For many students at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the four-acre park on the northern edge of campus – called “Peace Park” – is a place of reflection or relaxation. Or a short cut.
But what many students may not know – is how the Park got its name in the first place.
Senior Brendan Durbin, chief justice of the Missouri Students Association, said he comes through the park at least once a week on his way to an internship downtown. The creek is his favorite part of the park, “especially if it’s rained recently and it’s sunny out because then you can see the rushing water and it’s always a really calming place to observe.”
The park, which is formally known as McAlester Park, is the oldest undisturbed land on the Columbia campus. But for alumni like Dan Viets, a local attorney, it’s also sacred ground. In the late ‘60s and early 70s, McAlester Park was a place of protest – and remembrance.
At that time, more than 8,000 miles away, the United States was waging war in Vietnam. Students at MU and other colleges were protesting the war, including students at Kent State University. That’s where Ohio National Guard troops fired on protesters on May 4, 1970.
Viets said he recalls reading the Columbia Missourian headline the next day: “’Students killed at Kent State’ and I thought, ‘Damn, they’re killing us now.’ … I think that’s how everyone reacted. ‘It’s us, they’re killing us. They’re killing us for protesting the war.’”
A week or so later, on May 15, 1970, two students – one high school, one college – were killed during anti-war protests at Jackson State, an historically black college in Mississippi.
Viets said the flurry of college protests that led to these deaths came after it was discovered that the Nixon administration had been secretly bombing Cambodia.
“And the war was unpopular to begin with,” said Viets. “But that revelation really set a lot of people off. So, we had literally thousands of people on the quadrangle for a few days there.”
The war continued. A year later, Viets – now co-chair of the Student Mobilization Committee on campus – helped plan a day of remembrance for the students killed at Kent State and Jackson State.
According to an article in the Maneater, the student newspaper at Mizzou, a May 5 march through campus and downtown Columbia would end at none other than McAlester Park.
At the end of the march, the students declared a name change. “This place will be known as Peace Park from here on,” said Viets.
Participants also built and dedicated a memorial that day: a large stone peace symbol that remains in the park to this day. Adherents still visit the site to trim shrubbery, plant new flowers and repaint the names of the students killed in May 1970.
Viets and others will return to Peace Park at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 1, to commemorate the 51st anniversary of Kent State and the 50th anniversary of the renaming of the park. But he worries, as there’s a bit of competition for May 4th.
“You now, May the 4th has taken on another connotation in recent years,” Viets said. “As you may know, it’s intergalactic Star Wars Day. So, I’m afraid more people know it as ‘May the Fourth be with you’ than May the Fourth Kent State. But we need to remind people of this history. It’ll go away if us old timers don’t remind people of it.”