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Summary of the Kent State Shooting of 1970

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

On May 4, 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, a group of students staged a protest about the war in Vietnam. What happened on that day has become an indelible part of American History. Read on to find out more about the Kent State Shootings.

Background to May 4, 1970

In order to fully understand the Kent State shootings that happened on May 4, 1970 at about 12:24 in the afternoon, it's important to understand the background that led into it. Like much of the nation, the dissent on the Kent State campus began in 1968. The Vietnam War had dragged on without a clear end in sight, which is why in the Presidential Election of that year, Richard Nixon promised an end to the war. However, by 1969 and 1970, it was clear that the war was essentially unending. As a result, the unrest on American universities was at an unprecedented level. On Thursday, April 30, 1970, President Nixon informed the nation that he authorized the 'Cambodian Incursion,' where American forces entered into Cambodia. 'Incursion' for the President was interpreted as 'invasion' by many of the nation's college-aged youth.

Widespread demonstrations on college campuses across the country took place the next day. One of these was at Kent State University where about 500 students staged a demonstration protesting President Nixon's handling of the war. The students protested the extension of the war into Cambodia, as well as the need for more troops. Upon the conclusion of the day's demonstration, there was a call for another demonstration to take place Monday, May 4. In Washington, the President took a strong stance against the protesters around the country, dismissing them as 'bums.' The President's attitude helped to harden the divisions between those charged to keep the peace and the protesters.

Throughout the weekend at Kent State, skirmishes took place between college students in the town of Kent and local authorities. The town's mayor, Leroy Satram, appealed to Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes for assistance and that the National Guard be deployed to Kent State to establish order. Once the National Guard entered Kent State University on May 2, they arrived to see protesters burning down the ROTC (Reserve Officer's Training Corps) barracks on the campus. With the National Guard arriving on campus, the students' ire moved away from the Vietnam War and onto the presence of the National Guard on campus.

On May 3, Governor Rhodes held a press conference that echoed the sentiments of the President. He insisted that the protesters were among 'the worst type of people that we harbor in America' and would not 'take over the campus.' That evening, after tear gas was used to disperse another gathering, the National Guard insisted that there would be no more demonstrations.

May 4 at Kent State

Before noon on May 4, a growing crowd of students collected at the Commons. Leaders of the National Guard and police officers ordered the gathering to disperse. With chants from the crowd of 'Pigs off campus' and calls to end the Vietnam War, the tension began to rise. Officers were ordered to 'lock and load' their weapons with live ammunition.

At noon, the crowd was over 2000 people. Even students who were not in support of ending the Vietnam War supported their fellow students against the National Guard. Tear gas was used to offset the crowd's gathering strength. Given the windy day, it had no effect on the protesters except to galvanize them as a unit. The National Guard began to advance on the crowd. While it retreated as a response, they didn't disperse, instead chanting 'Green pigs' and 'Fascist bastards.'

With the advancement of the National Guard, the fiercely unified students broke into two loose groups. Increasing the tension, one of the groups began throwing rocks and screaming at the Guardsmen. Having effectively forced the crowd to retreat away from the Commons, the order was issued for the National Guard to move back to their original position. Perceiving a victory, the crowd intensified its 'menacing and vicious' behavior. Hostility towards the other was the common denominator as both groups stood face to face. In an act of foreshadowing, one of the Guardsman fired a pistol in the air in the hopes of stopping the crowd's unruliness.

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