On This Day

Kent State massacre, Kent State tragedy, Kent State shootings
Douglas Moore/AP
A group of youths cluster around a wounded person as Ohio National Guardsmen hold their weapons in background on Kent State University campus, May 4, 1970.

On This Day: Kent State Students Shot by Ohio National Guard

May 04, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on anti-war protesters at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others.

Ohio National Guard Opens Fire at Kent State Protesters

Kent State was never a bastion of student activism, but the anti-Vietnam war movement had become so widespread by 1970 that even the conservative Ohio school was overwhelmed by protest. Nixon’s announcement of the Cambodian invasion on April 30 prompted days of sometimes-violent protest.

On May 1, a crowd of student protestors and locals became unruly, and there was some property damage. Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency and Ohio Gov. James Rhodes sent in the Ohio National Guard.

Tension between students and the Guard steadily grew leading up to the morning of May 4, when the Guard prepared to break up a rally scheduled for noon in the university Commons area. With guns drawn, the Guard used tear gas canisters to disperse a crowd of students.

The Guard then marched up a hill, turned around and opened fire on students in a parking lot. Firing 61 shots in 13 seconds, the Guard killed four students and wounded nine others.

The adjutant general of the guard, Sylvester Del Corso, claimed that there had been sniper fire directed toward the Guardsmen, prompting the violent response. John Kifner of The New York Times denied this version of events: “this reporter, who was with the group of students, did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley.”

Anti-War Movement Gains Strength

The shootings were widely reported in national newspapers, stirring support for the anti-war movement and provoking student protests and strikes. Even conservative campuses, such as Kent State, became engulfed in student activism, and 100,000 students marched through Washington, D.C.

The incident also changed the nature of anti-war protest. Previously, protests were marked by violence and property damage, yet leaders soon tried to establish more peaceful means of expressing dissent.

“I talked about violent overthrow myself,” said a Kent State student, “But when those rifle bullets cracked past my head, I suddenly realized you can't fight pigs with bricks. Whatever we do, it's got to be peaceful.”

President Richard Nixon was unsympathetic to the protesters, saying, “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” He came under pressure for his handling of Cambodia and Kent State lost his chance for “wide domestic support, or at least acquiescence, for his policies,” wrote Time.

Kent State Shootings Immortalized

The Kent State shootings have been immortalized by an iconic photograph and song. Kent State student John Filo photographed 14-year-old runaway Mary Vecchio kneeling and crying over the body of victim Jeffery Miller, winning a Pulitzer Prize for the image.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's song “Ohio,” with its haunting refrain “four dead in Ohio,” became an anthem of the anti-war movement.

Reference: Archive and Memorial


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