The killing and wounding of students at Kent State University called the world’s attention to vehement objections to the Vietnam War. It also revealed the split in opinion over the war and over war protest, as Americans took opposing sides in the aftermath of the shootings. Some saw the killings as justified; others perceived the dead and wounded as martyrs to the causes of freedom of expression and antiwar protest.
Kent State University
Office of University Relations and Marketing
P.O. Box 5190
Kent, OH 44242
ph.: (330) 672-2727
fax: (330) 672-2047
Web sites: www.kent.edu; www.may4.net
During the Vietnam War, many people questioned whether U.S. involvement was appropriate. College students were often involved in the antiwar effort. Kent State did not have a reputation as a hotbed of unrest, yet student demonstrations there in May of 1970 led to a confrontation with National Guardsmen armed with M-1 rifles. Some guardsmen shot into a crowd of demonstrators and onlookers. The incident brought worldwide attention to antiwar protest. Reactions to the incident highlighted cavernous divisions in the nation over not only the war, but also the appropriateness of protest.
Kent State University began in 1910 as Kent Normal School, a teacher-training facility. Accredited as a university in 1937, Kent State grew rapidly in the years following World War II. By 1970 its rolling campus served almost twenty thousand students. Some Kent students opposed the Vietnam War and demonstrated against it, but the campus did not have a reputation for protest like many schools elsewhere in the country.
When President Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970, Kent State protesters announced plans for antiwar rallies on the University Commons (a central, open field) for May 1 and May 4. The evening of Friday, May 1, there was extensive vandalism and looting in Kent’s downtown bar area. Kent’s mayor declared a state of emergency. On Saturday night, May 2, vandals burned down the old Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) barracks building on campus. Later that night units of the Ohio National Guard were summoned by Ohio governor James Rhodes. Many of the guardsmen who came to Kent State were sleep-deprived, having come directly from maintaining order at a wildcat trucker strike. They came to campus in trucks, tanks, and helicopters, and they carried loaded weapons.
The reactions of governmental leaders to the student protest were very strong. Governor Rhodes promised to use any means necessary against the protesters, whom he compared to Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts. President Nixon had previously referred to campus protesters in general as “bums on campus.”
Throughout the day on Sunday, May 3, there was a carnival atmosphere on the campus. Relaxed sightseers, some bringing their young children, came to look at the military vehicles. One coed placed a flower in the muzzle of a guardsman’s rifle. Early Sunday evening a crowd gathered by the Victory Bell on the Commons. (The bell was ordinarily used to announce sports victories.) That group was dispersed, but later demonstrators reassembled in an intersection beside the campus and tear gas was used to disperse them. Many students were very angry and intent on holding the scheduled noon rally on May 4, despite the fact that any public meeting, violent or nonviolent, had been banned by the authorities.
The noon rally on the Commons was attended by two to three thousand students. In all the ensuing events that day, onlookers outnumbered demonstrators and were in very close proximity to active protesters. There was no violence until guard officers told the crowd to disperse. Then some demonstrators reacted with verbal abuse. Both the guardsmen and the students felt that they had a legitimate right to be on the Commons. The guardsmen perceived that they were there to prevent the prohibited gathering. The students felt that they had a right to protest the National Guard’s occupation of their campus. Guardsmen fired tear gas canisters, and some protesters threw them back. Some protesters also threw rocks at the guardsmen. Marching with fixed bayonets, the guardsmen pushed the active group of protesters up Taylor Hall hill and down onto a practice football field on the other side of the hill. The guardsmen then marched back up to the top of the hill. Standing in a line near the Pagoda (an eight-foot-tall concrete structure), twenty-eight guardsmen fired their weapons in a thirteen-second blast. The firings consisted of fifty-one steel-jacketed M-1 bullets, five pistol shots, and a shotgun blast. Some guardsmen shot skyward, but others shot directly into the crowd of students and onlookers. It was never established conclusively that there had been an order to fire.
Jeffrey Miller was 265 feet from the National Guard. He was shot full in the face and his head was blown apart. Allison Krause was standing 343 feet from the National Guard. She died later of a hit to her torso. William Schroeder was 382 feet from the guardsmen and died later of a bullet that passed through his back, lung, and shoulder. Sandra Scheuer was 390 feet from the National Guard and on her way to class when she received a fatal hit to the neck. The nine wounded victims were hit at distances of 71 to 745 feet from the guardsmen. One of them was permanently paralyzed from a spinal cord injury.
The onlooking students experienced disbelief, followed by rage. Two to three hundred gathered on a slope below Taylor Hall. Many wanted another confrontation with the National Guard. However, further tragedy was averted when faculty marshals, headed by Professor Glenn Frank, persuaded the students to leave peacefully. Later that day the university was closed by order of university president Robert I. White and the Portage County prosecutor.
Kent State University did not reopen until the 1970 summer term. Enrollment was low due to the May 4 incident and remained at a lowered level for several terms. The university established many traditions and created many entities commemorating May 4. A granite memorial was built in 1990. The university created scholarships in the names of the four students who were killed. The university also set aside a permanent collection of materials in its library (the May 4 Archives) and established a campus center for teaching conflict resolution and peaceful change (the Center for Applied Conflict Management). Each year the anniversary of the shootings is marked with many programs including candlelight vigils and prominent speakers, performers, and artists. In July, 1977, some students objected to the university’s plan to build a gymnasium annex over a section of the May 4 confrontation area (the practice football field). Protesters erected a tent city to block the construction. Eventually they were arrested, and the gymnasium annex was built.
In the aftermath of the shootings there was much confusion about exactly what had happened, with rumors rampant. For example, there were unproven allegations that guardsmen had conspired to shoot, that the FBI had planted a provocateur, and that snipers had fired at guardsmen. The general public took polarized positions on the shootings. Some felt that the killings were justified; others sympathized deeply with the killed and wounded students. A national Gallup poll taken a week after the incident found that 58 percent felt the students were primarily responsible, 11 percent blamed the National Guard, and 31 percent had no opinion.
Investigations were conducted by the university itself and by many bodies, including the U.S. President’s Commission on Campus Unrest (Scranton Commission), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Ohio State Highway Patrol. While there was no total consensus, most investigators concluded that the authorities had overreacted to the early student protests, that the National Guard acted with ineptness and a lack of professionalism, that no known radical group had staged the protest or manipulated the demonstrators, and that the shootings were unnecessary.
The nine wounded students and the parents of the four who died brought civil damage suits for wrongful death and injury against guardsmen, guard officers, and others. The cases were blocked until the U.S. Supreme Court in Scheuer v. Rhodes ruled in 1975 against the state’s claim of sovereign immunity. The first trial ended in a mistrial. A retrial concluded with an out-of-court settlement of $675,000 and “statement of regret” by the defendants.
In October of 1975 a state grand jury ordered by Governor Rhodes exonerated the guardsmen and indicted twenty-five persons (the “Kent 25”), the majority of whom were students, on charges such as second degree riot. The charges against all but five of these defendants were eventually dismissed.
A federal grand jury indicted eight guardsmen in March of 1974. The prosecution began in October of that year on charges that guardsmen had deprived students of their constitutional right to due process. Eventually these charges were dropped for lack of evidence by the federal judge hearing the cases.
Kent State University continues to urge a healing of misunderstandings concerning May 4, as evidenced by the motto inscribed on the memorial: “Inquire, learn, and reflect.”
Most of the sites are close to Taylor Hall, which is near the center of the Kent State campus. These include the May 4 Memorial, designed by Chicago architect Bruno Ast. The memorial consists of black granite disks and four standing pylons on a seventy-foot-wide granite plaza. Informative pamphlets are available at the memorial. The memorial is surrounded by over fifty thousand daffodil plants representing the American Vietnam War dead. Downhill from the memorial on the Commons is the Victory Bell, which was used to summon students to meetings that fateful week and many times before and since. On the opposite side of Taylor Hall is the Pagoda, near which the guardsmen stood as they fired, and a metal sculpture with a three-eighths-inch-thick steel plate in which a bullet hole is visible. Markers in the Prentice Hall parking lot show where the four students were killed. At the Kent Library is a special collection of May 4 materials. Visitors may also wish to see the historic Federal-style buildings on the front campus, the Kent State Museum (which displays fashions in apparel), and the university Ice Arena.
Casale, Ottavio M., and Louis Paskoff, eds. The Kent Affair: Documents and Interpretations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Two Kent State English professors compiled documents including political cartoons and news stories which show the polarization of opinion. Hensley, Thomas R., and Jerry M. Lewis. Kent State and May Fourth: A Social Science Perspective. 2d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2000. Kent professors collected published and unpublished essays, detailed the gym annex controversy, and included an extensive bibliography. Lewis, Jerry M. “A Study of the Kent State Incident Using Smelser’s Theory of Collective Behavior.” Sociological Inquiry 15 (August, 1974): 542-547. A Kent professor and eyewitness to the shootings analyzed the events leading up to the shootings. Michener, James. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Random House, 1971. The noted author lived in Kent for several months in 1970 to interview participants for this account. Contains photos and biographies of those killed and wounded. Stone, Isidor F. The Killings at Kent State University: How Murder Went Unpunished. New York: A New York Review Book, 1971. Stone’s book contains reprints of his columns, as well as a summary of the FBI report. U.S. President’s Commission on Campus Unrest Report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970. This is the “Scranton Report” which relates FBI information and concludes that the killings were unwarranted.