Last May, when Mary Ann Vecchio watched the video of George Floyd’s dying moments, she felt herself plummet through time and space — to a day almost exactly 50 years earlier. On that afternoon in 1970, the world was just as riveted by an image that showed the life draining out of a young man on the ground, this one a black-and-white still photo. Mary Ann was at the center of that photo, her arms raised in anguish, begging for help.
That photo, of her kneeling over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller, is one of the most important images of the 20th century. Taken by student photographer John Filo, it captures Mary Ann’s raw grief and disbelief at the realization that the nation’s soldiers had just fired at its own children. The Kent State Pietà, as it’s sometimes called, is one of those rare photos that fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Like the image of the solitary protester standing in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Or the photo of Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalm that has just incinerated her home. Or the image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny, 3-year-old body facedown in the sand, he and his mother and brother having drowned while fleeing Syria.
These images shocked our collective conscience — and insisted that we look. But eventually we look away, unaware, or perhaps unwilling, to think about the suffering that went on long after the shutter has snapped — or of the cost to the human beings trapped inside those photos. “That picture hijacked my life,” says Mary Ann, now 65. “And 50 years later, I still haven’t really moved on.”
Mary Ann Vecchio has granted few interviews in 25 years, and as a child of the ’60s — with her own entanglement with the FBI — she’s still a bit wary. Partway through the first of what would go on to be a dozen interviews over the phone, she stops abruptly. “Are you doing this on your own?” she asks. I’m freelancing, I tell her. Is that what she means? No, she wants to know if I’m working with a political party. Or law enforcement. “When you’ve lived the life I have,” she says, “you still worry that maybe people are after you.” She also tells me she’s researched me before agreeing to speak. “I’m a little FBI-ish myself, in a renegade way,” she says. “And I’m also still that hippie kid who always sees a rainbow.”
Before Kent State, she says, she was a free spirit. “I was the kid rolling down the river on a raft,” she recalls. “I was magic. In my childhood, I believed anything was possible.” But her home in Opa-locka, Fla., not far from Miami International Airport, where her father was a carpenter, could be volatile. When her parents fought, she and her brothers and sisters would scatter, with Mary Ann hiding out in spots as far away as Miami Beach, some 15 miles from home. Soon she got in trouble — smoking pot, skipping school. So in February 1970, when the police told Mary Ann, then 14, that they’d throw her in jail if they caught her playing hooky one more time, she took off — in her bare feet. She says she wasn’t rebelling against her parents’ authority or seeking to join the antiwar movement: “I just wanted to be anywhere that wasn’t Opa-locka.”
Hitchhiking her way across the country, Mary Ann slept in fields, at hamburger shacks, at crash pads, working here and there for money for food, which she shared with other kids who were also bumming around. Seeing the country, meeting new people, sharing music and the occasional joint — the adventure had that feeling of magic from her childhood. Until, that is, she got to Kent State in northern Ohio, where, on May 4, student protests erupted over President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Mary Ann, in her jeans, white scarf and a pair of hippie sandals someone had given her, headed toward a field where students were gathered. On her way to join the protest, she struck up a conversation with a guy in bell-bottoms. The two of them watched as another student waved a black flag, taunting the National Guard troops who had been sent in after protesters had burned down the ROTC building two nights before. The soldiers seemed to retreat to a nearby hill; then, in the next 13 seconds, they fired more than 60 shots.