Featuring nearly 150 black-and-white photographs, Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience of Kent State 1970 chronicles the Kent State massacre of May 4, 1970, as seen through the eyes (and lens) of photographer Howard Ruffner.
Nearly 50 years ago, a group of unarmed students at Ohio’s Kent State University peacefully protested America’s bombing of Cambodia. Between May 1 and May 4, mounting tensions culminated with the arrival of 28 National Guardsmen, who fired dozens of rounds over the course of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine. Along with three other student photographers, Ruffner captured the chaos and anguish of the fateful day. Ruffner’s Moments of Truth is the first collection of its kind to be published in book form.
“The numbers 13, 67, 4, and 9 are embedded in my mind,” Ruffner writes in the book. “They represent the 13 seconds, 67 rounds, 4 dead, and 9 wounded resulting from the Ohio National Guard shooting at unarmed students during an antiwar protest on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. I was 80 feet in front of the Guard when they unleashed their volley of bullets.”
Ruffner continues, “I relive this horror every noon on May 4, and have for the last nearly 50 years.”
Ruffner was born in 1946 and raised outside Cleveland, the eldest of seven boys. He became immersed in the world of written and visual communications in the military, then enrolled in Kent State University on the GI Bill, studying broadcasting. In Moments of Truth, Ruffner describes how he was a photographer for the campus newspaper and had just been named editor of the 1971 yearbook, and how he began working as a freelancer for Life magazine around the same time. His role as a collegiate photographer put him squarely in the face of history as he documented the days leading up to the massacre, as well as the massacre itself.
While many of Ruffner’s photos have already been published elsewhere, they’ve never been compiled together like this. 85% of the photos in the book have never been published at all, so there’s lots of new material to take in. Ruffner’s informative first-person text complements the photos and adds another layer of meaning to the sobering narrative that underlies the entire book.
May 4, 1970 was not the end of Ruffner’s involvement with the incident, either. “In the 10 years following this encounter, I was the lead witness at the federal civil trials in Cleveland,” he writes. “I took the stand for three days and testified to the authenticity of the photographs entered into evidence. All the defendants were found guilty at the end of the first trial. On an appeal and a retrial, no verdict was reached and a monetary settlement was stipulated to compensate the victims. The Ohio National Guard and Gov. James Rhodes signed a letter stating publicly that they regretted what happened. The question remains unanswered: Why did the Ohio National Guard fire live ammunition at unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine?”
Today, the May 4 Memorial on Kent State University’s campus features the words “Inquire, Learn, Reflect.” Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the monument — like Moments of Truth — shines a harsh light on the complex power dynamics of human rights and institutionalized violence.