Dark day in student activism

May 01, 2007|by CHRISTINE BRUGH

This week marks the 37th anniversary of the deaths of four students during a protest march in Kent, Ohio.

It's a heart-wrenching story of a tumultuous time that I learned about roughly a year ago, and it's a history that we should all know.

On Monday, May 4, 1970, at the height of student protests against America's war in Vietnam, Ohio National Guard troops fired on students protesting at Kent State University. With a few seconds of gunfire, troops killed four students and wounded nine.

But what led up to the shots? Why did troops shoot on unarmed students? And what happened this day?

Events began a few days earlier. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that he had ordered troops into Cambodia, a neighbor of Vietnam, to fight enemy Vietnamese troops. A draft lottery had been instituted Dec. 1, 1969, according to information on the Selective Service System's Web site at Many young men began to see the rising threat of being drafted for the war. This, along with disdain for the war, drove many rallies across college campuses.


On the Kent State University campus, what began as a peaceful protest of the Vietnam War turned into a protest against the National Guard occupying the campus.

The following is an account of these events based on information from the book "13 Seconds" by Philip Caputo and from a chronology provided by Kent State University Libraries and Media Services at

In the small town of Kent, things started going downhill on the night of May 1. Students lit a bonfire in a downtown street and began smashing the windows of nearby businesses. Police arrived on the scene. Students threw rocks and bottles, but police managed to disperse the crowd, making 14 arrests in the process. The violence of the crowd led city police to call on the Ohio National Guard.

The unrest continued the next afternoon, Saturday, May 2, but with a peaceful protest in which students marched around the Kent State Campus. As night came, several students from the group attempted to set fire to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps building. Even-tually, they succeeded in setting a corner of the building ablaze.

The fire department arrived, but students threw rocks at firefighters and slit the hoses. The firefighters left the campus, and the fire burned itself out, causing minor damage. Campus security dispersed the crowd, but many students did not return to their dormitories. Some students made their way back to the ROTC building and reignited it. This time, it became fully engulfed in flames.

The firefighters returned, but when they did, there were National Guardsmen riding on the firetrucks. While the firefighters attempted to save the ROTC building, the guardsmen dispersed the crowd.

The next morning, Sunday, May 3, students awoke and saw that National Guard soldiers were taking positions around their campus to counteract student violence. Ohio Gov. James Rhodes made a speech on television indicating that he would use every force necessary to keep control of the students. The university administration ordered an 8 p.m. curfew. Leaflets were passed out among the students stating that further demonstrations were banned, but due to such poor distribution, very few students even saw these.

Sunday evening, students gathered to try to drive the National Guard off their campus. They had a sit-in on the streets of Kent State demanding to speak with the university president. The National Guard advanced, forcing protestors back. Students threw rocks again, but were forced back toward the campus. Three students were wounded. Fifty-one arrests were made, mostly for curfew violations.

By the morning of Monday, May 4, students were past protesting the Vietnam War. They were now protesting the occupation of their campus. Many students attended classes that day, but a demonstration was called for noon in a large open space. Many students gathered.

Students chanted and yelled. Guardsmen launched tear gas canisters at them, but the wind carried the tear gas back toward the guard and other observers. The National Guard advanced with bayonets to disperse the crowd. The National Guard was taking the situation much more seriously than the students; some later reported they felt in danger. Some students picked up tear gas canisters and threw them back at the soldiers. Others threw rocks.

Eventually, the guardsmen forced the crowd onto a practice football field that was fenced in, but the crowd had not dispersed. The guardsmen turned to retrace their steps, but protestors followed the guard and continued throwing objects.

It was at this point that one guardsman, who claimed to have been hit in the leg with a piece of concrete, turned and lowered his rifle. Several other guardsmen followed suit. Someone fired his gun. Other soldiers joined in.

In 13 seconds, 28 guardsmen fired between 61 and 67 bullets, killing four students and wounding nine. Of the dead, only two were participating in the rally. The other two were walking to class.

Many people, especially the residents of the city of Kent were of the opinion that the students were misbehaving and deserved what they got.

However, this event struck a different note with college students across the U.S. Students were horrified at what had happened, and the first nationwide student strike was organized.

Legal charges were pursued against the National Guard, university faculty and administration, Gov. Rhodes and hundreds of students. Eight Ohio National Guardsmen were indicted. None were convicted.

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