Bill Whitaker and Barbara Whitaker

Recorded September 19, 2009 Archived September 19, 2009 00:00 minutes
Audio not available

Interview ID: MBX005836


Bill Whitaker and friend/ex-wife Barbara Watson Whitaker “Bobbi” talk about Kent State in 1969. They were both students at the time, and Bill was highly active with the movement as well as with the legal defense following.

Subject Log / Time Code

Bill talks about the growth of the anti-war movement at Kent State, which started in 1965 with just a few students, but grew to have thousands of students by the time they were demonstrating in 1969.
Bill and Bobbi talk about the burning of the ROTC building as response to US. invasion of Cambodia. Administration called National Guard.
At the time, Bill was a law student demonstrating at Akron University. Heard guard had opened fire on Kent students.
Bill joined the Kent Legal Defense Committee and worked to try to stop the prosecutions of the 20 students indicted for rioting.
Bill’s legal career has been determined largely by the event. He works for civil rights, etc. He talks about other student demonstrations, including Kent expelling all Black students via expelling Black United Student group.


  • Bill Whitaker
  • Barbara Whitaker


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00:02 My name is Bobby Watson Whitaker. I am 61 today's date September 19th. 2009, Akron, Ohio, and I'm talking to my friend.

00:16 Who is Bill Whitaker age 65 on September 19th 2009 in Akron, Ohio and yet I am her friend and her ex-husband.

00:29 How generous?

00:32 In a previous some interview. I was talking a lot about my experiences at Kent during May 4th. And is that time? I didn't even know you and

00:46 I I know my experiences were I was suddenly politicize even though I was I was an onlooker before but you were quite active during that time and in the build-up to those days. Can you tell?

01:01 About that those days until the political atmosphere in May 4th obviously was charged and can't was became a focal point for the anti-war movement and the politics of the anti-war movement, but that didn't happen overnight. When I first came to Canton 1965 in the school year of 66 and 67 there was

01:29 Very very small anti-war movement, maybe 10 or 15 people was call the Kent committee to end the war and those people would stand out in front of the Student Union with signs against the work at the time. I wasn't very political myself. I came from a Conservative Republican family and I was impressed that these people would stand out there and protest the war and suffer the jurors and taunts of what really was a larger group of students, but they did and they were there every single Wednesday. And so I got to know those people in Gutter Guy interested and involved in the war studying about the war and became an active anti-war opponent myself. So the result was that that committee then began to grow and as the war got more publicity and as the people became more I guess we're

02:29 The ward more sensitive to what was going on more politicize the country began to get more politicized even though we were small group we go to National demonstrations where hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating against the war. So it kind of infused Lee the group with being part of a bigger process and in the years in the year school year 1967 1968 the committee began to grow and then branched off a chapter of students for Democratic Society was formed in that year. And again, it was still a small movement but the spring of 1968 the organizing began to take a little more of a positive.

03:18 Glow I guess is the answer people were much more interested in hearing what we have to say. So the movement began to crawl. However, the summer of 68 was incredible year. That was the Chicago democratic convention in it would have been a politicized year anyway 1968 because that's when Martin Luther King was killed in Bobby. Kennedy was killed and I think generated a lot of political thought on people that otherwise would be political and be concerned about school and parties all of a sudden were very much involved in the politics. But the Democratic Convention did more for organizing people around the country, but it can where we saw it firsthand when school started in the fall and we go into the dorms and talk to people about the war movement and the anti-war movement all of a sudden instead of 10 or 15 kids.

04:18 Listening there were 50 60. Sometimes a hundred people there were demonstrations throughout the year 68 and 69 and where before it had been a 50 maybe fifty or sixty people on a good day on any given day there be anywhere from unit 302 1500 students participating an anti-war demonstration. So it was huge and a huge change in the spring of 69 STS let a couple of demonstrations and some of the students got arrested and SDS got expelled from campus and a lot of the students got expelled from campus. I was a graduate student for the first part of the year, then I didn't read enroll in the spring but I stayed there and I was active in the in the anti-war movement and I had been

05:18 Step it up to law school at Akron U, which I had planned to start The Following fall.

05:24 At any rate in the spring of 69 there were demonstrations STS got kicked off campus. The leaders got to spell the number of leaders got arrested the organization got banned from campus three or four four of the students got arrested and sent in ended up having to the six months for believe. It was just a trespass in Portage County jail, and they were released.

05:53 April of 1970 of course when the demonstration started in the ROTC building that burned down they were immediately everybody wanted to know the authorities wanted to know where they were but in fact they were not even allowed on campus in and we're not on campus. He mentioned the burning of the ROTC building that was on the Saturday before the May 4th incident. Can you do you know anything about what was going on on the Friday before the news that Nixon had sent troops into Cambodia triggered a huge political response around the country on Friday, which would have been I guess May 1st in Kent there were demonstrations all afternoon and then down on the streets in the evening in the evening. The demonstrations resulted in Windows getting broken. Some rocks were thrown Through the Windows.

06:53 Sort of corporate Target and that created a a big reaction and but got the City Tents got students politicize then it was very tense and active. Friday night was tense and active.

07:12 And then Saturday Saturday was a Saturday was the pivotal day. There was there there were apparently three to four thousand people demonstrating on Saturday night on campus and that's the night that this three or four thousand people which was you know, almost unheard-of from 15 people demonstrating against the war to three or four thousand students angry at the invasion of Cambodia. They came marching over the hill on the commons and ultimately that night the yarrow TC building good burn to the ground. I wasn't politically active, but I know the ROTC building burning down

07:54 Didn't seem too many people I knew was a big thing because it was a temporary building that was only supposed to use be used in number a years during the war. So it wasn't like a huge new building that was destroyed. It was like a token who said I never looked at it that way. It was a viable long-term campus structure and although it was only used as the ROTC building for a short. Of time. It was the Arts at one point. The article was in in the in the same building and so it was a campus Building and although it was a modest building a wooden structure of one or two stories at the most but it was a significant loss according to the university and as a result of that the guard was called out that night and that's when the University of the next day the University.

08:54 Order it all demonstrations band could be no Gatherings of people and of course by that time the students were very politicized in the very Act of saying that you weren't allowed to exercise your first amendment rights politicized other so that and now there were thousands and thousands of students that were upset at what it happened and especially the idea of calling a national guard on the campus. Now, I wasn't a student then I had started Law School in Akron, but at the time I was also working my way through law school by unloading Freight at night and the only reason that significant is because it made me a Teamster and as a Teamster we were involved in a strike in April of 1970 in the week preceding the guards deployment to campus and so the guard and if so, I had a confrontation I was involved in a car.

09:54 Vacation with a National Guard during the teamsters strike. The guard was called out to help get the teamster trucks on the road and the team says were trying to stop them and there were no students cab drivers are driving the truck and the teamsters that was striking would try to stop it and I was in a bar at one point that 6 in the morning with about a hundred and fifty other Teamsters, where are the goal was to go down and try to block the trucks from 11 Consolidated Freight and all of a sudden the National Guard rolls up in at 6 in the morning surround spar with fixed bayonets so that none of the teamsters could go down and stop the truck from going out. The teams has were livid that the National Guard was playing the role of aiding management and getting the trucks out on the road thinking that the National Guard should have been sympathetic to them. They're working people the guard comes from working people and that they shouldn't be doing the job of management so they were really livid but the result was the guard was exhausted too because they've been

10:54 Dealing with the teamsters for a week and then Governor roads after the ROTC building that burned down call the students brown shirt and really incited really excited a reaction even greater than it might have been and so the teamster was called over interesting League. We understood that the team did the National Guard did not have bullets in their guns when they were dealing with the teamsters, but somehow they got the order to put really ammunition in their guns when they got their Camp to deal with the students.

11:29 So during the weekend without the Saturday with the ROTC building and Sunday was curfew people were holed up in their places while there was a demonstration though. In fact you were as I understand that you were part of it though it where there was a sitting right in the middle of Lincoln and depeyster which is the main entrance to the campus even with a guard there. There were hundreds of students the gathered in the at that intersection and eventually sat down in the middle of the intersection when we were holed up at haircut City with number of people who'd spent the night there because of quarantine and a stranger from Ohio State that just came up to visit his girlfriend.

12:18 And now we are we blasted Street Fighting Man out the window and the guard did March the students passed us a name their rifles up Addison said it's a hippie Fortress and we turned around simultaneously to see who they were talking about.

12:36 And so Monday was the the day we all gathered on campus and where the shootings I've talked about what my experience there. But where were where were you I would the University of Akron and had organized a rally where about 3,000 students turned out in really number of local politicians as well to denounce the war and denounce The Invasion into Cambodia and that Riley was breaking up when I saw the chief of police in the dean of students for the University Akron working their way through the crowd and I can see they were coming directly at me and they grabbed me and said Bill Bill. Do you know what happened? And that's when I learned that at the same time. We were having our demonstration the National Guard had opened fire on the students at Kent.

13:26 And I say where they were accurate are they were shocked and you know, they were stunned and they wanted me to see if I could find out the get any information for them. I immediately tried to find out what it happened. I started calling some of the people that I knew were leading the demonstration at Kent cuz when the demonstration was banned when all demonstrations were banned a group of people can Hammond among them organized a rally on the commons with the obviously they began with the ringing of the bell and then was broken up by the car. So I knew the people that were involved in the demonstration and I immediately tried to start getting in touch with him, but basically was very hard to do that and we ended up watching it in bits and pieces on television. There were no cell phones then that's right.

14:26 I know you think that O'Hare let me go let me grab my phone and we had to go someplace to do that.

14:33 So after the days of of May 4th, this is Ben.

14:41 Part of our identity part of my identity that I was there and it changed my life. I can you talk about your in Vault. I know you were involved with political activities long after the May 4th itself. Can you talk about that? What happened immediately after May 4th was that the campus shut down the in fact for days afterwards the city was closed off. You couldn't even get into the City and for the summer. It was really almost a deserted Town. Most of the people were gone. Nothing was happening in the fall of 1970 25 students were indicted for rioting and various other charges dealing with the burning of the ROTC building and the rally on Monday those leaders including can a man were indicted for inciting to Riot and rioting because they dared to have a demonstration and of course the guard was totally exonerated the grand jury also issued a report.

15:41 Exonerating the god condemning the students condemning the administration at Kent for not being strong enough. One of the prosecutors involved in that grand jury gave a press conference in his position at the press conference was they should have shot more students.

15:57 I heard that from townspeople when I was waitressing at the Allen K in the aftermath of that officials take the position publicly and then really create that reaction that you saw in the townspeople that they should have shot more people but as a result of those I was then in my second year at law school and as a result of those indictments, then I was involved in the Kent legal defense committee and we coordinated the defense of all 25 hiring lawyers from all over the country. There are a lot of lawyers that came in a bill counselor came in almost immediately after the grand jury and helped us filed a federal lawsuit where we tried to stop the prosecution's tried to enjoying the prosecution's saying that they were violation of civil rights. They were done for the purpose of chilling First Amendment expression, and we're just a form of harassment of the anti-war movement.

16:55 And then we obviously had to defend the 25 students and that was that was actually my first legal job. I mean we were involved almost all of the time other than loss goal. I stopped unloading Freight and began working full-time with the cat committee defense committee and hiring the lawyers in working on motions and working on this lawsuit that the counselor had instructed us about Bill Kunstler had knew about this lawsuit because they had used it when he was a civil rights lawyer when they used to arrest people, even though they knew they couldn't sustain the charges they would arrest black leaders so that there couldn't be any demonstration and they were able to get all the way up to the Supreme Court to sanction the enjoying a prosecution's when they had a chilling effect on First Amendment rights. So we applied the same thing here a very interesting result. They did not enjoy.

17:55 The prosecution's but they did the judge that heard the case or did the grand jury report to be destroyed and which was first grade report was unprecedented. And then the order it destroyed was unprecedented. Will the clerk of courts a Woman by the name of Lucy de Lyon called me up for some reason and said I don't know what to do about this court order that says I need to destroy the grand jury report. And so I thought well this is interesting that I have an idea for her and I said here's what you need to do. First of all has to be done publicly. So what I suggest is that you call a press conference and you get a wastebasket and then you hold a grand jury report up and light it on fire and lo and behold that's exactly what you did about one week later. I was standing behind the Portage County courthouse and there was a press conference and Lucy de Leon set the grand jury report on fire dropped it in a wastebasket stuff.

18:55 The grand jury report was in fact physically destroyed credible the prosecution's themselves, even though you prosecution's with regard to the burning of the ROTC building. There were no convictions. They couldn't get convictions. So the prosecutors went they tried their strongest cases first, which involve the burning of the ROTC building and when they started getting acquittals on those, they tried a couple of the inciting to Riot and when they realize that they weren't going to get convictions, they called a press conference and ended up dismissing all of the charges against all of the students. So it was it was quite a heavy moment and a considerable Victory after the difficulties of May 4th.

19:47 So every year May 4th is still commemorated and you've been I know active many of those years, but also you have a daughter that was active. She chaired the committee during an important year. We can you talk about that. It was the 20th, but it was a big anniversary and she was the chairperson Andrea Whitaker was the chairperson of the can't and I can't remember the name. I can't remember the exact name of the committee, but it was the committee that was responsible for putting on the May 4th commemoration and she was Lee. In fact, it was very interesting moment. She was leading. She was Fleetwood DMC. So to speak of of the event introducing the various speakers and more or less.

20:46 Following it through from beginning to end and so Bill Kunstler was one of the speakers and then she introduced me so that I could introduce Bill Kunstler and it was a nice mom and that was the year of more National coverage than usual because the 40th anniversary is coming up in May and

21:12 So a lot of things are happening a lot of the people involved in the politics that we just talked about earlier have stayed close over the years and Dan Miller. Who was there on May 4th is a documentary filmmaker and he's going to be releasing a film about May 4th and we're finding a lot of thing a lot of Interest being generated for the 40th anniversary as well. Can I ask you guys a question? So I'm going back a little bit what you're both students and you're both young. How were you feeling at the time? What inspired you? What was it? Like being a student and being that why were you so committed?

21:56 I did not I was a little younger and I wasn't political as I said, but I

22:04 With the commuter in the commuters cafeteria was where everyone congregated.

22:13 And so it was the art of the people take in R and the people in English and the demonstrators were there and I am just such a people Watcher. I would absorb everything and I was drawn to these people who are so passionate and magnetic and good storytellers and

22:34 I was just pretty lost trying to find a place to be.

22:41 And numb as somebody who was involved in the political end of it. It was exciting at one moment. It was exciting that the results of years of organizing had the generator such a powerful anti-war movement. It was tragic and I mean you couldn't talk about the students being killed without being choked out. So there was a combination of excitement at the anti-war movement excite excitement at the politics in real personal loss at the students being the ones that were killed and injured Chris. Then I got a mediately focused on the defense of it. I can't 25 which combined you know politics and law so I was fairly narrow minded Lee focused on on on on trying to be successful in defending the students.

23:35 I was nearly poised to graduate and that got delayed quite a bit. I was

23:42 Going to teach English and I just kept waitressing. I wasn't ready to.

23:48 To join the world there yet.

24:04 My family interests when you know if I had been arrested in 19 in 1969 and no spring demonstrations. I had gotten arrested and I was actually there was a event called the music and speech where some students were going on trial to be expelled the students. It ended up actually serving that time in Portage County Trail jail, and they were going to have a student hearing where the administration wanted to expel them. And we went over to that demonstration. It was there. I mean we went over to those trials in demonstration form when marched on the building and went up to the top floor where the where the trials are taking place and they police surrounded the building surrounded the floor and trap all the students there and said that it was a building takeover, and we're all going to be arrested.

24:55 A professor of Professor had found an elevator and it was out of sight of the cameras and out of sight of the police that were lined up at each end of the hall with their big batons and started taking people down the elevator and I had gone down in one of the elevator so I didn't get arrested that night. But as soon as they realize the crowd was thinning than the police moved in and arrested everybody else, but then 3 days later when they had the court hearings for all of the people that have been arrested. I got off the elevator on the at the courthouse and I was arrested at that point because the police perceive me to be a leader and they arrested for five people that had gotten away they had gotten down the elevator so they arrested me and put me in handcuffs and I was backed up into the elevator but there was a lot of press coverage. So on the news that night was a picture of the elevator shutting with me standing there in hands. And so I didn't tell my dad about it. However, there was some people that he knew that lived in

25:55 Area and so when I get out of jail, I did get a call and they had gotten the First full hand discussion about the team me arrested on television. It was the only wise it was difficult. I was you I'm the oldest of 10 children and my dad really didn't want me poisoning the other children with my radical ideas, but basically throughout it all even with those disagreements. It was a very supportive family in and he and they remained

26:30 It support of us. I did that wasn't expelled from the family so to speak.

26:35 And I did get to hang out with my younger brothers and sisters clearly. We're excited about watching the whole thing.

26:43 How about you found my background is my parents were not very active in parenting. And once I was in Kent, my father never ventured any curiosity see where I lived or was interested as long as I was safe and

27:01 You showed up on Saturdays to take my mom to the grocery store. They didn't really know too much of what was going on with me.

27:09 I had that in my day, even though my dad was anti-war. I mean Aunt Diane's I want you to know he was Furious when I registered as a Democrat, but even though he really was against my political views. I kept I reminded him that one of the reasons that I felt that I was anti-war is when I was really young 8 9 10 years old we had watch the movie at a friend's house where the on Saturdays they would have these movies on a with a projector and a screen and it would get over it was dark and I remember one day he had taken me and we were walking back home and it was some World War II movie and I was gone. I'll bang you know, I got it from watching the movie and my dad said, you know what you just killed a man who's got a wife and children just like, you know children just like you and it stoned me because

28:09 You watch these movies all those World War II movies and then they don't show the human end of it and it stuck with me always, you know how it goes and I remembered it and I never forgot it and it was one of the reasons why was I think drawn to the anti-war movement?

28:36 I nobilior it says you're an attorney now.

28:46 I finally found a spot. I love I'm a librarian and I love Distributing things that are going to enrich people's lives and I don't have to stand in front of the class and direct people forward. I can be the onlooker and listen and be aware of what they are and have the perfect thing for them. I'm very happy my involvement with the aftermath of May 4th was as illegal worker and we're actively involved and even whenever you can't when I first became a lawyer when there were still people being arrested over the next couple years and one of my first cases went to the Supreme Court of the United States about a guy that was arrested for disorderly conduct. Could you use foul language on the street and we were able to get him acquitted but my legal career really was formed in part by what happened then and what happened

29:45 What a defense of the Kent 25. I've been involved in a lot of civil rights work. I've done a lot of criminal defense. I represented a pacifist. It was arrested for refusing to register when Jimmy Carter insisted that the draft registration begin. So it's really informed a basic part of my career.

30:10 The immediate aftermath for me was we clung to people that were close to us to to perform a family that made me Santana community and it happened at those people were political and Bob Lewis and Jerry casali were founding members of Devo after that and that became the focus of my energies.

30:43 Community was just a really huge part of what was going on. Right and I think for Our Generation we

30:53 We formed a family with friendships and emotional support from friends because we had more in common than with our families this day. You said you still very close when it's close. It's the same with the SDS in the political people. They they have ties across the country in her in constant communication and the friendships are formed and I still have

31:24 Yeah, I mean that's really great and we have so we have about nine minutes left if you guys have anything else you guys would like to talk about today. I've learned so much already.

31:39 If it does it have to tie in with this topic because I'm sure bill has a million stories Community with a community in in the friendships. And obviously a lot of we have a lot of friends in common over the years. I suspect that the 40th anniversary this spring that all of these people will come together. I think that they will be a big turnout in terms of that community in the friends that were involved in the politics leading up to May 4th and and those involved in defending the Kent 25 and in doing the follow-up political work as well. So I think that May 4th 2010 will bring all of these people back together. I know I've had both can him and and Jim Paris I have been in touch with me.

32:39 Want to try to put together a kind of three separate Viewpoint Memoir of of the events leading up to it and they want to do it in a very personal way.

32:52 Leading up for example back to the point where my dad told me. You know, you just kill somebody that's got a wife and children who depend on on on that person he talking about dealing with in a very personal way how we got involved in the anti-war movement. Then what happened in terms of the build-up and what happened in terms of the political movement growing. I know that there's a lot of interest in I'm trying to

33:22 So to reconcile Latin if Danny Miller's film comes out that's a serious an oral history really as well. As a series of interviews of all of the people that were involved in one thing not to be overlooked is the black United students were actively involved one of the biggest events in terms of organizing people politically was a joint demonstration against the Oakland Police with a black United students in SDS. And as a result of that demonstration, it was the first attempt by the university to try to get everybody off to try to get SDS and expelled so they expelled everybody from SDS and everybody from the black United students will all of a sudden can't stay became an all-white University because there were only three or four hundred black students at the time and they were all got expelled and so they March from Kent to Akron as a group and set up an a church. Meanwhile all of the

34:22 Especially the liberal professors were going to teachings and meetings and demonstration saying I can't teach in an all-white University and the administration simply couldn't sustain the expulsion of all of its black students and so late and the other hand they would have loved to have kept kept explosion up for the SDS students for a loan that would have been supported but there was no way to justify giving amnesty to all the black students and none of the white students. So they ended up revoking the explosions in inviting the black students back and revoke revoke and expulsion for all of the students. Did they do that as a general announcement or did they personally

35:10 Communicate with each of them you may now attend but they but they had to make an announcement. I mean it was being followed in the press and the black United students had a great political organization and they have done a great job by mobilizing public support by setting up this sort of community in Exile in at a church and Akron, so there had to be a press conference announcing that the explosions are being revoked and all of the students were being invited back to campus Danny Danny Millers movie also interviews many of the leaders of the black United students remembering those particular events as well and their role in the events leading up to May 4th 1970. It's changed its shape over.

36:09 Over the years it it will be presented this next spring.

36:21 You've you've been portrayed in some literature James Michener wrote a book about May 4th, and and I didn't really want to go on record as speaking to him because I didn't think he had a very good feel for the politics of it, but I wanted to try to influence it a little bit. So he ice I spent a long time talking to him and he interviewed me using an alias of Paul probius. He actually use my name my real name in the course of that as he put it to deflect any attention that Paul probius might be Bill Whitaker, but the but for James Michener I was Paul provias.

37:11 I am this has been interesting and I

37:16 Glad to get to talk more about May 4th, May 4th with you.

37:23 It has been and I think it's a it's a good time to be talking about May 4th, and I agree with you.