that week-Sandra Bland, Sam DuBose, and so many others, all killed as a result of asserting their rights. And then, as I went back and looked at those images from forty-five years ago, seeing those dead kids on the ground and how they stood strong in the face of masked soldiers who were basically sent to terrorize them into submission, something in me snapped. I broke down and cried.
I knew this had been building inside me for weeks; this feeling that sometimes the world is just too terrible to understand. And I understood then, more than ever, exactly what Michael meant when he wrote the words in Dancing The Dream about feeling the weight of the world’s pain and injustice: “I feel them inside me.”
This ignited in me a quest to research as much as I could about the events that unfolded that spring, and to study exactly how the events that led to both the Kent State and Jackson State killings escalated. I was interested in learning if there were, indeed, parallels that could be drawn between what happened then and what is happening now. And if so, could we learn from history?
However, I know my readers here may be wanting to know more about how this all ties to Michael. Well, it does in a rather surprising way. Or maybe not too surprising, considering that in recent months, Michael’s music has become the dominant soundtrack of #BlackLivesMatter and “They Don’t Care About Us” its unofficial theme song. But beyond that, we have also seen example after example of Michael’s music being used to bring about collective healing. Songs like “Heal The World, ” “We Are The World,” and “Man in the Mirror” have also become synonymous with the times in which we live. From Ferguson to Baltimore, we have seen the impact these songs have. And we saw what happened to a rioting crowd last spring in Baltimore when a young man named Dimitri Reeves began to dance to Michael’s music:
Now let’s go back forty-five years, to the last week of April, 1970. The same week that Nixon announces his plans to send U.S. troops into Cambodia, a happy and innocuous little song by a group of brothers out of Gary, Indiana peaks at #1. It’s called “ABC.” It seems ironic now to think that the same week in which America’s growing dissent against the Vietnam War came to its boiling point, such a happy and innocent song captured the mood of the nation. Ironic, perhaps, but not unusual. Pop music, along with other forms of popular entertainment, often reflects the times as much by what it is opposed to as what it mirrors. In fact, if we look at all of the songs that were battling it out for the top positions that spring, from the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to Ray Stephens’s “Everything Is Beautiful,” the pattern becomes clear. Many of these songs seemed to represent escapist wishful thinking-wishful thinking for peace and a new, prevailing pacifism that embraced the idea of accepting ideological differences, rather than engaging in conflict to resolve them. Only the Guess Who’s “American Woman” addressed the current conflict, but even then, it was an indirect, coded reference that not all listeners would “get” (the “American Woman” being merely a metaphor for the draft, and the irony further intensified by the fact that a Canadian band was singing it). Since explicit protest songs were often banned from U.S. radio play during the Nixon administration, these kinds of “coded” protest songs became quite common during the era. (Indeed, the ban on songs openly critical of the administration is most likely what kept “Ohio” from climbing higher than #16 on the U.S. singles chart, despite being the anthem of the Kent State tragedy. Many radio stations outright refused to play it).
“ABC” didn’t particularly fit into either category. It was not indirect, coded protest, nor was it preaching any anti-political message. It was simply a catchy little bubblegum song that, nevertheless, dropped at the perfect time to coincide with the rising tide of protest and dissent. But the fact that people were buying, listening to it, dancing to it, and requesting it in sufficient quantity to send it straight to the top of the charts says something very crucial about the mood and the spirit of the times. Perhaps, seeing as how so many of the actual, explicit protest songs of the era were being censored, it may not be surprising that the perfect antidote would prove to be a group of African-American boys who provided joy and optimism even as, perhaps by the sheer fact of their commercial success, were inadvertently creating a political stir of their own.
Nixon Announced His Plans To Send U.S. Troops Into Cambodia Just As “ABC” Climbed To The Top Position On Billboard
On Thursday, April 30th, Nixon announced the plan to send U.S. troops into Cambodia. By Friday, May 1, student protests had erupted on campuses across America. This latest escalation of the war, after Nixon’s much ballyhooed promise to end the conflict, caused tensions to escalate on college campuses for good reason. Many young men in college knew the draft was looming, and that deferment would not protect them forever. They envisioned a future in which they could graduate from college and pursue their dreams-not a future in which they would be sent off to die, for a cause they didn’t believe in. Many had already lost friends in the war. Alan Canfora, who has remained for forty-five years the most vocal and politically active of the students who were wounded and survived the Kent State massacre, had just attended the funeral of his best friend-killed while serving in Vietnam-only six days before Nixon’s announcement of the Cambodian campaign.
Although the rally held on the Kent State campus that Friday was relatively peaceful, tensions escalated on Friday evening when rioting broke out downtown. During that tense weekend, the campus’s ROTC building was burned. The mayor panicked and, rather than attempting to quell the unrest at local level, instead called upon Governor Rhodes to intervene. Rhodes, after delivering a ridiculous and inflammatory speech where he likened the student protesters to the KKK, called upon Ohio National Guard troops to come into Kent, essentially turning the Kent State campus into an occupied military base. Students who returned to campus that Monday morning arrived to find a campus occupied by a military presence. Soldiers patrolled the campus with M1 assault rifles, further escalating an already tense situation. That Monday, May 4, 1970 the students carried forth with their planned protest at noon on the commons, despite the threat of armed soldiers. The protest was, after all, a legal action sanctioned by the U.S. constitution.
The students were unarmed, though of course there was lots of heckling against the military presence and rocks thrown. The students were ordered to disperse, and tear gas was thrown. Some students tossed the tear gas canisters back. The campus was engulfed in the haze. But exactly what prompted the confrontation to go from mere heckling and threats to gunfire and death remains a mystery. Witnesses say they saw the soldiers retreat to a knoll beside Taylor Hall, where they then appeared to turn and fire in unison. What remains a matter of dispute is whether an order was given to fire, and if so, who gave it? Or did the soldiers simply “lose their cool” amidst all the heckling? Did one, lone soldier lose it and cause a reflexive action among his equally tense comrades? It is likely, but not supported by what eyewitnesses actually saw, which was at least a dozen troops turning and, in unison, taking position to fire.
The troops claimed self defense, of course, and to this day that remains their official position. But what is undisputed is that troops opened fire upon the students and shot a fusillade of 67 bullets in thirteen seconds. When it was over, four students lay dead (including two who weren’t even part of the protest, but were simply walking to class and got caught in the line of fire) and nine were wounded. Among those included one student whose spinal cord injury paralyzed him for life.
Two weeks later, protests against the Kent State killings merged with racial unrest at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi, resulting in the deaths of two students. In this case, it was not National Guard troops but local police and Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who committed the killings; however, the reported actions of the police were even more severe than what occurred at Kent State. Over 140 bullets were fired (at least one officer confessed to reloading his weapon over four times) and the fusillade lasted for almost thirty seconds. They shot directly into a female dormitory (though, miraculously, none of those students were killed). As with Kent State, there were students killed who weren’t even part of the protests, but were simply innocent bystanders. One, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, had recently become a new father. The fact that the Jackson College killings were overshadowed by the Kent State shootings has rightfully been pinpointed as racism. While the Kent State massacre made the cover of Life Magazine, the equally tragic events at Jackson College, a historically black institution, were mostly overlooked by the media, or simply looked upon as part of the tide of tragic events that spring.
Then, as now, it seems that an inundation of tragic events, so closely on the heels of one another, can create a numbing effect. However, both events were equally horrific, equally tragic, and connected by a common thread-young people asserting their right to voice dissension, and attempts on the part of the government and civil authority to suppress that right. While it is undeniable that some violence did occur in the course of the protests. the fact remains that the students in both cases were unarmed and pitted against a force they could not overcome-soldiers and police fully armed with assault weapons.
Under intense pressure to investigate the killings at Kent State and Jackson State College, the Nixon administration formed the Commission for Campus Unrest. However, the result of the Commission’s findings would not shock those of us today who have come to hold out little hope for justice. Although ruling that the Ohio National Guard’s actions at Kent State were “unwarranted” and “unjustified” none of the soldiers involved in the shooting were ever charged with any crime. They continued to claim self defense, despite the fact that the closest student among the casualties, Jeffrey Miller, was over 265 feet away. In 2010, President Obama denied a request to reopen the investigation, thus guaranteeing that the debate over “what really happened” and the denial of true justice and closure for the victims’ families would continue. The only “justice” that the families of Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause. William Schroder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer ever received was a paltry civil suit settlement that added up to approximately $15,000 per student killed, once it was split among the four surviving families. “Justice” for the families of Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green was even more dire. According to a blog written by Desare Frazier commemorating the event:
Jackson State President John Peoples closed the college for the summer and mailed graduates their degrees. Lynch Street was closed on campus and renamed Gibbs-Green Plaza. No one was prosecuted for the shootings. But, Attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey filed a $13.8 million civil lawsuit in 1970 against state and local officials and law enforcement officers. The case went to trial in February 1972 in Biloxi, and an all white male jury came back with a not guilty verdict. Slaughter-Harvey says the officers in the courtroom erupted in cheers. No one has been held accountable for the shootings.
Looking back on the events that unfolded that tragic spring, as Nixon’s Cambodian campaign escalated and anti-war demonstrations led to bloodshed on college campuses across the nation, it might not be surprising to learn that then, as with more recent events, the voice of Michael Jackson reigned above it all. As Nixon announced his plans to send troops into Cambodia; as National Guard troops opened fire on students at Kent State, radio stations across the country blasted the soprano voice of an eleven-year-old boy who simply shouted: “Sit down girl! I think I love you!”
In singing a message that seemed to be the perfect antithesis of the times, little Michael may have actually been providing its antidote more than he could have ever fathomed. He did it without the need for any deep, political message or anti-government rant. He simply gave the nation his contagious joy and declaration to “shake it, baby, shake it.” And America responded, by crowning him and his brothers #1 during the bloody two weeks that changed America forever. Years later, it would be a different story as Michael’s adult lyrics and politics became shaped by personal experience and world events. But what America responded to then was his innocence. He provided light, joy, and hope that somehow, a poor little black boy from the American midwest could lead us by example through the maze of violence and confusion.
Throughout the spring, The Jackson 5 and The Beatles continued to duke it out on the charts (perhaps another foreshadowing of things to come, when Michael would essentially “own” a large percentage of The Beatles’s songs). Meanwhile, Nixon declared “Operation Menu” (the Cambodian invasion) as the war’s most successful operation, despite the fact that it had plummeted his approval rating to an all-time low (of less than 50%) and the casualties continued to mount. Forty U.S. troops lost their lives during the Cambodian operation,and this number does not even begin to include the civilian casualties-both at home and abroad. For, as all Americans were acutely aware, the Kent State shootings had marked the beginning of the era when the war officially “came home” to the U.S. It also marked the beginning of America’s official unification against the war, resulting in the escalation of the government’s withdrawal efforts.
In the last week of June, 1970, after two intense and bloody months, of operation,Nixon began the official end of the Cambodian campaign by withdrawing ground troops. And perhaps it is not surprising that, the very same week that Nixon called for the withdrawal of those ground troops, Michael Jackson was again the voice at the top of the Billboard charts, singing a song about “The Love You Save.”
Just as “ABC” Had Hit #1 The Week Nixon’s Cambodian Campaign Was Launched, So “The Love You Save” Hit #1 The Week That Nixon Withdrew Ground Troops, Officially Ending That Stage Of The Operation. The Jackson 5 Had Thus Served As The Bookends Of The Entire Campaign.
The lyrics may have been a simple love song, urging a girl to “save” her love in the name of self respect, but they were lyrics with far reaching implications within the greater context of America’s role in Vietnam and the symbolic significance of the withdrawal from Cambodia.
After so much violence and bloodshed, perhaps all hope had not been lost. Love could still “save” us yet.
Thus, it seems that Michael and The Jackson 5 served as bookends for the entire Cambodian campaign, or at the very least, its bloodiest and most violent chapter on the American home front. Michael was singing the #1 song in America when the campaign was launched; he was singing the #1 song in America when it effectively ended. And later in the year, he would reach #1 again by singing a song that seemed to prophetically connect both events of the past spring and the future to come:
“Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter
Togetherness, well that’s all I’m after
Whenever you need me, I’ll be there
I’ll be there to protect you, with an unselfish love I respect you
Just call my name and I’ll be there” -The Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There”
This wouldn’t be the last time that Michael reached #1 the same week as a horrific world event. In March of 1988, “Man in the Mirror” peaked at #1 the same week as Bloody Friday, when nearly 5,000 Kurdish citizens were killed in one of the worst genocide massacres in history, the Halabja chemical attacks. I still remember the horrific TV images of those attacks, but the irony of this massacre occurring on the other side of the world the same week that Michael’s plea to “make that change” dominated the domestic charts truly drives home the poignancy of the coincidence.
And in Michael’s “Earth Song” performances during the HIStory tour, there was an eerie throwback to one of Kent State’s most poignant moments. Before the eruption of violence, when some of the students and National Guard troops had actually been fraternizing, Allison Krause had placed a flower into the barrel of one of the soldier’s guns, reportedly telling the soldier that “flowers are better than bullets.” That moment became an iconic symbol of the protest, intensified by the fact that Krause would be among those killed just minutes afterward. Her gesture was taken up by other student protesters. As these images were circulated throughout the media, the idea of placing a flower into a soldier’s gun barrel became a powerful symbol of the anti-war movement.
Michael paid homage to this symbol in “Earth Song” during the segment where the child emerges with a flower in hand to confront the soldier. The skit would conclude with the child giving the soldier the flower to replace his gun, at which point the soldier would usually break down weeping, ultimately joined by Michael and the rest of the cast. The symbolic significance of this act was the idea that the soldier, having been redeemed by love and innocence, is brought back into the human fold. I do not know if Michael consciously intended to pay homage to Allison Krause and her gesture of peace at Kent State that day, but he most certainly would have been aware of the powerful symbolic role that flowers had played in the anti-war demonstrations.
And perhaps none of it is truly coincidence, after all. Like all of us of his generation, Michael came of age during one of the most politically turbulent times in history, a time when our country was sharply severed among political, racial, and generational divides. He was shaped and defined by those times. And, perhaps precisely because the wounds of those times have never properly healed but, rather, have merely festered beneath decades’ worth of complacency, it may not be surprising that in today’s equally turbulent times, a new generation is discovering what Michael’s music meant.
He was there, and helped us get through before. He is still here, to help us find our way.
ETA: Michael expressed his own views about the Vietnam War in an early childhood drawing (thanks to Sina for the link!):