(This is a repost of a report on the Kent State shootings, on occasion of the 52nd anniversary. It’s almost hard to remember a moment when students were present on college campuses, much less assembled together in groups. At the end, I’ve added a bit on Neil Young’s emblematic song, which helped keep the memory alive.
As I write in 2022, when young people have been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter and Climate Change movements–and are likely to be newly engaged in intensifying battles over reproductive rights, it is important to see the histories of contention on college campuses.)
It’s the anniversary of the killing of four college students at Kent State University. Young National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the war on May 4, 1970, discharging more than 60 rounds in roughly 13 seconds. They killed four students: Allison Krause, 19, and Jeffrey Miller, 20, were part of a nonviolent protest that university authorities promised to ban; Sandy Scheuer, 20, and William Schroeder, 19, were walking to class. The National Guardsmen also wounded nine other students, some severely.
The protests at Kent State were part of a wave of protests that swept across American college campuses on May 1, a Friday, the day after President Richard Nixon announced that he had already ordered American air forces to expand their bombing to Cambodia. (Roughly a week earlier, after operations had already commenced, Secretary of State William P. Rogers testified before Congress, explicitly denying any intention of expanding the war to Cambodia.)
In Kent, protest and disruption spread into the town that night, with bonfires set in the streets and altercations with police. The mayor declared a state of emergency, ordered the bars closed, and asked the governor for help in getting everything back under control; the National Guard arrived at the University on Saturday. Students planned a demonstration for Monday to protest the presence of the Guard on campus. University officials tried to cancel the demonstration, but students assembled anyway. The Guardsmen ordered the students to disperse, then used tear gas before opening fire.
It was terrible, and there is still a great deal we don’t know about: why the National Guard was on campus in the first place? why the order to fire on unarmed students hundreds of feet away? Who gave the order? or, was an order even given? There’s a lot of writing, and a lot of controversy, still. A good start is a summary, including an annotated bibliography, by two emeritus professors at Kent State, Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley, of Sociology and Political Science, respectively.
The shooting of unarmed students on a public college campus fostered a sense that the country was coming apart. It was followed by a police shooting of student protesters at Jackson State in Mississippi, where Philip Gibbs, 21, and James Green, 17, were killed, and 12 other students were wounded.
President Nixon established a commission, chaired by William Scranton (formerly governor of Pennsylvania), to report on campus unrest. Published in September, the Scranton Commission answered few of the pressing questions about Kent State or Jackson State, but observed that campus unrest seemed to decline when the war in Vietnam seemed like it was winding down, and escalated after the bombing in Cambodia started.
The war and the demonstrations continued for a while, tapering off when the draft ended the next year. Authorities developed ways to control dissent, on campus and elsewhere, without using live ammunition against protesters involved in large demonstrations. Demonstrations generally became less threatening, less disruptive, and less dangerous.
The Kent State and Jackson State killings remain tragic exceptions to more routine protest politics. It’s a good sign that they stand out in our memories.
One reason the memory remains is a powerful and idiosyncratic protest song, recorded within just a few weeks of the event. Days after the Kent State shootings, Neil Young wrote, “Ohio,” a song mourning the deaths. Apparently, he was shocked by photos published in Life magazine. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young released the song, which called out President Nixon and ended with the repeated line, “Four dead in Ohio” (lyrics). The song reached the top 20 in the United States and Canada, and appeared on several albums by Young and by the group; they often performed the song in their occasional reunion tours over the past half-century.)