Several years ago, on the way to Washington, D.C. with my brother, I noticed an exit sign pointing to Kent State University. I told my brother to pull off because of the historical significance of that University and explained to him that back in May of 1970 National Guard troops killed four students and wounded nine during an anti-war rally. We drove around the campus to look for any memorials about that fateful day and found a small stone plaque with the names of the deceased under a tree. After we finished touring Kent, the idea of a massacre that occurred in this small Ohio town struck both of us as we continued our road trip. Today, May 4, 2010, marks the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State Massacre and in this post I will provide a brief history of that infamous day.
On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon shifted course in the long Vietnam War ordering American troops to be stationed in neutral Cambodia to conduct attacks against Vietcong sanctuaries. This policy sparked new protests from the anti-war forces especially in the tiny small Ohio city, Kent. The next day, students staged a peaceful protest on campus but that evening protesters displayed civil disobedience inthe city's downtown which prompted Ohio Governor James Rhodes to call out the National Guard to restore order. On May 2, arsonists burned down the ROTC building on the campus of Kent State University and the following day, authorities decided to ban a noon rally planned for Monday, May 4.
About two thousand students showed up to the banned rally that Monday afternoon anyway and first the guardsmen used tear gas to disperse the crowd. For un-explained reasons, after that unsuccessful method, they fired about sixty shots into the crowed which killed four students, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William K. Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer and wounded nine others. In a statement, Nixon said, “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy. It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the nation’s campuses, administrators, faculty, and students alike to stand firmly for the right which exists in this country of peaceful dissent and just as strongly against the resort of violence as a means of such expression” feeling terribly of what took place at Kent. (quoted from the NYT article dated May 5, 1970). Sylvester Delcorso, one of the Generals of the Ohio National Guard, defended the guardsmen said “that the guardsmen had been force to shoot after a sniper opened fire against the troops from a nearby rooftop” (Ibid) but the students denied there was a sniper.
The shootings sparked a national outrage and Nixon appointed an investigative commission that found the shootings to be “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” In 1979, the victims’ families filed a lawsuit against twenty-eight members of the Ohio National Guard and Governor Rhodes. The suit settled and the families received $675,000, collectively. Also, both the National Guard and the Governor accepted responsibility for the deaths and injuries that occurred. Marking the fortieth anniversary, Elaine Holstein, the mother of one the students (Jeffery Miller) killed in the massacre wrote her reflections (in the hard copy edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 4, 2010) on the events and speculates what kind of person he would become if he did not die an unjust death.
History showed that the guardsmen overreacted when they killed these students for exercising their freedom of speech rights cherished under the Constitution. The appropriateness of the National Guard and the Governor to show remorse by taking full responsibility displayed professionalism. Also, let us never forget the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam defending our freedoms, one of them the right to dissent government policy. Finally, if you travel to Washington, D.C. be sure to visit Kent State University on the way and say a pray for the victims of the massacre.
Here is the picture of John Filo's Pulizer Prize Winning Photo of a student grieving one of the dead students.