At around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, a smattering of people could be seen around the edges of Peace Park. By 2 p.m., they had closed in, finding their spots in a semi-circle around a modest band setup and a raised microphone.
Peace Park has had its name for 50 years. Activists at MU lobbied for the name to signify that the student body was in favor of peace. They gathered again Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the name.
It was a beautiful day. The sun beat down, but a breeze traveled through the mulberry trees and rustled the grass. A mostly older crowd sat comfortably. The group was mutedly happy compared to the daytime partiers who whooped and laughed as they strode by on the sidewalks.
The event was partially one of mourning. Names were stated and repeated as if people were remembering old friends: Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer.
Paul Blackman, who has taken up gardening back home in Kansas City, placed a blue iris on a plaque in the ground. The shield-shaped piece of stone is hand-painted, just like it was in 1971, with recent refurbishment by local artist Adrienne Luther. It reads, “Peace will be the dawn of our civilization” and lists the victims of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings.
Taking place on May 4 and May 15, respectively, of 1970, both shootings involved the killing and wounding of students protesting the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The Ohio National Guard opened fire and killed four people at Kent State, and state and city police killed two Jackson State students.
While the band Nature Tapes played its second set, Dan Viets recounted his experience hearing the news 51 years ago.
“I can remember waking up on the fifth of May in the 1970s, before class, picking up the Missourian, seeing the headline says, ‘Student protesters killed at Kent State University in Ohio’ and thinking, ‘No, ’cause now they’re killing us.’”
Viets, who is now an attorney in Columbia, was active in anti-war efforts on campus during his time at MU. He became a decorated civil rights advocate, winning several awards for both his law work and activism.
“It was ‘us,’ not ‘them,’” he said of the victims. “I mean, all of us, I think, who oppose the war identified with those people who were killed.”
Peaceworks, Veterans for Peace, Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Mid-Missouri Civil Liberties Association sponsored the event.
There were six speakers in total who addressed the crowd a few at a time with Nature Tapes playing in between. Some told stories, some talked more generally and a few recited poems.
Mary Ratliff, president of the Columbia chapter of the NAACP, talked about the Black community’s experience protesting the Vietnam War. Ratliff and others pointed out how disproportionately the draft affected young men of minority communities, as well as those in poverty. Those enrolled in higher education could usually defer the draft, but less affluent men were much more vulnerable to it.
Ratliff also expressed how underrepresented the Black community was in coverage of the protests. Though Black people were involved in activism and especially vulnerable to police brutality, the news media of the time barely reported on it.
However, she also recounted the sense of solidarity she felt with everyone else who protested the war and how their fight has continued.
“We owe it to the young people that’s coming along behind us,” she said. “I’ll fight the rest of my life to be free and to make sure that my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren are free.”
Columbia had a number of pacifist and anti-war organizations, but Paul Blackman and Dan Viets formed the first one at MU, organizing several marches in town. It was Blackman’s idea to propose the park’s name change to the dean of students.
Both men said the name change went over relatively well because it was so simple, although some were against the principles of it. The park had no official name before 1971; people called it McAlester park, after the academic hall next to it.
After the change, the organization gathered to install the peace sign rock garden, as well as the plaque in front of it that lists the victims’ names.
Several men in attendance were veterans themselves or narrowly avoided being drafted. Those who went through examinations had distinct memories of how violated they felt, and many remembered the anxiety of waiting for the lottery results.
Peaceworks also welcomed a younger speaker, who had not lived through the Vietnam War but was in support of Saturday’s pacifist efforts: Sally Seye, a senior at Rock Bridge High School and an employee at Peace Nook.
“Contrary to what people say, war is not a necessary evil,” Seye said. “Around when I was born, it was Iraq — this would have been March 2003. Few years before that, it was Afghanistan. And decades before that, it was Vietnam. And decades later, it will probably be the exact same way if we don’t do something about it.”
The event concluded with speakers thanking everyone who had supported the initial events and those since, as well as an invitation to the after party.
“When I was a student, I was terrible at physics,” Blackman said in the final speech. “But I did remember one thing I learned: that there is no such thing as cold. There’s only the absence of heat. Well, that doesn’t apply to peace. Peace is not just the absence of war.”