Kent State shootings

Missing image
Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller

The Kent State shootings, also known as May 4th or The Kent State Massacre, occurred at Kent State University in the city of Kent, Ohio, and involved the shooting of students by the National Guard on May 4, 1970. Over the course of four days, Kent State students protested against an American invasion of Cambodia which President Richard Nixon launched on April 25 and which Nixon announced in a television address on April 30. There were significant national consequences: hundreds of colleges closed throughout the US, and the event further divided the nation along political lines.


Lead-up to the shooting

Promising to end the Vietnam War, Nixon had been elected president in 1968. The My Lai massacre was exposed in November 1969, and the first draft lottery in the United States since World War II was instituted that December. Since the war had seemed to be winding down throughout 1969, when the war was expanded into Cambodia, many people were outraged. Many young people, including college students, were frightened of being drafted, and the expansion of the war into another country was literally life-threatening to eligible draftees. Across the country, campuses erupted in protests in what Time Magazine called "a nation-wide student strike."

Friday, May 1st

At Kent State, a massive demonstration was held on May 1st in the Commons, and another was planned for May 4th. There was widespread anger, and many protesters issued a call to "bring the war home." That night, there were many separate incidents between students and police, with bonfires lit in the middle of downtown streets and police cars hit with bottles. Tensions were high throughout the city, and especially on campus. There were unfounded rumors that revolutionaries were planning to destroy the campus and the city to tip off a violent political revolution in the United States.

Saturday, May 2nd

Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency on May 2nd and, later that afternoon, 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, a large demonstration was underway and the campus ROTC building was burning. Many believe the fire may have been set in protest, but the arsonist was never caught. There is speculation about the actual start of the fire because the ROTC building was already boarded up and scheduled for demolition. Over a thousand protesters surrounded the building, and cheered the building's burning. While attempting to extinguish the fire, several Kent firemen and police officers were pelted with rocks and other projectiles by those standing near the fire. More than one fire engine company had to be called in because protesters were slashing firehoses with pocket knives. Again, a call for assistance went out. The National Guard entered the campus for the first time, and set up camp directly on campus. Many arrests were made, and tear gas was used.

Rowdy groups of students began milling around the downtown streets. Several local biker groups were also present. As the bars began closing their doors early to avoid trouble, the students became more agitated. Finally, violence erupted. Store windows were smashed, property was vandalized and shops were looted.

Concerned students came into downtown Kent to offer their time and services with cleanup efforts after the rioting. While many shop owners appreciated this gesture, others were angry and demanded an end to the violence that caused the damage. Satrom, under pressure from frightened citizens, ordered a curfew until further notice. Enraged by the city's sudden curfew, the rioters once again looted downtown Kent, destroying property and threatening store owners.

Sunday, May 3rd

On Sunday, the campus was occupied by nearly 1,000 National Guardsmen to control the students, giving the campus the appearance of a war zone.

A press conference held by Governor Rhodes only added to the tensions as he called the protesters un-American and made other provocative statements. He also claimed he would declare a state of emergency, banning further demonstrations, and gave the impression that a situation akin to martial law had been declared. (Actually, Rhodes never did declare the State of Emergency which would have made the May 3rd and 4th protests illegal; this was not known by either the students or the National Guard at the time.) Two separate demonstrations were dispersed later that evening by the National Guard, who fired tear gas into the crowds.

Monday, May 4th

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Crowd of people making gestures

On Monday, 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 cancelled. Despite this, an estimated three thousand people gathered on the university commons. The rally was, initially at least, peaceful. The campus's iron victory bell was rung to signal the beginning of the rally. The rally may have in fact been legal, since a state of emergency had not been declared, but there was a widespread belief among both the students and the guardsmen that the rally was illegal.

Just before noon the Guard ordered the crowd to disperse and fired tear gas. Because of wind, the tear gas had little effect on dispersing the crowd, some of whom were now responding to the tear gas with rock-throwing and chants of "Pigs off campus!" Some students began to pick up the tear gas canisters and throw them at the National Guardsmen.

A group of 70 National Guard troops advanced on the hundreds of protesters with fixed bayonets and with their weapons locked and loaded, in an attempt to disperse the crowd. The National Guardsmen were wearing gas masks and had little training in riot control. They soon found themselves trapped on an athletic practice field which was fenced on three sides, where they remained for ten minutes. The Guardsmen then began to withdraw back in the direction from which they had come, followed by some of the protesters.

When they reached the top of a hill, 28 of the 70 guardsmen fired a fusillade of between 61 and 67 shots at the unarmed students. Although the firing was later determined to have lasted only 13 seconds, 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 is widely debated. The Adjutant General of the Ohio National Guard told reporters that a sniper had fired on the guards, but this was later shown to be false. Many guardsmen later testified that they were in fear for their lives, although the distance of the students at that point makes the claim seem unlikely.

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ROTC after tear gas had been fired

The shootings killed four students and wounded nine. Only one of the four students killed was participating in the protest, and one of the students killed, William Schroeder (who was observing but not participating in the demonstration) was a member of the campus ROTC chapter. Of those wounded, none was closer than 71 feet (22 m) from the guardsmen. Of those killed, the nearest was 265 feet (81 m) from the guardsmen.



  • Alan Canfora
  • John Cleary
  • Thomas Mark Grace
  • Dean Kahler
  • Joseph Lewis
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • James Dennis Russell
  • Robert Stamps
  • Douglas Wrentmore

Immediately after the shootings, many angry students were ready to launch an all-out attack on the National Guard. Many faculty members, led by Glenn Frank, pleaded with the students to leave the Commons and to not give in to violent escalation. After 20 minutes of difficult speaking, the students left the Commons. Ambulances came and tended to the wounded, and the Guard left the area.

Aftermath & Long-Term Effects

A photograph by photo-journalism student John Filo which was taken shortly after the shooting depicts a teenager identified as Mary Vecchio kneeling over Jeffrey Miller's body as she cries in despair. The photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Filo while still a student at Kent State, became the most enduring image of the tragedy (illustration above) and one of the most enduring images of the anti-Vietnam War movement in general. It gave the impression among many observers that Vietnam protesters included not only hippies, but also "decent suburban kids". (Ironically, Mary Vecchio was in fact a 14-year-old runaway hanging out at campus.) The photograph was distributed around the world and solidified anti-war feelings.

In response to the attacks President Nixon gave a speech, saying "This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy." Many students felt that this placed blame for the tragedy on the protesting students, and not on the guardsmen. In the following days, Nixon repeatedly expressed regret for the tragedy, and invited some of the Kent State students to the White House.

There was wide discussion in some ranges of the press as to whether these were legal shootings of American citizens or not, and whether the protests were legal or not. These debates served to further galvanize uncommitted opinion by the terms of the discourse. "Massacre" was bandied about, as it had been used for the Boston Massacre of 1770 in which five were killed and several more wounded.

The shootings led to protests on college campuses throughout the United States, causing hundreds of campuses to close because of both violent and non-violent demonstrations. The Kent State campus remained closed for six weeks. Just five days after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington DC against the war.

On May 14 of the same year, two students at the historically black Jackson State University were shot to death and several others wounded, under more questionable circumstances, and without arousing nationwide attention. For more on this incident, visit the archives of the African American Registry. (

In 1990, a memorial commemorating the events of May 4th was dedicated on the campus on a 2.5 acre- (10,000 square meter-) site overlooking the University's Commons where the shootings took place. Even the construction of the monument became controversial and in the end, only 7% of the design was constructed. The memorial does not contain the names of those killed or wounded in the shooting.

Popular music tributes

Neil Young of the folk-rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young quickly wrote and recorded a protest song, "Ohio", in reaction to the shootings. The song starts with:

Tin soldiers and Nixon's comin'.
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drummin'.
Four dead in Ohio.

The shootings are also mentioned in Allen Ginsberg's poem "Hadda be Playin' on a Jukebox". Canadian industrial band Skinny Puppy has a song titled "Tin Omen" (on their 1989 album Rabies), in which they compare the shootings to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

See also

Town and gown

External links

it:Sparatoria della Kent State


  • Bills, Scott. (1988). Kent State/May 4: Echoes Through a Decade. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. ISBN 0873382781
  • Caputo, Philip. (2005). 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings. New York: Chamberlain Bros. ISBN 1596090804
  • Gordon, William A. (1990). The Fourth of May: Killings and Coverups at Kent State. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. Updated and reprinted in 1995 as Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State? Laguna Hills, CA: North Ridge Books. ISBN 0937813052
  • Michener, James. (1971). Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Random House and Reader's Digest Books. ISBN 0394471997
  • Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest. (1970) Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. ISBN 040501712X

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