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

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: February 15, 2023

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

Related Events

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.

The Kent State shooting followed a turbulent decade marked by Civil Rights and anti-war activism. UC-Berkeley chronicles the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement from 1960-1975.

Kent State Shootings Immortalized

Sources in this Story

  • May 4 Archive: Mayday: Preface
  • Kent State University: The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy
  • The New York Times: 4 Kent State Students Killed by Troops
  • Time: At War with War
  • Digital Journalist: The Picture from Kent State

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

The May 4 Archive, maintained by Emerson College professor J. Gregory Payne, features biographies of the victims and the survivors, witness accounts, and other information on the shootings.

Source: May 4 Archive

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Kent State holds yearly commemorations, with speakers, debate, poetry and candlelight vigils.

Source: Kent State University

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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