National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After several days of protests against the Vietnam War on the campus of Kent State University, more than two dozen Ohio National Guard soldiers opened fire on students, killing four and wounding many others. The protest was followed by months of demonstrations at other campuses around the United States and included the killing of two students by police and the wounding of other students at Jackson State College in Mississippi ten days after Kent State.

Summary of Event

In the spring of 1970, American universities were places of discontent with the U.S. government’s policies in Vietnam. For the past decade, college and university students had been at the forefront of the movement to redress numerous social ills. Groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had campaigned for civil rights in the South, often risking injury or even death at the hands of hardened racists who resented the perceived interference of outsiders in their communities. The earliest Freedom Riders who had canvassed the South to register African Americans to vote and to integrate public facilities had been clean-cut young people not notably different in their dress and grooming from the young people of the 1950’s. [kw]Kent State Students, National Guardsmen Kill Protesting (May 4, 1970) Kent State massacre National Guard;Kent State shootings Vietnam War;protests against Krause, Allison Schroeder, William Miller, Jeffrey Scheuer, Sandra Kent State massacre National Guard;Kent State shootings Vietnam War;protests against Krause, Allison Schroeder, William Miller, Jeffrey Scheuer, Sandra [g]United States;May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students[01350] [c]Murder and suicide;May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students[01350] [c]Social issues and reform;May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students[01350] [c]Military;May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students[01350] [c]Education;May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students[01350] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen Kill Protesting Kent State Students[01350] Rhodes, James A.

Kent State University students tend to a wounded youth as Ohio National Guard soldiers gather with rifles in the background. Soldiers killed four students and injured many more during an antiwar demonstration on campus.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

As the 1960’s progressed, student culture became increasingly radicalized. Although significant victories were won for African Americans, these victories made student activists increasingly aware of just how many injustices remained, some so deeply institutionalized they would defy any simple fixes. Worse, the increasing involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was seen not as an effort to spread liberty and protect people from communist tyranny but as the United States acting as a bully in the international arena, imposing its will upon a small and helpless peasant country. This disaffection, combined with the development of a youth culture characterized by styles of dress and patterns of behavior markedly at variance with the majority culture, led to a widening gulf of misunderstanding and hostility between the generations.

The immediate flashpoint for the confrontations at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, was the United States’ invasion of Cambodia in an effort to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines. On May 1, angered at what they saw as an unwarranted act of aggression against a peaceable country, Kent State students held a mock funeral and buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution as a symbolic protest against its “murder.” Subsequently, the crowd drifted onto Water Street, Kent’s business district, and broke windows until police arrived. Kent’s mayor regarded the events with alarm, considering them evidence of a sinister radical plot, and declared a state of emergency.

The following evening, a crowd surrounded the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) barracks. Many protestors considered the ROTC a visible symbol of U.S. militarism, which was ironic because the ROTC program actually had the greatest likelihood of producing citizen-soldiers with a firm connection to the civilian populace. However, the service academies, with their distinctive military culture, were distant from protestors, while the ROTC program was a reachable target.

During the demonstration, the ROTC building, which had been boarded up and was slated for demolition, was set on fire. When firefighters arrived on the scene, protesters slit their hoses to prevent them from saving the building. After the firefighters abandoned efforts to fight the fire, Ohio National Guard troops, sent in by the governor, James A. Rhodes, forcibly cleared the campus and chased the students into the dormitories.

The following day began with apparent calm. In fact, there was a dangerous undercurrent of anger. Several meetings were held among state, local, and university officials, but the meetings were plagued by misunderstandings that would soon have deadly results. Worse, the news of the destruction of the ROTC barracks brought a number of sightseers, who further confused the situation on campus.

In the evening, a crowd of student protesters gathered on the Commons, a large greensward often used for informal assemblies. When the students refused to disperse, they were told to disperse and tear gassed. Although the demonstrators fled the Commons, they subsequently reassembled at the intersection of East Main and Lincoln Streets, hoping to compel officials to respond to their demands. However, no one arrived, and by 11 p.m. the crowd had grown increasingly restless. At that point police warned the crowd once again and forcibly dispersed them with tear gas. In the confusion, several people, both National Guard and civilian, were injured, setting the stage for the final confrontation the next day.

On May 4, two thousand people gathered on the Commons, determined to hold their rally in the face of the prohibition. However, many students, particularly commuters who had not been on campus over the weekend, had no idea that public assemblies had been banned as part of the mayor’s state of emergency declaration. The National Guard troops, numbering about one thousand by this time, were equally determined to disperse any demonstrations and restore order at all costs. Taunts and verbal abuse were exchanged, and the students began throwing rocks. The troops fired tear gas in an effort to force the students to disperse, but some of the bolder students grabbed the canisters and threw them back at the soldiers. Some soldiers eventually fired their weapons upon the students. More than sixty rounds were shot by twenty-eight soldiers in about thirteen seconds.

When the melee was over, four students—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer—were dead or near death. Krause and Miller had been active participants in the protest, and Schroeder and Scheuer were bystanders who were passing the edges of the demonstration area. Nine others had suffered less severe wounds, ranging from flesh wounds to permanent paralysis. The injured students were treated with disregard by emergency personnel, and at least two of the fatalities apparently reached the hospital alive but were not given life-saving aid. On campus, shock and grief quickly turned to anger at the brutality.

Impact

Kent State University was closed for the rest of the term. Shock waves rippled across the country as students at other universities called for their own schools to be closed so they could attend protests. At Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi, a demonstration turned confrontational just ten days after the Kent State massacre, leading to the deaths of two students, shot by police, and injuries to more than a dozen others. This case did not make national headlines, however, largely because the students were African American and from poor families. However, the specter of continued violence led many university administrations to end classes early for the term to defuse the anger and sorrow.

At the same time, there was a powerful backlash from adults, many of whom condemned the slain students as having brought about their own destruction. Rumors proliferated that the victims were disease-ridden drug addicts who nauseated medical personnel. Some parents even told their own children it would be fitting for them to be shot down if they failed to obey the orders of authorities.

The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest[Presidents Commission on Campus Unrest] President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, formed on June 13, 1970, by U.S. president Richard Nixon, condemned the shootings and the protestors, but concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” Its report, which included its findings on the shootings at Jackson State and the unrest at campuses around the United States, was released in October.

For a time there was a real possibility that many colleges and universities would be closed altogether, particularly if there had been renewed violence during the fall term. The event soon faded into a name, an annual memorialization of the four killed at Kent State, and a now-classic song, “Ohio,” written by Neil Young. Kent State massacre National Guard;Kent State shootings Vietnam War;protests against Krause, Allison Schroeder, William Miller, Jeffrey Scheuer, Sandra

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bills, Scott L. Kent State/May 4: Echoes Through a Decade. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1988. A comprehensive book not only about the massacre but also its long-term consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caputo, Philip. Thirteen Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings. New York: Chamberlain, 2005. Reflections by a journalist who covered the protests. Includes texts of reports of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest and a DVD documentary, Kent State: The Day the War Came Home.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, William A. Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State? Laguna Hills, Calif.: North Ridge Books, 1995. Examination of conspiracy theories related to the Kent State shootings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hensley, Thomas R., and Jerry M. Lewis. Kent State and May 4th: A Social Science Perspective. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2000. An examination of the sociology of the shootings at Kent State. A good academic overview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koestler-Grack, Rachel A. The Kent State Tragedy. Edina, Minn.: ABDO & Daughters, 2005. Aimed at younger readers, this book includes numerous photographs of the protests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michener, James A. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Random House, 1971. Study by one of America’s leading novelists, written while serious questions remained about the future of America’s university culture and higher education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spofford, Tim. Lynch Street: The May, 1970, Slayings at Jackson State College. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1988. A look at the equally tragic yet little-known shootings of students at Jackson State College ten days after the shootings at Kent State in 1970.

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