What really happened at Kent State?

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.

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.