Kent State, just hearing those two words conjures up images of unarmed college students, teenagers laying about on the campus Commons – all shot by Ohio National Guardsmen who proclaimed they acted in self-defense and reacted to the sound of a sniper firing. Newspapers fed the rumor mill for weeks afterward – many attempting to portray Kent, Ohio as a sleepy cow college town before May 70.
Before I show the events of that fateful day, let me share what I found during my research. The intent here is not to take sides but only to present the facts as they occurred – beginning two-years prior to the event.
In 1968, college campuses around the country were still experiencing Civil Rights demonstrations, anti-war protests and the undertones of a student movement and revolution. The Vietnam War – Tet Offensive in 1968 seemed to be a turning point for the American public’s support of the war effort. Adults and students alike began voicing their displeasure – joining peace rallies around the country. Many were disenchanted with the government and seeking ways to be heard.
Organizers for some of the more radical and militant groups took advantage of this turmoil and began spending more time on college campuses. Volunteers passed out informational leaflets, conducted rap sessions in dormitories, and solicited members for the cause. The goal of each group was to get enough people involved to be chartered and recognized by the administration. Some of the groups vying for members at Kent State were ‘Black Panthers’, BUS (Black United Students), CCC(Concerned Citizens of the Community), KCEWV (Kent Committee to End the War in Vietnam), and SDS (Students for A Democratic Society).
In the spring of that year, the SDS National Council initially preached Marxist ideologies but later moved toward a militant struggle aimed at stopping or impairing the functioning of bourgeoisie institutions (whose societal concerns are the value of property and the preservation of capital, to ensure the perpetuation of their economic supremacy in society).
SDS at Kent got its start in May of 1968. An organizational meeting for summer work in Cleveland was held, and people spent time preparing for various tasks from ‘draft counselling to leafleting. In August, several people from Kent went to Chicago and took part in the actions around the Democratic Convention.
SDSwas finally chartered in the fall with several hundred students attending the first meeting. Thereafter, attendees at weekly meetings numbered a couple of hundred.
In October 1968, SDS and BUS occupied the Student Activity Center to protest recruitment on campus by the Oakland, CA Police Force. Their protest of 500 students was a ‘sit-in’, peaceful, lasting several hours, and nobody was arrested. Students abandoned the protest following the assurances of the Dean of Students that the Oakland recruiters would not return the next day. The next day, however, recruiters reported for work as usual, and the University moved to suspend student “leaders” of the sit-in. SDScalled for amnesty.BUS led a walk-off by most of the black students, and the University, faced with bad press and liberal hostility, granted amnesty to all the participants.
During the winter of 1968 – 1969, SDS spent a lot of time preaching to students in the dorms. Members would talk about the war, racism and the status of students and the university, discussions were lengthy and often heated. The political consciousness within Kent State was significantly raised by spring and many students became revolutionaries by the process.
During this time, the group became sophisticated and stronger and planned a ‘Spring Offensive’ where they would make demands of the school administration. Eventually, they settled upon four demands: the abolition of ROTC, the end of war research, the abolition of the law enforcement training program, and the removal of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation crime lab housed in the chemistry building.
Organizing then began to focus on the counter inauguration in Washington. In January 1969, SDS went to Washington and took part in the demonstrations, as well as some street fighting. After returning from D.C. the chapter entered upon a relatively quiet period.
On April 8, l969, the ‘Spring Offensive’ was launched with a march on the Administration Building to present the 4 demands to the office of Trustees. Campus police blocked the entrances, and this led to some pushing and scuffling. No one was arrested at the time, but by that evening eight people – so called “leaders” were being sought. The eight were charged with assault and suspended from school. This triggered more demonstrations and then a week later, a march across campus to the Music and Speech Building, where hearings were to be held on the question of the suspensions. It turned out to be a trap, for as soon as the demonstration entered the building the hearings were canceled and the building was sealed off by police. Sixty people were arrested and charged with trespassing, and the SDScharter was revoked. Several hundred students protested in a march, but the charter was not reinstated.
Out of this bust several leadership cadre spent up to six months in jail, and one individual was given a l~7 year sentence in June 1970.
Regardless of the specific fate of individuals, the bust of spring ’69 was a real blow to SDS at Kent. By fall, SDS had ceased to function. A few isolated groups worked to get things going again, but nothing came of it. 500 people went to Washington in November, but no ongoing movement re-formed itself at Kent. An attempt at a draft resistance leaguein December got a good start, but failed to develop, and soon collapsed.
Most of the period from June 1969 to April 30. 1970 was very quiet at Kent. A lot of people had been frightened by the mass arrests at Music and Speech, and were afraid of being involved or identified with a political organization.
In terms of long range trends and short-term fluctuations, Kent was in a low point. Those still working with the campus felt a sense of fatalism and frustration. While people in the dorms spoke of waiting for the big upsurge, but the organizers felt it would never come. Even the Chicago 8 trial failed to elicit much response from the former chapter members. Kent was, to all appearances, dead.
During the last week in April, black and White students at Ohio State called a strike and had been in the streets demonstrating. The Ohio National Guard were called to Columbus, and one student had been wounded by police shotgun fire. Additionally, Teamsters in Ohio called for ‘illegal’ wildcat strikes in Ohio which the National Guard had been called out to suppress.
On the evening of Thursday, April 30, Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, and the official expansion of the war. A raging fire of protest quickly spread across the United States. At Kent State University, the reaction to Nixon’s announcement was similar to other campuses across the nation. Students were livid!
At noon, Friday, May 1st, 500 students gathered around the victory bell on the Commons – the usual site for rallies. The protest was organized by a group of history students who buried a copy of the Constitution, which they claimed had been murdered when the U.S. troops were sent into Cambodia without a declaration of war by Congress. Two veterans also burned their honorable discharges.
Closer view of people gathered near Victory Bell (W.H.O.R.E. event, burying the Constitution 5/1 It was called by a group of history graduate students calling themselves the World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation, or WHORE
Three hours later, Black United Students held a rally, which had been scheduled before Nixon had made his announcement. Some 400-people gathered to hear black students from Ohio State University talk about the recent disorders on their campus with the Ohio National Guard who used ‘rubber bullets’ against the students. Word spread quickly that another rally, one to oppose the Cambodian invasion, was scheduled for Monday, May 4, at noon.
Man addressing the crowd in front of the Victory Bell (W.H.O.R.E. event, burying the Constitution) 5/1
During the evening hours, the downtown area in Kent experienced a spontaneous anti-war rally which broke out in the streets. Twice police cruisers passing by were pelted with beer bottles and rocks. After a bit, additional people joined in the protest.
They blocked traffic for an hour, and started a bonfire in the middle of the intersection while chanting anti-war slogans. As the crowd grew, they began walking down the street and breaking the windows of banks, loan companies, and utility companies. A motorist insisted on barging through the crowd, nobody was hurt, but the car had most of its windows broken when running the gauntlet. The mayor called a State of Emergency which then closed all the bars in town.
Hundreds of additional people now entered the melee after they were asked to leave the bars. The police came out in force and began ushering the crowd away from town and toward the college grounds. Police used teargas and batons to empty the streets, and arrested fourteen people during the violence.
At 5:00 pm, the mayor had called for the National Guard – the college administration was unaware of this. At 8:00 pm, 300 students gathered on the Commons; anti-war slogans echoed throughout and individuals made speeches. Shortly afterward, an impromptu march began and moved toward the dorms – gathering in size as it moved toward the former ROTC building.
Approximately 2,000 students surrounded the building and began chanting, gaining momentum. Suddenly, onlookers began throwing rocks and breaking the windows. Not long after, the building caught on fire.
Fire crews were impeded by students attacking firemen and cutting hoses. They were soon able to contain and extinguish the blaze. Soon as the fire trucks left campus, the ROTC building was ignited again and fire crews responded a second time – this time they were escorted by a massive police force. They surrounded the smoldering building and began using tear gas to disperse the students. As many of them evacuated to the Commons and front of the campus, students were shocked to see Ohio National Guard soldiers arriving in force.
Burned ROTC building
Students evacuated up the hillside and gathered to watch the fully engulfed fire and the National Guard soldiers. Armed with tear gas and drawn bayonets, the Guard pursued students–protesters and bystanders alike — into dormitories and other campus buildings. Some stones were thrown and at least one student was bayoneted.
Burned out ROTC building with National Guard personnel and others around building
Sunday, May 3rd, was a relatively quiet day. By now, however, the campus was fully occupied by Ohio National Guard troops, with armored personnel carriers stationed throughout the campus. Although some students and guardsmen fraternized, the feeling, for the most part, was one of mutual hostility. That morning, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, who was running for U.S. Senate, arrived in Kent and along with city officials held a news conference. Rhodes, running on a “law and order” platform, attempted to use this opportunity to garner votes in the primary election, which was only two days away. In a highly inflammatory speech, Rhodes claimed that the demonstrators at Kent were the handiwork of a highly organized band of revolutionaries who were out to “destroy higher education in Ohio.” These protesters, Rhodes declared, were – the worst type of people we harbor in America, worse than the communist element … we will use whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent!”
Later that evening, a National Guard commander would tell his troops that Ohio law gave them the right to shoot if necessary. This merely served to heighten guardsmen’s hostility toward students.
Around 8:00 pm, a crowd gathered on the Commons near the Victory bell. As the group increased in size, Guard officials announced the immediate enforcement of a new curfew. The crowd stood fast and refused to disperse.
At 9 pm, tear gas was fired from helicopters hovering overhead, and the Guard dispersed the crowd from the area. Students attempted to demonstrate that the curfew was unnecessary by peacefully marching toward town, but were met by guardsmen. Students then staged a spontaneous sit-in at the intersection of East Main and Lincoln Streets and demanded that the Mayor of Kent and KSU President speak with them about the Guard’s presence on campus. Assured that this demand would be met, the crowd agreed to move from the street onto the front lawn of the campus. The Guard then betrayed the students and announced that the curfew would go into effect immediately. Helicopters and tear gas were used again to disperse the demonstrators. As the crowd attempted to escape, some were bayoneted and clubbed by the guardsmen. Students were again pursued and prodded back to their dormitories. Tear gas inundated the campus, and helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead all night. By midnight, Sunday night, Kent was in a real state of siege.
Because of President Nixon’s televised announcement on Thursday, the next three days the campus was filled with disorder, the downtown business district was trashed, and the ROTC building on campus burned to the ground. The National Guard occupied the campus and downtown area, and the Governor, who was predisposed with his upcoming election, made clear his total hostility to the protests and implied that violence will be used to stop any further demonstrations.Militant organizers preached that the time was right for a revolution.
Here’s four points of observation leading into Monday morning:
There was a distinct lack of leadership by all involved parties – school administration, government/military, students and organizers.
The NG units were ill-trained and came right from riot duty elsewhere; they hadn’t had much sleep in the last five days.
Many of the ‘organizers’ on campus were radical political activists – outsiders, and not students.
Students felt totally alienated from American society.
So now you understand the political climate on campus leading up to Monday, May 4, 1970.
Monday morning, many of the radical leadership felt exposed and fearing arrest, left town and hid out. Those remaining, called a meeting at 10:00 am in the student administration building. The organizers told the gathering that they were informed by Tom Hayden at Rutgers the night before to call off the rally and move to a student strike instead. However, with most of the leaders gone, the ‘movement’ was rudderless, leaving only a handful of people to orchestrate the events going forward. Moving across the campus in between classes, everybody reminded one another about the noon rally. By 11:30 am, several-thousand people had gathered on the Commons – the largest amount ever at Kent for a demonstration; the crowd was excited, and appeared to be taking on a life of its own.
Picture of what happened after the killings. Many people who were not even part of the demonstration sat down in front of the NG, and basically said, “If you’re going to shoot someone, shoot me.“
The Liberty Bell began ringing at 11:45 am, signaling the start of the rally. A student rose and stood on the brick housing and addressed the crowd, telling them that the organizers were calling for a student strike instead. However, without a sound system or megaphone, only two-hundred or so students were actively listening and soon started chanting: strike…strike…strike!
At noon, a jeep left the NG area, stopping fifty yards from the edge of the crowd, a soldier tried to order everyone to disperse but he was pelted with rocks and drove away fast. There was a moment of stillness and the guard moved toward the Commons.
National Guard personnel walking toward crowd near Taylor Hall, tear gas has been fired
They fired a volley of tear gas that landed at the bottom of the hill. Most students began leaving the Commons and moving up the hill slowly – others remained and threw gas canisters back at the line of approaching soldiers who all wore gas masks.
By the time the soldiers reached the top of the hill, many of the crowd had circled around Taylor Hall and moved downhill to the parking lot. Here, the guard unit split up. Some went to the south of the hall and headed toward the parking lot. Others went around to the north and stopped on the football practice field.
Much of the crowd in the parking lot began moving backwards to an area bordering the dorms, leaving at least a thousand remaining in the parking lot. Students began closing in and throwing rocks at the guard standing on the practice field. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they were soon surrounded on three sides by screaming and chanting students. They quickly retreated to the top of the hill and then formed into a line facing those in the parking lot. Students continued to close in on the line of soldiers but stayed at least 100 yards away.
When the dozen or so soldiers reached the top of the hill, they stopped and turned suddenly, some dropped to a knee, and then the entire line assumed a firing stance. On the command to open fire, they fired into the crowd below with live ammunition. Sixty-seven rounds were fired, the gunfire lasting only 13 seconds. When they finished, the line of guardsmen turned and walked back to their lines.
There were ambulances parked at the NG lines on the Commons but couldn’t react to the shooting until released by the guard commander a few moments later. Four students died: ALISON KRAUSE, JEFFREY MILLER, SANDRA SCHEUER and WILLIAM SCHROEDER. Nine were wounded – 1 paralyzed for life and several maimed.
NOTE: There is an ironic incident of Allison Krause putting a flower in one soldiers gun barrel during the fraternization between students and Guardsmen the day before.
May 4th – After the shootings, students in a state of shock, sitting, standing, surrounded by the National Guard. I hear students say ‘Go home, get back to your dorms, they’re going to charge again!
The next day, the college president terminated all classes for the rest of the semester and helped in the transfer of getting students home. The campus and town of Kent were also placed under martial law while an investigation ensued. Police raided homes and arrested perceived ring leaders and organizers of the Kent State University demonstrations.
In their coverage of the events at Kent State, the media used a photo, taken by a fellow student, of a woman kneeling in anguish, arms upraised, beside one of the slain students. This Pulitzer Prize-winning image soon became a symbol of the social upheaval of the time.
The unrest across the country escalated even further. Almost five hundred colleges were shut down or disrupted by protests.
Another, similar incident took place ten days later, on May 14, at Jackson State University, an all-black school in Mississippi. During a student protest, police and state highway patrolmen fired automatic weapons into a dormitory, killing two students and wounding twelve others, several other required attention for cuts from the broken glass.
No warning had been given and no evidence was ever found of student sniping that might have justified the shootings. This time, the National Guard soldiers were issued rifles but without ammunition.
Nevertheless, unlike the Kent State episode, this incident evoked little national attention, embittering many blacks who felt that the killing of black students was not taken as seriously as that of whites.
In the week following Kent State, construction workers rioted on Wall Street, attacking antiwar demonstrators and sending many to the hospital, some were permanently crippled.
Despite the public outcry, the Justice Department initially declined to conduct a grand jury investigation. A report by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest did acknowledge, however, that the action of the guardsmen had been “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” FBI concluded their investigation. Chief investigator from Justice Dept. recommending on basis of report that at least six guardsmen be prosecuted.
Eventually, a Grand Jury was empaneled in September by Ohio Attorney Gen. Paul Brown. Special state prosecutors were appointed to present the State’s evidence. Over 300 witnesses were heard, and the reports of the FBI and Scranton Commission were considered.
There was an attempt to blame a mysterious sniper, of whom no trace was ever found; there was no evidence, on the ground, on still photographs or a film, of a shot fired by anyone but the Guardsmen. One officer is seen in many of the photographs, out in front, pointing a pistol; one possibility is that he fired first, causing the others, ahead of him, to turn and fire. Or (as some witnesses testified) he or another officer may have given an order to fire. It is indisputable that the Guardsmen were not in any immediate physical danger when they fired; the crowd was not pursuing them; they were seconds away from being out of sight of the demonstration.
There was also an undercover FBI informant, Terry Norman, carrying a gun on the field that day. Though he later turned his gun into the police, who announced it had not been fired, later ballistic tests by the FBI showed that it had been fired since it was last cleaned– but by then it was too late to determine whether it had been fired before or on May 4th.
When classes resumed at Kent for fall, the students were Presented with “Think Week”, the theme of which was “Power to the Peaceful”. This was an attempt to induce a sense of passivity in the campus, and to isolate anyone who advocated an active political assault on the University. The school had received an $80,000 grant to create a model for the rest of the country.
On Oct. 16, the Grand Jury issued its report. This placed primary responsibility for the events of May 4th on the “permissiveness” of the KSU Administration. It issued 25 secret indictments against students, faculty and “outsiders”. The indictments ranged from riot to destruction of property and covered the entire period from May 1 through May 4,1970. Those indicted include a sociology professor, several local drug dealers, some high school kids who just dropped by for the action, and a few radicals from SDS and other campus political groups. The Grand Jury completely exonerated the Ohio National Guard, declaring the shooting of 13 students, killing 4, to have been justified.
A civil suit brought by the wounded students and the parents of the dead ones deteriorated among infighting by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Unable to agree on a single theory of the case, they contradicted each other. The jury returned a verdict for the defendants.
This verdict was overturned on appeal–the main ground was that the judge did not take seriously enough the attempted coercion of a juror who was assaulted by a stranger demanding an unspecified verdict–and a retrial was scheduled. On the eve of it, the exhausted plaintiffs settled with the state for $675,000.00, which was divided 13 ways. Half of it went to Dean Kahler, the most seriously wounded survivor, and only $15,000 apiece went to the families of each of the slain students, a pathetically small verdict in a day when lives are accounted to be worth in the many millions of dollars. The state issued a statement of “regret” which stopped short of an apology for the events of May 4th, nine years before.
Did You Know? The Kent State shooting was the subject of the 1970 song “Ohio” by the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Here’s their video:
Hate was in the air then, as it is today. Admittedly, the First Amendment protects hate speech, whether it comes from the most marginal extremist or the highest public official. Demonizing someone else for their beliefs or their race, or even calling for their immediate assassination, is legal in America today and was fifty years ago. But the fact that something is legal does not make it right to do, or relieve the speaker of any moral responsibility for the consequences.
The following is a representation of the goings on at Kent State University up to and including the shooting:
Since 1970, the central mystery surrounding the Kent State shootings has remained: “Out of 76 national guardsmen on the scene, why did a dozen men suddenly and simultaneously stop, turn and fire 67 gunshots from a campus hilltop down into a crowd of distant anti-war students killing four at distances hundreds of feet away?”
The FBI investigated our Kent State rebellion and tragedy of May 1-4, 1970, for nearly two months into the summer of 1970. Hundreds of eyewitnesses were interviewed. Many lies, exaggerations, half-truths and mis-truths have been circulated since 1970. Even the FBI failed to learn all of the truths about Kent State in May of 1970. They got some conclusions right and some wrong.
“By Monday [May 4, 1970], the cordoned-off areas, campus curfews, rumors of Guard bayoneting students and intended entry into dorms, girl-chasing by the Guard, and harassment of long-haired individuals had led to a feeling of occupation…and the situation was growing worse instead of better’.”
–Commission on KSU Violence, KSU report, Kent, 1971.
“…a few seconds prior to the firing by the National Guard troops he thought he heard a command to fire. He stated that this order may have been, in fact, part of a longer order which was muffled by the roar of the crowd.”
–Major _____, S-3, C Company, 145th Infantry Regiment, Ohio National Guard, interview statement, May 10, 1970.
In 2007, Kent May 4 Center Director Alan Canfora announced his discovery of the most significant Kent State 1970 evidence ever discovered:
digital audio recorded evidence proving the Ohio National Guard COMMAND TO FIRE! Timeline of key events regarding the May 4, 1970, audio recording made by KSU freshman student Terry Strubbe — Through grainy static and the high-pitched calls of protesters, it was possible to faintly hear someone shout “Point!” Mr. Canfora said the full command is recorded on the tape, with multiple voices shouting “Right here!” “Get Set!” Point!” and “Fire!” Those words, however, were difficult to discern when he played the recording. A 13-second volley of gunfire follows.
Gandhi once said, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Will we ever get there? What’s your thoughts on this after 47 years?
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