What happened on May 4, 1970?

A controversy recently arose surrounding the clothing company, Urban Outfitters, when they began advertising the sale of a Kent State University sweatshirt, with  what appeared to be blood stains splattered across it. While reporting on the controversy, Several established media outlets inaccurately reported the date, details, and even location of the school.  While there are many excellent accounts and sources of information about the events of May 4, 1970, we want to take this opportunity to share the story of the tragedy and correct any misinformation that has been disseminated.

National Guard troops lined up on the Kent State University campus, May 4, 1970.

National Guard troops lined up on the Kent State University campus, May 4, 1970, May 4th Collection, Ohio History Connection Archives.

What exactly happened on May 4th,1970?

On May 1, 1970, students at Kent State held an anti-war protest prompted by President Richard Nixon’s announcement  on April 30 that the Vietnam War was expanding and the United States had invaded Cambodia. That evening, several incidents occurred, including rocks and bottles being thrown at police officers, the closure of bars by authorities before normal closing time to reduce alcohol consumption, and lighting bonfires. Eventually students, other anti-war activists, and criminals began to break windows and loot stores.

The mayor of Kent, Ohio, Leroy Satrom, declared a state of emergency on May 1. He requested that Governor James A. Rhodes send the Ohio National Guard to Kent to help maintain order. Rhodes agreed, and the National Guard members began to arrive the evening of May 2. As soldiers arrived, they found the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building on the Kent State campus in flames. It is unclear who set the building on fire. Kent State officials had already boarded up the ROTC building and were planning to raise it.

Anti-war protesters demonstrate on the Kent State University campus.

Anti-war protesters demonstrate on the Kent State University campus, May 4th Collection, Ohio History Connection Archives.

On May 3, approximately one thousand Ohio National Guard soldiers were on the Kent State campus. Tensions remained high, and Governor Rhodes further escalated them by accusing the protesters of being unpatriotic. He proclaimed, “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.” Some Kent State students assisted local businesses and the city in cleaning up damage from the previous night’s activities, but other students and non-students continued to hold protests. The National Guard continued to break up these demonstrations, including threatening students with bayonets.

On Monday, May 4, classes resumed. Anti-war protesters scheduled a rally for noon on the common area at the center of campus which meant that m any students who were not participating in the protests were also in the area.  University officials attempted to ban the gathering but proved unsuccessful in their efforts. As the protest began, National Guard members fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Strong wind blew tear gas away from the protesters. Some of the protesters threw the tear gas canisters, along with rocks, back at the soldiers. Some of the demonstrators yelled slogans, such as “Pigs off campus!” at the soldiers.

Eventually seventy-seven guardsmen advanced on the protesters with armed rifles and bayonets. Protesters continued to throw things at the soldiers.

Self portrait of killed student, Sandra Scheuer.

Self portrait of killed student, Sandra Scheuer, May 4th Collection, Ohio History Connection Archives.

It is not quite known how the next series of events happened, even to this day. What is known is that just after noon twenty-nine soldiers opened fire without an explicit command to shoot. The gunfire lasted just thirteen seconds, although some witnesses contended that it lasted more than one minute. The troops fired a total of sixty-seven shots. When the firing ended, nine students were wounded and four students were killed Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer.William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer were not participants in the protest. In later interviews the soldiers stated that they were afraid.

What happened afterwards?

After the shooting ended, Kent State University professor Glenn Frank pleaded with the National Guard to let the faculty talk with the protesters who had convened on the commons. Once in front of the protesters, Frank explained, “I don’t care whether you’ve never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me?”[1]

After 20 minutes, Frank and the faculty convinced the crowd to leave the commons. At the site of the shooting, ambulances were brought in to assist the injured students. One student, Dean Kahler, was permanently paralyzed.

Kent State University was immediately ordered to close. Classes were finished by correspondence and students who were scheduled to graduate at the end of the spring semester were mailed their diplomas. All state universities in Ohio, except for Bowling Green State University, closed their campuses for the remainder of the semester as well.

What effects did the events have on Ohio and the nation?

The photograph taken by John Paul Filo, a Kent State photography major, of activist Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller was published in magazines and newspapers around the world. Filo won a Pulitzer Prize. The events of May 4th shocked the nation. Federal, state and local authorities conducted lengthy investigations in the shootings in an attempt to understand what lead to the tragic events of May 4, 1970. A few months after the shootings occurred, the Urban Institute conducted a national study concluding the events of May 4th were the single factor that caused the only nationwide student strike in U.S. history.  Over four million students protested and over 900 American colleges and universities closed during the student strikes.

Just 11 days later at Jackson State College, a historically black college, in Jackson, Mississippi, city and state police opened fire on a group of student protesters.  Two students were killed  and 12 were injured. This event did not get as much national attention as the shootings at Kent State University despite the fact that the gunfire lasted for 30 seconds and at least 140 shots were fired.

Letter sent from President Nixon to Kent State University President Robert White, May 4th Collection, Ohio History Connection archives.

Letter sent from President Nixon to Kent State University President Robert White, May 4th Collection, Ohio History Connection Archives.

On June 13, 1970, President Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest which investigated the events. The commission issued a report in September 1970 that stated,

“Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.”[2]

Charges were eventually brought against eight of the guardsmen.  In 1974 U.S. District Judge Frank Battisti dismissed charges against all eight. Eventually, a civil trial was brought against Governor Rhodes, the President of Kent State University , and the Ohio National Guard. The civil case was settled in return for payment of a total of $675,000 to all plaintiffs and the defendants’ agreement to state publicly that they regretted what had happened.

In 2012, Kent State University opened the May 4th Visitor’s Center as “…an expression of how we have written our own history. It remembers the past so future generations may remember it as well.”[3]

What objects do you have in your collection related to this event?

The Ohio History Connection has several objects in our collection related to this event. A jean jacket (catalog number  H 52549) worn by student protester Alan Canfora on May 4, 1970 when he was struck in the arm by a bullet fired by an Ohio National Guardsman on the campus of Kent State University. After being shot, Canfora became a prominent public speaker, advocating for more legal action to be taken against the U. S. government for their role in the shootings.

We have several objects that belonged to shooting victim Sandra Scheuer, including her freshman beanie (catalog number H 53198),and a corsage ( catalog number H 70425).  The Archives/Library also holds papers from her parents, Martin and Sarah Scheuer, that include more of their daughter’s personal effects and material they collected about her death .  Scheuer was an honors student at Kent State University majoring in Speech Therapy and active in many student organizations. She was walking in between classes on May 4th when she was fatally shot.

A rifle used by National Guard troops at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

A rifle used by National Guard troops at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

In addition to objects from the students, we have several objects used by the National Guardsmen that day including a case cartridge (catalog number H 73985), a gas mask (catalog number H 46653), a pistol (catalog number H 46654), and a rifle (catalog number H 46659).  These items were used as evidence in the trial of the Guardsmen that followed the shootings.  These objects compliment the Kent State University Trial Records (State Archives Series 2062) and nine other record series in the State Archives documenting the events of May 4, 1970 and the aftermath.  You can view examples of digitized documents from the Kent State records in our digital library, Ohio Memory.

The impact of these events is still being felt in Ohio and across the world today.

As a Kent State University alumna myself, I hope this current controversy leads to greater conversation and education of the events that happened on and around May 4th, 1970. Through understanding our own history, we can learn and grow, preventing more hurt from occurring and making our world a better place.

Emily Lang, History Curator

[1] Grack, Rachel A.. The Kent State Tragedy. Edina, Minn.: Abdo Pub., 2005.

[2] “The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest.” PDF. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED083899.pdf (accessed September 17, 2014).

[3] Nobile, Jeremy . “Kent State University Dedicates New May 4 Visitors Center.” News Leader. http://www.the-news-leader.com/regional/2013/05/08/kent-state-university-dedicates-new-may-4-visitors-center (accessed September 17, 2014).

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