What really happened at Kent State?

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.

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.