May 2nd, 2014
08:50 PM ET

Kent State professor compares iconic photo to Michelangelo sculpture

Jerry M. Lewis is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology. As a faculty marshal on May 4 he witnessed the shootings by the Ohio National Guard. He is featured in 'CNN Special Report Witnessed: The Killings at Kent State’ airing Sunday at 7p E.T.  

Source: John Filo/Getty Images

Source: John Filo/Getty Images

The most important carry over from the anti-Vietnam War movement is John Filo’s famous picture of Mary Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.  John was a Kent State University  photo-journalism major. He  was acting as a news professional even though he was student at the time.  He said in a 1990 interview that immediately after the firing had stopped, "I thought, I've got to get out of here.  Then I said, Wait a minute. What am I doing?  You say you're a journalist, let's go." He thought it was essential that he take his pictures out of the Kent area in order to escape the clutches of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  There had been persistent rumors that the FBI had been confiscating camera and film over the weekend.  John drove the back roads of Pennsylvania to Tarentum to have picture published saying to the editor who he knew from previous work that he thought he had some good pictures.

The Valley Daily News of Tarentum, Pennsylvania  published the picture as well as putting it on the Associated Press wire service.  John won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for his picture.

The girl in the Pieta picture was Mary Vecchio a 14 year-old run-away from, Florida.  She eventually found her way to Kent arriving on the campus May 1, 1970, four days before the shootings and leaving immediately afterward for Indianapolis. Soon after the picture was published in Newsweek, she was tracked down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and returned to her home.  The picture had an immediate impact on the Vecchio family, said Mary  Vecchio.  Her family received many letters most of them hostile.

Vecchio was a self-described antiwar activist. What kind of activist was she?  There were three ways that students got involved in the antiwar movement. First, there were the core activists who did most of the work of organizing rallies, writing pamphlets, sending letters to newspapers and so forth. Next were the secondary activists, who were interested, did a little work, but for the most part just lent the movement moral support. Lastly were "event participants" (rally attenders), whose main activity was to show up at programs and demonstrations such as large rallies and teach-ins.  I would put Vecchio in the latter category.

It is possible to interpret and understand the picture by comparing it to the Pieta of Michelangelo. The Pieta  was commissioned on August 25, 1498 by the Cardinal of San Donigi.  At the time, Michelangelo was an unknown artist.  However, the Pieta was not an unknown image to worshipers of the time.  Many artists had used it.  Robert Coughlan writes:

Until the 15th Century, the theme of the Pieta belonged almost exclusively to the artists of the northern Europe, whose gruesome figure of Jesus and Mary, mainly of wood, seemed designed to shock worshipers into awareness of Christ's sacrifice. Michelangelo's Pieta dramatically shifted the conventions but portraying the dead Christ as . . ."still alive, His veins distended by the pulse of life . . .    Mary who was traditionally portrayed in agony and disfigurement in her sorrow, is depicted with physical and spiritual beauty showing her grief with her left hand.

Most people experience Michelangelo’s Pieta which is in the Vatican as a photograph.  Both women use their faces and hands to express their grief over the tragic deaths.  Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Mary Vecchio photograph are framed as triangles with the top being the heads of each Mary while the bases are the earth for the Pieta and the parking lot for Jeffrey Miller. The Mary Vecchio picture shows the shock and horror of the shootings at Kent State by the look on Mary's face.  Next, her upraised hands, as if in prayer, capture the sorrow of the moment.  The Mary by Michelangelo expresses her grief over the death of her son with her left hand.

Jeffrey Miller is seen lying on his stomach while the Christ lies on his back cradled by Mary.  Jeffrey Miller's vitality before the moment of the shooting is illustrated by the blood on the Prentice Hall parking lot, while the Christ's blood is seen in his pulsing veins.

Both are outdoor scenes.  The Pieta has dirt at the feet of Mary, while the Vecchio picture is on the tarmac of a Kent State University parking lot.

There are differences.  Michelangelo's Pieta has no one else in the frame–only Mary and Jesus; the Kent State picture Kent State show students present.  The student standing near Jeffrey Miller is closer to his body than is Mary Vecchio.

Why has the picture been influential?  One cannot be completely certain why this picture was been used so often, but it is possible to suggest a basic reason. The Mary Vecchio picture captures the passion of the anti-Vietnam War conflict for audiences who see this cultural object. It has emotional power.  Many  see Michelangelo's Pieta in the Filo’s photograph.  This suggests an answer to why John Filo ‘s picture of Mary Vecchio, the “Anti-Vietnam War Pieta”, picture has had such a long cultural life and will continue to be an iconic symbol of the Vietnam era.


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  1. oldforester

    I was a senior at Kent State on May 4, 1970, and witnessed the events from behind the burned ROTC building ( and line of guard facing the protestors on the Kent State Commons). Following the shooting, I proceeded up the hill to Johnson Hall which overlooked the back of the National Guards position. A high school classmate was a resident manager of Johnson Hall. We were standing outside of Johnson Hall about a half hour following the shooting, when a freshman resident of Johnson Hall, who knew my high school friend as one of the Johnson Hall front office managers came up to us, said he had just come from the roof of Johnson Hall where he had found a small caliber brass shell casing which smelled of gunpowder. Not thinking anything of it at the time I put it in my pocket. When the school closed I returned home to Eastern Ohio. Two weeks later our home phone rang and on the line was an FBI agent. He asked to speak with me, asked if I had in my possession a shell casing. I said yes, and he said there would be two agents sent to my home the following day to collect the casing. The following day two agents arrived at my parent's home, collected the casing without asking any further questions and departed. I never heard again from the FBI. My old high school friend was interviewed by James Michner for his book Kent State, but the shell casing story was never mentioned. He went on to have a career in the government. I have always wondered what happened to that evidence. Not being a conspiracy advocate, there probably was some logical reason for it being on the roof of Johnson Hall. But, these were the days prior to Watergate. Nixon and then Governor James Rhodes were allies. Were there people sent to "instigate" a greater event to turn public opinion? Had this gone bad, and events escalated to the deaths of 4 students? Did an instigator fire a single shot from the roof of Johnson Hall which the guard thought may have been one of their own, then unleash fire into students? Last year, nearing retirement, I called my old high school friend who had spent his entire career working for the government. I asked him, and he gave me an additional detail about that day saying that when he was working behind the desk at Johnson Hall just prior to the shooting, a student had gone to the roof of Johnson Hall and came back and reported to the staff at Johnson Hall that he saw a man with a gun on the roof. I don't believe all the information about that day has been available to the public. I believe that there are parts of this story that need to be explained. Until then, many of us wonder if the government had a greater role in the cause of these events.

    June 4, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
  2. joebialek

    Listening to the audio tape recording of what transpired that fatal day one
    can fairly easily trace the sequence of events. What prompted the
    Guardsmen to fire appears to be their hearing of pistol shots coming from
    the crowd of protesters.
    Now given the hostile environment {they got themselves surrounded by} any
    type of nearby gunfire would certainly invite such a retaliatory response.
    Someone in a officer capacity ordered the Guard to shoot because they
    believed their troop was in harms way. What a bizarre series of events.
    All this time, because of a deliberately botched investigation by the FBI
    {as with the other cases mentioned} we the American People have been duped
    into thinking the deaths and injuries of thirteen students was the result of
    some rogue element within the Ohio National Guard where in fact it turns out
    that a under-cover spy sent in by the law-enforcement establishment
    inadvertently {or perhaps purposely} set off this chain of events when he
    was discovered by a angry few {who also helped set off the tragedy by their

    The Strubbe tape is the Zapruder film of this historic event; something the
    "authorities" didn't count on. One has to wonder if there were other audio
    or even video tapes that recorded this event only to be confiscated by
    "officials" as they were in Dealey Plaza. All four events have the same
    common denominator: do not mess with America's war machine because the
    consequences can be deadly. Perhaps one day other students {or faculty}
    will have the courage to come forward to tell what they know or perhaps tell
    what they were told not to say. Maybe KSU will have it's own "Deep Throat"
    hero emerge shortly before their death so they can reveal what truly
    happened. Boy would this make for a great Oliver Stone Film; a movie
    director who is rewarded financially by taking advantage of the lack of
    accountability by the United States Government. As Colonel Jessup {Jack
    Nicolson} in "A Few Good Men" shouts "You can't handle the truth" the
    response by the American people must always be "let us decide what truth we
    can and cannot handle" otherwise what is the point of the United States
    Constitution? We must get to the bottom of this tragedy before it is too
    late. Citizens of this great country: It's up to you.

    May 4, 2014 at 11:02 pm |
  3. chaz11222

    The art historian gush is ridiculous, and ultimately demeaning to what happened at Kent State.
    But thank you for reminding us of this May 4th tragedy,
    whose innocent victims then President I-am-not-a-crook Nixon callously called bums.
    As dozens of drafted men were dying, hundreds maimed, every week, in an insane out-of-control war.
    May we never forget. Four dead in Ohio. Shot dead by the National Guard.
    May it never happen again. May we actively work to prevent it.

    May 2, 2014 at 10:29 pm |

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