Kent State Massacre

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Kent State Massacre

For 13 seconds on May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, killing four and wounding nine others. What had merely been a small campus demonstration—one of thousands nationwide, quickly developed into a symbol of the Vietnam era in America. A Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken at the shooting of an anguished young woman kneeling over the body of a dead student with her arms raised in despair became a significant illustration of the end of the Woodstock era. Any romantic notions of the 1960s ended with the Kent State massacre.

On April 30, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon appeared on national television to announce that U.S. troops were invading Cambodia to strike suspected guerrilla strongholds. The new policy contradicted his previous plan, which pledged that a "Vietnamization" of the war would gradually reduce America's involvement in the conflict. Reaction to the escalation of the war effort was immediate and intense, especially on the nation's college campuses, where over 1.5 million students protested the announcement. Nixon fueled the outrage by labeling the student protesters "bums" who were "blowing up the campuses."

On May 1, a late night disturbance in downtown Kent fueled by a warm spring evening, students leaving local bars, and a motorcycle gang led Mayor Leroy Satrom to declare the city under a state of emergency. Although the city suffered only minor damages, the next day the mayor requested the presence of the Ohio National Guard to quell the unruliness. Even with the soldiers on campus, student protesters held a rally the next day and the university ROTC building was burned down. The destruction of the ROTC building was a major event leading to the violence at Kent State, but the mystery over who set the fire has not been solved. Initially, it was assumed that the fire was started by radical students, but others speculated that it may have been set by government agents to provide a reason for government intervention.

Ohio Governor James Rhodes arrived in Kent on May 3 and condemned the student radicals, comparing them to Nazi brownshirts and communists. That evening, protesters gathered on campus but were forced to leave with the assistance of teargas. A sit-in held on Main Street was also dispersed by the troops.

A rally was scheduled for May 4 and drew approximately 2,000 students, many of whom were curious onlookers and shuffling between classes. National Guard officers ordered the protesters to leave and shot tear gas into the crowd when the command was not followed. Over 100 fully armed guardsmen then moved against the students. The troops advanced toward the students, over a hill, and then down to a practice football field. When they reached a fence at the far end of the field, some of the soldiers knelt and aimed their weapons at the demonstrators. While the troops massed together, students retreated into a parking lot between several buildings. Others lobbed rocks and tear gas canisters back at the guardsmen.

After ten minutes, the troops moved back up the hill. When they reached the crest, a group of 28 guardsmen wheeled around and fired in the direction of the parking lot. They fired 61 rounds of ammunition. Of the 13 people killed or injured, only two were actively participating in the demonstration. One student was killed while walking to class and another, ironically, was an ROTC student. Many of the injured students were more than 100 yards from the guardsmen.

Kent State was shut down after the shootings and remained closed for the rest of the school year. As news about Kent State spread, campus unrest escalated. Nearly 500 colleges were closed or disrupted. Ten days later, another campus shooting occurred at Jackson State University in Mississippi when police and state patrolmen fired into a dormitory at the all-black school, killing two students and wounding nine others. The lack of attention given to the massacre at Jackson State embittered many African Americans.

The Kent State Massacre bookends a generation that began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and included the murders of his brother Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Kent State was transformed from a sleepy midwestern college into the symbolic epicenter of student protest in the Vietnam era.

Kent State remains a symbol of antiwar protest and government repression. The incident has been immortalized in countless books and even a television movie, but nothing was more stinging than the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song "Ohio" with its haunting lyrics, "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming—Four dead in Ohio!"

—Bob Batchelor

Further Reading:

Bills, Scott L., editor. Kent State, May 4: Echoes through a Decade. Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1982.

Davies, Peter. The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.

Eszterhas, Joe, and Michael D. Roberts. 13 Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State. New York, College Notes and Texts, 1970.

Gordon, William A. The Fourth of May: Killings and Coverups at Kent State. Buffalo, New York, Prometheus Books, 1990.

Heineman, Kenneth J. Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era. New York, New York University Press, 1993.

Michener, James A. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York, Ballantine Books, 1971.

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