On May 1, 1970, Kent State University responded to Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia with a protest similar to those on a hundred other campuses that May 1. But, as the weekend progressed, so did the level of confrontation. Still, no one expected the bloody events of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard killed four and wounded nine students. To understand what happened that Monday, it’s necessary to review the events leading up to it.
Part I of this series examined Nixon’s curiously timed announcement of the Cambodian invasion and the May Day rally at Yale University. This, Part II of the series, examines the events of the May 1-3 weekend at Kent. Part III will deal with the events of May 4 and Part IV will examine the legal aftermath.
(Cross-posted at Daily Kos and Democratic Underground.)
Even among Ohio college students, Kent State didn’t have much of a reputation for political activism. In 1968, a group of Kent State student activists formed a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society but it never acquired much of a following. When Mark Rudd, best known for his role in shutting down Columbia University, came to speak at Kent State, only a couple dozen students turned out. At the height of their influence, Kent SDS could only claim about 1% of the student body as members and the pre-1970 list of student-led campus disruptions was quite small. In November, 1968, Kent SDS and the Black United Students protested recruiters from the Oakland Police Department. In the spring of 1969, SDS presented the administration with a list of demands, including the abolishment of ROTC on campus. The disruptions that followed ultimately led to the suspension of the SDS campus charter. Since that pretty much sums up Kent’s Vietnam-era radical activities, it’s probably not all that surprising that a spring 1970 survey found a majority of KSU students supporting Nixon’s policies.
On May 1, 1970, the day after Nixon’s speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, a hastily-organized group of Kent State students, calling themselves World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation (WHORE), gathered on the campus commons to denounce the invasion. Declaring the Constitution dead, they ripped a copy of the document from their history books and buried it. The rally attracted only 500 of Kent’s 20,000 students. At the end of the event, the organizers announced another rally for noon on Monday, May 4.
That night, as usual, the action in Kent was at the downtown bars. With televisions on campus scarce in those days, many kids had gone to the bars to watch the NBA finals. In the streets, a motorcycle gang performed stunts to entertain the crowd. Then, spontaneously, someone announced a street dance and the kids began blocking off the road. When an elderly driver refused to detour, the revelers rocked his car. The driver finally pulled back and the kids cheered. About 11 PM, people began snake-dancing through the streets. The atmosphere, according to Kent sociologist James Best, was “lighthearted, if frantic” which was not particularly unusual for downtown Kent on a spring weekend.
Then the mood began to change. Some kids started stopping motorists to ask their opinion of the Cambodia invasion. Someone overturned a garbage can and set its contents on fire. A smaller group, mostly not students at Kent State, began throwing rocks and bottles through storefronts. Kent police Chief Roy Thompson watched anxiously, hoping the crowd would “simmer down.” When they didn’t, he ordered his full force of twenty-one men into riot gear and called neighboring law enforcement departments for additional support. He then called Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom and told him that a riot was in progress. When Satrom reached Main Street around 1 AM, he declared a civil emergency, along with a retroactive 11 PM curfew. The officials went around and closed down the bars. This forced an additional 1500 kids into the streets. Those kids, angry at having had to leave their already-paid-for beers behind, now joined the much smaller group of agitators. Thompson, who later admitted this decision was “probably a mistake,” ordered his men to lob tear gas into the crowd. Meanwhile, Satrom telephoned Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes and reported, erroneously, that “SDS students had taken over a portion of Kent.”
The crowd, prodded by police and tear gas, scattered and then regrouped at the Prentice Gate to KSU’s campus. Rocks, bottles, and taunts flew. The Kent police, lacking authority to enter the campus, fired tear gas and waited for support from the campus police but they never arrived. At 2:30 AM, a freak accident, with a workman stranded on a traffic light, diverted everyone’s attention. His predicament and subsequent rescue diffused tensions and, about 3 AM, the students drifted back onto campus and the police dispersed. In all, Friday night’s protests resulted in about $10,000 worth of property damage, seven slightly injured policeman, and fourteen arrests. By contrast, when Ohio State won the Rose Bowl the previous January, about five times as much damage occurred in Columbus. That, however, was dismissed as light-hearted, celebratory fun.
Saturday morning, many KSU students woke up to the news of what had happened in town Friday night. By then, Mayor Satrom had imposed a dusk-to-dawn city curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and gasoline, unless it was pumped directly into a car tank. Later that morning, Satrom met with a liaison from the Ohio National Guard. The liaison officer told the mayor that, if Satrom wanted the Guard’s help, he had to ask for it by 5PM. Why the Guard imposed such an artificial deadline is unknown but, clearly, this created an artificial sense of urgency. Later that day, the same guard officer told a KSU vice president that, if the Guard came, it would take “complete control” of the town and the campus. Even as these officials met, students were downtown helping to clean up the debris from the previous night’s disturbances.
In mid-afternoon, Kent Police Chief Roy Thompson reported to Satrom that Weathermen had been positively identified on campus, guns were being stockpiled, and plans hatched to burn the banks, post office, and campus ROTC buildings. Thompson urged Satrom to call in the Guard. Although none of these rumors could be substantiated, Satrom acquiesced.
Meanwhile, on campus, word spread of an evening rally at the Army ROTC building, a ramshackle surplus World War II barracks on the edge of the university Commons. Later, many claimed it was common knowledge that the building would burn that night. In any case, by about 8PM, several hundred students had gathered near the ROTC building. Banned from town, the students had little else to do. Someone suggested “liberating” a hastily-scheduled dance and the students marched to the dormitories where they picked up a few additional protesters and then returned to the Commons.
What happened over the next couple of hours remains controversial. As the students watched, a small group of hard-core agitators rushed the ROTC building, pelting it with rocks and battering its windows. Attempts to burn the building were made by throwing lighted railroad flares onto the roof, but these rolled off. Someone else ignited a curtain with a cigarette lighter but that quickly fizzled out. Finally, someone lit a rag dipped in gasoline, threw it inside, and the ROTC building began to burn.
What baffled many at that point was the absence of an effective response by the Kent State police. The Reverend Robert Lee remarked: “The curious thing to me is that when the mob of students approached the ROTC building, they were not met by a prepared group of law enforcement people in sufficient numbers to stave off the burning.” One student noted: “People kept expecting the police to come, and when they didn’t come, [the crowd] got braver.” Professor Glenn Frank recognized none of the so-called leaders of the group attacking ROTC. Because this activist core threatened photographers, few photographs of Saturday night’s events exist.
Shortly after 8:45 PM, the Kent fire department arrived. As they tried to put the fire out, demonstrators threw rocks and slashed their hoses with ice picks. Professor Glenn Frank watched in confusion as “a small group of helmeted police (stood) at the side of the ROTC building (and) made no attempt that I could see to defend the firemen.” With no protection, the firemen left, but not until the fire was fully contained, according to a fireman. Around 9 PM, with the fire out, the crowd of students drifted away, heading towards town to challenge the curfew. After being tear-gassed at the campus gate, they returned to the Commons where, to their astonishment, they found the ROTC building completely engulfed in flames. Although the fire department returned to campus, by the time they got there, the building was a total loss. “How (the ROTC fire) happened is unclear,” said Peter Davies, author of The Truth About Kent State, “but it could not have happened at a more inopportune moment: the advance units of the Ohio National Guard were entering Kent.” Seeing the fire on campus, the ONG immediately proceeded to campus. Without the excuse of the ROTC fire, the Guard would have been stationed in Kent and might never have entered the Kent State campus. This, along with the actual events of the fire, have led most of those who have studied the Kent State shootings to believe that the ROTC fire was set by agents provocateur. Charles Thomas, who worked at the National Archives and obtained the separate FBI report on the ROTC fire through the Freedom of Information Act, says those documents prove “the police had been deliberately held back” and “the building was apparently burned while it was intact and in the hands of the police.”
On Sunday, May 3, students awoke to find their campus filled with jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and Ohio National Guard soldiers. At 10 AM, Governor James Rhodes arrived in Kent to assess the damage. The two-term governor, running in Tuesday’s May 5 primary for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator, saw Kent as a last, great opportunity to promote his law-and-order campaign. At a press conference, the angry governor pounded the table while denouncing “the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups and their allies in the state of Ohio.” He promised “to put a stop to this…. We are going to eradicate the problem. We are not going to treat the symptoms…. These people … terrorize the community. They are worse than the brown shirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” Thanks to a broadcast hookup in the barracks, the National Guard heard all the governor’s inflammatory rhetoric. (Post script: Rhodes would lose the May 5 election.)
National Guard Adjutant General Sylvester Del Corso used the Sunday press conference to discuss tactics: “Like the Ohio law says, use any force that is necessary even to the point of shooting.” Governor Rhodes emphasized the peril he saw for the community: “No one is safe in Portage County. It is just that simple.” After the meeting, when the Portage County prosecutor urged Rhodes to close the university, the governor refused, saying that to do so would just play into the hands of the radicals. (Emphasis mine.)
As a result, Kent State remained open and Sunday afternoon passed quietly. Students chatted on campus with the guardsman, many of whom were about the same age and some of whom were themselves Kent State students. Nevertheless, widespread confusion reigned on campus regarding curfews and the students’ right to assemble. No one was quite sure who was in control of the campus and the distribution of some 12,000 leaflets declaring that a state of emergency existed, that the National Guard controlled the campus, and that “all forms of outdoor demonstrations and rallies – peaceful or otherwise” had been banned, didn’t help.
That night, a small crowd again gathered on the Commons. Around 9:30 PM, they began a sit-down strike just off campus, to protest the city curfew. For about an hour, students sat quietly under the watchful eyes of the police. Eventually the demonstrators asked to meet with the mayor and KSU’s president. The Kent police agreed, provided the students agreed to move back onto campus. But as the students began to do so, the police suddenly announced that the curfew was being moved up from 1 AM to 11 PM, giving students less than half an hour to find shelter.
Almost immediately, the Guard fixed their bayonets and began firing tear gas. Panicky students sought whatever shelter they could find. Helicopters spotlighted the fleeing students. The demonstrators, feeling betrayed, became hostile. One remembered that “as we moved up the street, stones were being thrown back toward the Guard and the State Police.” A guardsman told the New York Times, “You could hear the rocks falling all around you. One brushed my sleeve. It was scary as hell. We were worrying about the snipers. They kept saying there were snipers out there.” Before this Sunday night confrontation ended, at least two, and possibly as many as seven, students had been bayoneted.
Many students never made it back to their rooms that night and few got much sleep. Isolated gunfire and the whip-whipping of helicopter blades continued all night long. One student later said, “I fell asleep with the sound of helicopters in the air and the feeling I was in an armed camp.”
Many guardsmen’s nerves were also frayed. Before being sent to Kent State, these same units had been on active duty in a Teamsters strike, during which they were shot at and had huge blocks of concrete dropped on them from overpasses. Although some guardsmen had riot control experience, others were recent recruits with limited training or experience. Some had had little sleep or food for days. One company got off duty after Sunday’s events at 3 AM. They bedded down only to be awakened an hour later: “Our tents were not arranged in straight enough rows, we were told. We had to get up, knock down the tents and rearrange them, then finally [we] were permitted to sleep.”
All this kept everyone on edge, setting the stage for Monday’s disaster.