You may not know the name Mary Ann Vecchio, but you’ve likely seen her photo. She’s the 14-year-old girl screaming over the body of a young college student moments after he was gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in May 1970. That unforgettable photo was taken by student photographer John Filo.
Both Vecchio and Filo will be at Emerson on Wednesday, April 12, in the Bright Family Screening Room, as part of a retrospective on the Kent State and Jackson State massacres, sponsored by the Communication Studies Department.
“Mary, when I was talking to her over the weekend, said to me every time there’s a … shooting, it just takes her back to that day,” said Communication Studies Chair Greg Payne, organizer of the event and a scholar of the killings who teaches a seminar on Kent State/Jackson State every two or three years.
The retrospective will begin with a screening of the 1981 TV docudrama Kent State, based in large part on Payne’s book, Mayday, Kent State, followed by a discussion and reception with Vecchio and Filo.
Later in the evening, Executive-in-Residence Ken Grout will host the spring Southwick Recital, featuring scenes from Kent State: A Requiem, a play written by Payne, and poems inspired by Kent State and Jackson State written by students.
On May 4, 1970, at Kent State in northeast Ohio, National Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds at students who were protesting the Vietnam War’s encroachment into Cambodia, wounding nine students and killing four, including Jeff Miller, the student shot in front of Vecchio in Filo’s photo, which has been credited with helping to end the war.
Less than two weeks later, police fired at student protesters at Jackson State in Mississippi, killing two and wounding 12.
Payne said some of the students who take his seminars already are somewhat familiar with Kent State, while others are less aware, but they often come away with a common understanding.
“I think what they’ve discovered is that the government is only as good as the people you elect,” he said.
Through the generosity of alumnus Lee Schwebel ’90, students in Payne’s class will travel to Ohio next month for the annual commemoration.
It was at another Emerson retrospective, for the 25th anniversary in 1995, that Vecchio and Filo met for the first time. Filo was apprehensive at first — the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo had helped make Filo’s career as a photojournalist, but had brought Vecchio nothing but harassment, denigration, and death threats from around the country – but the two embraced and have been friends since, according to a Washington Post article. Vecchio has visited Payne’s classes throughout the years.
Sometimes Payne, who wrote his dissertation on differing interpretations of Kent State, thinks he might be done with the retrospectives. But the events of 1970 still resonate through 2023 news events, and he realizes he can’t be done yet.
“For so many people, there’s just such a lack of an ending, or there’s a need to still come to some type of understanding of this,” he said.