Kent State Shootings
Kent State Shootings
By: John Filo
Date: May 4, 1970
Source: Photo by John Filo/Getty Images.
About the Photographer: Photographer John Filo was an undergraduate photojournalism major at Kent State University in 1970. His photograph, sent to the Associated Press the evening of the Kent State shootings, won a Pulitzer Prize. Filo went on to join the staff of Newsweek and currently works for CBS.
By the late 1960s student protests against the Vietnam war and the military draft had become part of university life on college campuses. On December 1, 1969, the United States reinstated the draft lottery for men between the ages of 19 and 25 for the first time since World War II, fueling further student protests, although all full-time students received draft deferments at that time. On April 30, 1970 President Nixon announced a military incursion into Cambodia, igniting still more demonstrations.
Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, was a mid-sized midwestern university attended by mostly middle- and working-class students. On May 1, 1970, a campus-wide demonstration against the war began on the Commons. That evening vandals broke store-front windows in town; conflicting reports attributed the vandalism to both bikers and students. Bars and businesses closed, but not before a crowd of close to 100 protestors lit a bonfire; when police arrived, marauding bikers and students threw beer bottles at them. The disruption angered local businesses, the mayor, and area residents, many of them farmers and workers who were not affiliated with the university, and some of whom were members of the local Army National Guard unit stationed in Canton.
On May 2 Mayor Leroy Satrom asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send the National Guard to help maintain order. Troops had arrived that evening to find the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) building on the Kent State campus ablaze; local and state officials, as well as townspeople, attributed the fire to protestors, although the arsonists were never identified. A large crowd of over 500 gathered around the burning building to cheer; the crowd slashed the fire fighters' hoses, temporarily preventing them from extinguishing the blaze. By evenings' end, law enforcement officials had arrested a number of protestors, the National Guard was on campus, and tear gas had been used against the crowds.
By May 3 nearly 1,000 National Guard troops were in town and on campus. Governor Rhodes held a press conference declaring the use of stones or other projectiles against law enforcement would be treated as a crime, and that the campus would face a curfew enforced by National Guard troops. Demonstrators marched to the east edge of campus, next to town businesses, and requested a meeting with Mayor Satrom and Kent State University President Robert White. Initially told that such a meeting would occur, by 11:00 that night the crowd learned that neither Satrom nor White would appear; the National Guard used tear gas, helicopters, and bayonets to disperse the protestors, injuring some of them.
Students planned a rally on the Commons for May 4; although university officials had printed more than 12,000 flyers to declare that gatherings and protests were prohibited, few students got them. By noon nearly 200 students gathered, ringing the campus bell to protest the military presence. Under orders to disperse the crowd, National Guardsmen began to march across the Commons. Protestors threw rocks and lobbed tear gas. By 12:20 some soldiers knelt and pointed rifles directly at protestors, but did not fire. At 12:25 the situation appeared to be improving and the crowd appeared to be dispersing; General Robert Canterbury ordered the troops to leave. As some troops and students walked away, a group of more than 20 soldiers, standing atop a small hill above the Commons but facing a parking lot near residence halls, opened fire. Between sixty-one and sixty-seven shots were fired; four students were killed and nine others wounded, one paralyzed for life.
KENT STATE SHOOTINGS
See primary source image.
This photograph, taken by a photojournalism student who worked in the photo lab at Kent State, was snapped seconds after the Guardsmen fired on the students. Jeffrey Miller, whose body is shown in the photo, was one of the protestors; fellow protestor and student Alison Krause died from a gunshot wound as well. The two other students were killed that day, Sandra Sheuer and William Schroeder, were caught in the line of fire as they walked across campus as part of their day's routine.
The approximate distance of gunshot victims from the National Guard troops remains the source of much debate concerning the actual threat protestors posed to National Guard troops; the closest gunshot victim was approximately 70 feet away, while the furthest was 750 feet away. General Canterbury initially told reporters that a sniper had opened fire and Guardsmen were shooting in response, but investigations found no evidence for this claim.
Faculty marshals convinced students to leave and medical professionals attended to the dead and wounded. Kent State was shut down for six weeks, and as news of the shootings spread, millions of students across the country protested, closing more than 800 campuses in the United States. Ten days after the Kent State shootings, Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, experienced a similar incident: Police shot and killed two students and wounded twelve during protests while National Guardsmen were present on campus. The Jackson State shootings, however, garnered little press compared to Kent State, prompting charges of racism; Jackson State's student population is largely African-American. When Kent State marked the twentieth anniversary of the shootings in 1990, the Jackson State incident gained more retrospective coverage. In many historical monographs and popular articles on student protests Jackson State's experience receives thorough coverage.
No Guardsman was ever tried for the shootings. In September 1970, twenty-four students and one faculty member were charged in connection with the burning of the ROTC building and the May 4 protests, though charges were later dismissed. Three others were also charged in connection to the protests.
The Kent State shootings prompted a change in National Guard protocol. Many Guardsmen claim that their role has been distorted; as Chief Warrant Officer John Listman Jr. noted, "National Guardsmen have long been the villains of the tragic events … at Kent State. But violent demonstrators injured 60 Guardsmen and burned buildings in four days of mayhem prior to the shootings. It is a part of the saga that often goes untold." (Other sources state that only one Guardsman sustained injuries severe enough for treatment.) More than thirty-five years later, the conflict still generates heated discussion in the Kent area; many residents remain convinced that the Guardsmen's actions were justified, given the level of violence and rioting at the time.
In 1971 Kent State established the Center for Peaceful Change and developed one of the first conflict-management degrees in the United States. In 1990 and 1999, Kent State erected memorials to the events of May 4 and those injured and killed that day.
Caputo, Philip. 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings. New York: Chamberlain Brothers, 2005.
Hensley, Thomas R., with James A. Best. The Kent State Incident: Impact of Judicial Process on Public Attitudes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Morrison, Joan, and Robert K. Morrison. From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It. Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2001.
Adamek, Ramond J., and Jerry M. Lewis. "Social Control Violence and Radicalization: The Kent State Case." Social Forces. 51 (1973): 342–347.
Listman, John W. Jr. "Kent's Other Casualties." National Guard. (May 2002).
Lewis, Jerry M., and Thomas R. Hensley. Kent State University Department of Sociology. "The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy." <http://dept.kent.edu/sociology/lewis/LEWIHEN.htm> (accessed May 8, 2006).