It’s hard to imagine that the Kent State Massacre was forty-three years ago, today. I vividly remember hearing the stories of those events growing up. My twin uncles were about to graduate from Kent that Spring and were walking back from to their dorm from the Art School when the shooting happened. If you are familiar with the area, Taylor Hall (the school of Architecture) is between the Art School and the dorms. It was here that the incident occurred. My uncles decided to go the other way and weren’t in the way of the gunfire. They took plenty of pictures, though, which made it into our local newspaper (The Niles Daily Times). What happened there? Why did it happen? Here’s a timeline of the incident:
Kent State University is located in Northeast Ohio in Portage County. Richard Nixon was the President of the United States and the nation was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. In rural Ohio – as well as throughout the country - many young people, including college students and teachers, were concerned about being drafted to fight in a war that they strongly opposed. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that the United States had launched attacks beyond Vietnam, into neighboring Cambodia.
At Kent State University, a demonstration with about 500 students as held on May 1 on the Commons (a grassy knoll in the center of campus traditionally used as a gathering place for rallies or protests). As the crowd dispersed to attend classes by 1 p.m., another rally was planned for May 4 to continue the protest of Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. There was widespread anger, and many protesters issued a call to “bring the war home.” Trouble exploded in town around midnight when people left a bar and began throwing beer bottles at cars and breaking downtown store fronts. In the process they broke a bank window, setting off an alarm. The news spread quickly and it resulted in several bars closing early to avoid trouble. Before long, more people had joined the vandalism and looting. By the time police arrived, a crowd of 120 had already gathered. Some people from the crowd had already lit a small bonfire in the street. The crowd appeared to be a mix of bikers, students, and out-of town youths who regularly came to Kent’s bars. A few members of the crowd began to throw beer bottles at the police, and then started yelling obscenities at them. The disturbance lasted for about an hour before the police restored order. By that time most of the bars were closed in the downtown area of Kent.
Kent’s Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency on May 2 and asked Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes to send the National Guard to Kent to help maintain order. When the National Guard arrived in town that evening (at around 10 P.M.), a large demonstration was already under way on the campus, and the campus Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building (which had already been scheduled for demolition) was burning. The arsonists were never apprehended and no one was injured in the fire. More than a thousand protesters surrounded the building and cheered its burning. Several Kent firemen and police officers were struck by rocks and other objects while attempting to extinguish the blaze. More fire engine companies had to be called in because protesters carried the fire hose into the Commons and slashed it. The National Guard made numerous arrests and used tear gas; at least one student was slightly wounded with a bayonet.
During a press conference, Governor Rhodes called the protesters ” un-American” and referred to the protesters as revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio. “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes,” Rhodes said. “They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.” Rhodes can be heard in the recording of his speech yelling and pounding his fists on the desk. Rhodes also claimed he would obtain a court order declaring a state of emergency, banning further demonstrations, and gave the impression that a situation akin to martial law had been declared; however he never attempted to obtain such an order. During the day some students came into downtown Kent to help with cleanup efforts after the rioting, which met with mixed reactions from local businessmen. Mayor Satrom, under pressure from frightened citizens, ordered a curfew until further notice. Around 8:00 p.m., another rally was held on the campus Commons. By 8:45 p.m. the Guardsmen used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and the students reassembled at the intersection of Lincoln and Main Streets, holding a sit-in in the hopes of gaining a meeting with Mayor Satrom and President White. At 11:00 p.m., the Guard announced that a curfew had gone into effect and began forcing the students back to their dorms. A few students were bayoneted by Guardsmen.
On Monday, May 4, a protest was scheduled to be held at noon, as had been planned three days earlier. University officials attempted to ban the gathering, handing out 12,000 leaflets stating that the event was canceled. Despite this, an estimated 2,000 people gathered on the university’s Commons, near Taylor Hall. The protest began with the ringing of the campus’s iron Victory Bell (which had historically been used to signal victories in football games) to mark the beginning of the rally, and the first protester began to speak. Fearing that the situation might escalate into another violent protest, Companies A and C, 1/145th Infantry and Troop G of the 2/107th Armored Cavalry, Ohio Army National Guard (ARNG), the units on the campus grounds, attempted to disperse the students. The legality of the dispersal was later debated at a subsequent wrongful death and injury trial. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that authorities did indeed have the right to disperse the crowd. The dispersal process began late in the morning with campus patrolman Harold Rice, riding in a National Guard Jeep, approaching the students to read them an order to disperse or face arrest. The protesters responded by throwing rocks, forcing the Jeep to retreat. Just before noon, the Guard returned and again ordered the crowd to disperse. When most of the crowd refused, the Guard used tear gas. Because of wind, the tear gas had little effect in dispersing the crowd, and some launched a second volley of rocks toward the Guard’s line, too distant to have any effect, to chants of “Pigs off campus!” The students lobbed the tear gas canisters back at the National Guardsmen, who wore gas masks. When it was obvious the crowd was not going to disperse, a group of 77 National Guard troops from A Company and Troop G, with bayonets fixed on their weapons, began to advance upon the hundreds of protesters. As the guardsmen advanced, the protesters retreated up and over Blanket Hill, heading out of The Commons area. Once over the hill, the students, in a loose group, moved northeast along the front of Taylor Hall, with some continuing toward a parking lot in front of Prentice Hall (slightly northeast of and perpendicular to Taylor Hall). The guardsmen pursued the protesters over the hill, but rather than veering left as the protesters had, they continued straight, heading down toward an athletic practice field enclosed by a chain link fence. Here they remained for about ten minutes, unsure of how to get out of the area short of retracing their entrance path (an action some guardsmen considered might be viewed as a retreat). During this time, the bulk of the students congregated off to the left and front of the guardsmen, approximately 150 ft (50m) to 225 ft (75m) away, on the veranda of Taylor Hall. Others were scattered between Taylor Hall and the Prentice Hall parking lot, while still others – perhaps 35 or 40 – were standing in the parking lot, or dispersing through the lot as they had been previously ordered. While on the practice field, the guardsmen generally faced the parking lot which was about 100 yards away. At one point, some of the guardsmen knelt and aimed their weapons toward the parking lot, then stood up again. For a few moments, several guardsmen formed a loose huddle and appeared to be talking to one another. The guardsmen appeared to be unclear as to what to do next. They had cleared the protesters from the Commons area, and many students had left, but many stayed and were still angrily confronting the soldiers, some throwing rocks and tear gas canisters. At the end of about ten minutes, the guardsmen began to retrace their steps back up the hill toward the Commons area. Some of the students on the Taylor Hall veranda began to move slowly toward the soldiers as the latter passed over the top of the hill and headed back down into the Commons. At this point, at 12:24 p.m., a number of guardsmen at the top of the hill abruptly turned and fired their M1 Garand rifles at the students. In all, 29 of the 77 guardsmen claimed to have fired their weapons, using a final total of 67 bullets. The shooting was determined to have lasted only 13 seconds, although a New York Times reporter stated that “it appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer.” The question of why the shots were fired remains widely debated. The shootings killed four students and wounded nine. Two of the four students killed, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest, and the other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder, had been walking from one class to the next at the time of their deaths. Schroeder was also a member of the campus ROTC chapter.