What really happened at Kent State?

Protests Image Gallery A photo taken of a wounded person immediately after the Ohio National Guard shot into the crowd at Kent State on May 4, 1970. See more pictures of protests.
AP Photo/Douglas Moore

The 1960s and '70s were tumultuous times in the United States. The country was fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam that was instigating a wave of protests. In 1970, tensions came to a fever pitch when tragedy struck on one college campus. On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard shot into a crowd of antiwar protestors at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine.

To understand the context of the tension, let's sum up the background on the war. Vietnam, which had recently fought for its independence from France in the 1940s and '50s, had split into the Communist North (Viet Cong) and non-Communist South, which sought a more democratic government. The United States had gradually increased its support for South Vietnam in order to prevent Communism from spreading in Asia. Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election based partly on his promise of Vietnamization -- transferring combat duties from U.S. soldiers to the South Vietnamese.

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On April 30, 1970, President Nixon seemed to be betraying such promises about reducing U.S. involvement in the war when he announced that he sent troops into Cambodia, where the Viet Cong had its headquarters. Opponents of the war interpreted Nixon's announcement as a step backward, and it immediately prompted antiwar protests across the country, especially on college campuses.

Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, was one such campus where tense protests were held. The campus was a relatively unlikely setting for the dramatic events that unfolded over the span of four days leading up to the tragedy. Compared to nearby Ohio State University, the Kent State student body was generally less liberal and more blue-collar [source: Lytle]. However, it's thought that outside agitators helped escalate the violence and intensity of the protests.

As protests became more heated, the Ohio National Guard was summoned to Kent. These guardsmen became the center of the controversy for their decision to fire into the crowd. Many of these young men were no older than the student protesters and had joined the Guard in order to dodge the draft.

But the real story of what happened at Kent State begins a few days before the tragic shootings took place. It begins on Friday, May 1 -- the day after President Nixon made his announcement about sending troops into Cambodia.

Events Leading Up to the Kent State Shootings

The National Guard arrived on the scene in Kent after violent riots broke out.
The National Guard arrived on the scene in Kent after violent riots broke out.

On May 1, 1970, students at Kent State held an antiwar protest, just as many other students at schools around the country did. Kent students gathered on the campus commons at noon and buried the U.S. Constitution. This symbolic act was meant to represent how Congress was violating the document by waging a war that it had never officially declared [source: Lewis]. Before the crowd broke up, the students decided to meet again for another rally on Monday.

That night, the town of Kent was restless . After visiting the bars and becoming increasingly rowdy, crowds built bonfires in the streets, broke windows and threw bottles at police cars. The worried mayor of Kent, Leroy Satrom, declared a state of emergency in the town and called Gov. James Rhodes for help. In an action that inadvertently exacerbated the situation, Satrom also closed the bars. As a result, patrons spilled out into the street and joined the rioting crowds. Finally, the police dispersed the crowd using tear gas and encouraged students to return to campus.

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Tensions only increased on Saturday. At about 5 p.m., Satrom asked Gov. Rhodes to dispatch the Ohio National Guard to Kent. He'd heard threats and rumors circulating and feared more riots like the night before [source: Lewis]. Before the Guard arrived, a crowd of about 1,000 protesters gathered around an ROTC building on Kent State's campus and burned it to the ground. Authorities never found out who was responsible for the fire, and protesters cut fire hoses to prevent the fire department from putting out the blaze [source: Heineman]. The National Guard reached Kent by 10 p.m. and broke up the crowd.

On Sunday, the college campus was filled with about 1,000 guardsmen. However, the atmosphere was surprisingly friendly and relaxed, and many students chatted with the guardsmen. But that all changed when Gov. Rhodes arrived in Kent and held a press conference during which he called violent protesters "the worst type of people that we harbor in America" [source: Chermak]. The governor also suggested that he would do something unprecedented and seek a court order to declare a state of emergency. He never did make the declaration, but most of the guardsmen and university officials assumed that martial law had taken effect. This misunderstanding gave the Guard control over the campus.

Tragedy at Kent State

The National Guard killed four students and injured nine. This student lay wounded on the ground in the wake of the shootings.
The National Guard killed four students and injured nine. This student lay wounded on the ground in the wake of the shootings.

Sunday night, protesters rioted and threw rocks at guardsmen; several arrests were made. The stage was set for a rally on Monday, May 4. The rally had been planned since Friday, but on Monday morning, university officials with the impression that the campus was under martial law issued 12,000 flyers to notify students that all rallies were banned [source: Lewis]. Student protesters defied the warnings and began gathering in the commons around 11 A.M.

By noon, the commons area was filled with nearly 3,000 people. Yet, only about 500 of these people were active protestors. Another 1,000 weren't actively participating -- they just came to show their support for the rally. Approximately 1,500 more lined the perimeter of the crowd, watching the rally and milling around. It wasn't exactly an antiwar protest; rather, evidence suggests that students were there to protest the guardsmen on campus.

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The highest-ranking officer, Gen. Robert Canterbury, fruitlessly ordered an end to the rally, calling out to protestors with a bullhorn as he was driven around the commons in a jeep. As the crowd became increasingly rowdy and threw rocks at his jeep, Canterbury ordered his men to load their weapons and use tear gas. The guardsmen pushed the protesters past the commons and up and over the steep Blanket Hill into the Prentice Hall parking lot and a practice football field. Finding themselves cornered in the field by a fence, guardsmen retreated back up the hill. When they reached the top, 28 guardsmen (out of about 70) turned and began firing their guns. Although most fired into the air or ground, some shot directly into the crowd. In the span of 13 seconds, guardsmen fired between 61 and 67 shots [source: Lewis].

Four students were killed by gunfire: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder. Scheuer and Schroeder weren't participating in the protest -- they were merely walking to class [source: Chermak]. Nine more people were wounded, one of whom, Dean Kahler, was paralyzed.

The tragedy could have led to even more bloodshed had it not been professor Glenn Frank, who was acting as a faculty marshal to keep peace during the protests. He successfully pleaded with the students for 20 minutes not to provoke the guardsmen any further.

Although we know these facts about what happened, we don't know why it happened. What prompted some of the guardsmen to fire into the crowd? Investigations and drawn-out legal battles attempted to answer this question.

Aftermath of the Kent State Shootings

In 1974, two guardsmen examine a photo taken shortly before they fired into the crowd at Kent State.
In 1974, two guardsmen examine a photo taken shortly before they fired into the crowd at Kent State.
AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson

The news of the Kent State University shootings shocked the public. The school was closed for the rest of the semester, as were hundreds of other colleges across the country. The next weekend, 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the troops being sent into Cambodia. When singer/songwriter Neil Young saw the photos taken at the scene, he wrote the song "Ohio" in commemoration of the tragedy.

The Nixon administration seemed to point fingers at the protesters for provoking the guardsmen. President Nixon's response to the shootings was simply, "When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy," which struck many as cold [source: Lytle]. Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew said the tragedy was "predictable." And the president's speechwriter, Ray Price, expressed sympathy for the guardsmen, calling them "a bunch of scared kids with guns" [source: Wells]. According to a Gallup Poll, most of the American public believed the protesters were primarily to blame [source: Polner].

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The guardsmen who shot into the crowd claimed they did so in self-defense; they felt their lives were in danger. They testified that the protesters advanced on them in a threatening way that warranted shooting. Some historians who've investigated the shootings have accused the guardsmen of conspiring to shoot into the crowd before they retreated back up Blanket Hill.

A presidential commission that investigated the matter concluded that the tragedy was "unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable" [source: Bills]. And a 1970 FBI investigation into the shootings found that the guardsmen were not in danger and they "fabricated" this defense [source: Polner].

The case went through court in several trials. The judge in the federal trial dismissed it early on because of the weak case brought against the guardsmen. An Ohio grand jury put blame on the university officials and protesters, but not the guardsmen. The civil trial was appealed several times before it was settled out of court in 1979. The victims and the families of the students killed received the collective sum of $675,000, which the State of Ohio paid [source: Bills and Bills]. The reparations came with a signed statement from the guardsmen in which they expressed their regret of the tragedy. No official apology was ever issued.

Today, there's much debate about who is to blame for the Kent State shootings. Nevertheless, all parties agree that it was an avoidable tragedy.

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Sources

  • Bills, Shirley, Scott L. Bills. "Kent State/May 4: Echoes Through a Decade." Kent State University Press, 1988. (May 1, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=Xic2lMXkyakC
  • Chermak, Steven M., Frankie Y Bailey. "Crimes and Trials of the Century." Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. (May 1, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=FPRslbPnMjwC
  • Heineman, Kenneth J. "Camus Wars: the Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era." NYU Press, 1994. (May 1, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=h2Tp9VBvq68C
  • Lewis, Jerry M., Thomas R. Hensley. "The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy." Kent State University Sociology Department. (May 1, 2009) http://dept.kent.edu/sociology/lewis/lewihen.htm
  • Lytle, Mark H. "America's Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon." Oxford University Press, 2006. (May 1, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=KUAvmWBFWBIC
  • Polner, Murray. "Wanted: The Truth About the Kent State Killings." History News Network. April 26, 2004. (May 1, 2009) http://hnn.us/articles/4525.html
  • Wells, Tom, Todd Gitlin. "The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam." iUniverse, 2005. (May 1, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=gR8iHRUaOsIC