I was six years old when I heard Walter Cronkite tell America that four students were dead.
I recently attended Parents’ Weekend at Kent State. There’s a memorial on campus, dedicated to the students killed and wounded on Monday, May 4, 1970, when a group of National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of unarmed students who were protesting the Vietnam War.
In addition to the monument, there’s a museum, telling the story behind the shootings: the environment of the times, the divided nation, the fear and outrage of middle America, as children began to question the decisions made by their elders.
The museum features photos, tape, and recordings of the incident, along with maps showing the position of the respective parties. It’s compelling and convincing.
After “they” burned down the campus ROTC building, the governor received a request for Guard assistance to quell the civil unrest, and restore order. The next morning, the Guard circled the shell of the burned-out building. Students assembled on the commons to protest the Guard’s presence on their campus.
Other students passed through the commons, walking to and from classes.
The general in charge, Robert Canterbury, vowed to use “any means necessary” to disperse the students.
Orders were given for the soldiers to don gas masks, and to fix bayonets. It was around noon.
Orders were given to fix bayonets.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Someone thought it was necessary to use a World War I trench warfare weapon to face down a group of unarmed students.
Think about that, and think about how you’d feel if that was your kid they were preparing to run through.
And the soldiers did it.
Then they locked & loaded, loading their M1 carbines with 30.06 ammunition.
Tear gas was fired, but a breeze was blowing, largely dissipating the gas. Some students threw the canisters back at the soldiers (who were wearing gas masks).
Some students began to leave the area, either because of the effects of the gas, or to walk away from the escalation.
Some other students threw rocks at the soldiers. From the photos, it appears one rock hit the tire of a Jeep. I didn’t see any confirmed hits on soldiers, or read of any in the accounts.
A company of soldiers was dispatched toward the parking lot, ensuring the group of students that had left the commons didn’t return. After seeing the students were dispersing away from the site, the company turned to go back down to the commons.
It’s not clear from the photos or tape exactly why, but the company suddenly turned back toward the parking lot and the departing students.
The soldiers took position, and shouldered their arms.
They took aim at the departing students.
And they opened fire.
Nearly 70 shots were fired in the next few seconds.
At the end of this fusillade, 4 students were dead.
9 were wounded.
The closest student hit by gunfire was 60 feet from the soldiers. The furthest was 750 feet away. It’s hard to fathom any legitimate threat from those distances, from unarmed students.
After the students were down, the soldiers went back to their unit, leaving the students bleeding out in the parking lot. No medics attended them, and no “authority” figure called for medical assistance.
They were left to die. I don’t know if prompt medical attention could have saved any of the four.
Two boys, one an ROTC member.
The four were between 250 and 400 feet from the soldiers.
9 wounded, including one completely paralyzed.
Walter Cronkite told the nation 5 1/2 hours later.
In the aftermath of the shootings, the number of protesting students had approximately doubled.
The general also doubled down, preparing his soldiers to again use “any means necessary” to disperse the students. At this point, the students were protesting by sitting down on the grass, and refusing to move.
Clearly, a threat of this magnitude could not go unchallenged.
As General Canterbury prepared his troops to charge the students, Glenn Frank, the Faculty Marshal for KSU approached the general, pleading for a chance to speak to the students before the charge. He begged for a chance to talk to the students, to persuade them to leave the commons.
The general magnanimously granted him five minutes (there is video of this conversation—it is not debatable).
The university official approached the students, and broke down crying. He tearfully begged the students to follow him off the commons, warning they would be “slaughtered” if they didn’t do so (there is a tape recording of this—again, not debatable).
The students dispersed, and further bloodshed was averted.
I believe Mr. Frank saved dozens of lives that day.
The next section of the museum covers the aftermath. I found the letters to the editor to be enlightening. Letter after letter pointed out it was “unfortunate” 13 students had been killed or wounded, but it was necessary to teach the remaining, living students the value of “respect” and the rule of law and order.
I would argue the shootings taught them exactly the opposite.
A Gallup Poll taken in the aftermath reportedly showed 58% of respondents blamed the students for the shootings.
A Presidential Enquiry was initiated, eventually ruling the shootings unjustified.
The parents attempted to sue the governor, and the Guard, for killing their children. But you can’t sue the government for killing your kids.
The parents persisted, and eventually the case was allowed to proceed. It eventually settled, under undisclosed terms. However, part of the settlement was a letter, signed by the governor and 20-some Guardsmen, expressing their acknowledgement of the unfortunate incident, and that the students may have believed they were exercising their rights of free speech and assembly.
An apology does not appear in the letter, nor do the words, “I’m sorry”. I can’t imagine how the parents of the four dead felt upon reading it.
Eight Guardsmen were indicted. All were acquitted for firing “in self-defense.”
“They” burning the ROTC building eventually resulted in a conviction for one, and guilty pleas from two others. None of the three were students at Kent State.
On May 14th, 2 more students were killed, 12 wounded, by police at Jackson State University.
In the aftermath of those shootings, 47 eventually states passed laws prohibiting the use of lethal violence to disperse student protests.
3 states evidently still allow it, or at least didn’t feel the need to limit their options.
From Kent State:
Jeffrey Miller, 20.
Allison Krause, 19.
William Schroeder, 19
Sandra Sheuer, 20
All 4 were students enrolled at Kent State.
From Jackson State:
Phillip Gibbs, 21, JS student
James Green, 17, HS Senior
None of these photos are mine, nor do I own the copyright to them. I found them in Google searches for historical illustration of the shootings. I hope you understand their use for this non-commercial posting.