Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shooting, one of the most traumatic moments of the Vietnam War era. I’ve previously written around it (writing articles on Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia and the backlash to the shooting which culminated in the Hard Hat Riots) but never spent much time on the massacre itself. So here’s what I hope is a serviceable reconstruction of the event (drawing mostly from Nixonland and James Michener’s Kent State: What Happened and Why, along with various articles through the Columbus Post-Dispatch linked below and KSU’s May 4 Chronology).
Kent State is often mythologized as a small-town campus oblivious to the ’60s until Cambodia woke them up. In fact, Kent hosted a small but active radical contingent, with an SDS chapter which spent most of its time protesting ROTC recruitment on campus. In May 1969, following the example of black students at Cornell, they led an antiwar protest climaxing in an attempted takeover of the Administration Building. The Black Student Union was also a forceful presence demanding more representation on campus, though their leader, Rudy Perry, was reluctant to associate with SDS and other white-led groups. Nonetheless, the events that erupted on May 1st were of an intensity and duration that eclipsed all that came before.
That day began modestly with a rally by the Black Student Union, which contrasted with the campus’s annual Derby Day tradition (where co-eds in miniskirts chased frat boys in derby hats for impromptu kisses). A group of white grad students, mostly history majors, held a small ceremony at the campus’s Victory Bell where they buried a copy of the Constitution to protest Nixon’s Cambodian “incursion.” Compared to other protests, including a student strike then occurring at Harvard, it initially seemed modest. By the evening, however, rowdies (some protesters, some apolitical troublemakers) crossed into the town of Kent, vandalizing buildings, breaking windows and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
From there, events escalated. The unruly kids turned into a mob, who pelted cars and onlookers with rocks and trash while shouting “Pigs off the street! We won’t go to Cambodia!” Another shouted “the Revolution has begun!” into a bullhorn and vowing to destroy the ROTC. The mob was dispersed by police with nightsticks and teargas, and the town of Kent saved from the students’ “revolution.” At least the radicals were dispersed; a collection of fraternity members, rousted from their favorite bar during a basketball game, followed the protesters with their own window-smashing rampage through the town’s drinking district.
By May 2nd, events shifted to the campus and quickly spiraled out of control. The protesters surrounded the ROTC, passing out leaflets to curious students and anxious faculty. When a faculty marshal tried to reason with the crowd, a protest leader told him “I don’t want to hear anything a fucking pig like you has to say” and spat on him. The crowd finally broke down the door to the building with a garbage can, then set fire to the ROTC. Attempts by firemen to extinguish the blaze were blocked by protesters, who stole one fire hose, destroyed a second and attacked the firefighters with sticks and rocks.
Notably, though unspoken in most contemporary coverage, Kent’s black population was conspicuously absent. As the rioting began, Perry ordered “all blacks off campus” during the disturbances, later explaining that “a black man gets shot, no matter what he’s done.” Perry’s pragmatism undoubtedly saved lives; black students at Jackson State, Mississippi, where police fired live rounds into student dorms after a similar protest on May 14th, weren’t so lucky.
Perry’s prudence didn’t stop Kent’s population from envisioning carloads of Black Panthers riding to campus, or wild rumors that an armed takeover of the town was eminent. Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a curfew and requested assistance from the state. The first National Guard units arrived within hours of the ROTC fire, dispersing the crowd with teargas and bayonets (one student received a minor wound). Ohio Governor James Rhodes, a sometimes-moderate Republican facing a tough reelection bid, gave a pompous press conference on May 3rd proclaiming the protesters “worse than the Brownshirts and the Communist element and the night riders…they’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
Rhodes’ pomposity, along with President Nixon’s proclamation that antiwar protesters were “bums,” poured gasoline on an already flammable situation. Myron J. Lunine, a Kent professor of political science, recalled that students “had taken…heavy psychological blows” from the President’s rhetoric, the Governor’s bombast and the National Guard’s arrival. “Do you honestly wonder that many of them felt a deep sense of revulsion?” Attempts by student leaders to defuse tensions – a team of well-scrubbed kids even traveled to Kent to help clean up the mess from Friday’s riot – achieved little; there remained little room for moderation. “If the president thinks I’m a bum and the Governor thinks I’m a Nazi,” one girl asked a reporter, “what does it matter how I act?”
Sunday, May 3rd: the Guard occupied much of the campus, and most of the day passed without incident. Rubber-necking tourists visited KSU, creating a surreal atmosphere. “Everybody was having fun,” Charles Madonio recalled, “quite a few of the incoming families had brought picnics, and while the women spread the food, the children played…You couldn’t find the slightest hint of possible violence.” For the moment, an uneasy truce prevailed. Madonio recalled “a group of Guards lying around munching hot dogs,” while others flirted with co-eds. One Guardsman joked with protester Phil Haas that, if the state cut their pay, “Governor Rhodes will be calling you characters out to subdue us.”
In early afternoon Allison Krause, a Jewish freshman from Pittsburgh, appeared with her boyfriend Barry Levine and began chatting with various Guardsmen. Krause, who had turned 19 years old a week earlier, found Kent’s campus “stifling” and made few friends; she was considering a transfer to Buffalo in the fall. Nonetheless, her politics were outspoken; she bitterly opposed the war and had organized local demonstrations during the previous fall’s Moratorium to End the War. After the violence of the past two days, Krause told her boyfriend that making Kent’s “small business owners…suffer and burning buildings was not going to stop the Vietnam War” and wanted to extend an olive branch to the Guardsmen.
Krause and Levine approached a young soldier named Myers, standing sheepishly with a protester’s lilac placed in the barrel of his M-1. Myers chatted with the couple, telling them he was a student at the University of Akron. He admitted that he didn’t want to be on campus and couldn’t answer Krause’s queries of why he wouldn’t leave. Their conversation was interrupted by a stiff-necked officer who forced Myers to remove the flower from his gun and “forget all this peace stuff.” As Myers sheepishly marched away, Krause asked “what’s the matter with peace? Flowers are better than bullets.”
Such amiability only went so far (even for Krause, who called the officer who interrupted her a “pig”). The Guardsmen weren’t unsympathetic to the protesters, at least at first; most were young men in their early 20s, many had enlisted to avoid the draft. Yet their anger boiled over as they were mocked and threatened (they seemed particularly unnerved by young women who taunted their sexual prowess). The usual resentments of the working class guardsmen towards the (supposedly) well-off collegians became harder to avoid. One officer warned that his men were “not trained to receive bricks. They won’t take it.”
Failed attempts at negotiation led to another confrontation on the night of the 3rd, again near the Victory Bell. Students, expecting to negotiate with either state officials or campus administrators, instead found a wall of National Guardsmen. Their leaders read the students the Ohio Riot Act; the students responded with a roar of insults, attempted to march on the Administration Building, and clashed with the Guardsmen. A contingent of Guardsmen cleared the campus at bayonet point, dodging rocks thrown by some of the more militant crowd. The arrival of helicopters spewing teargas dispersed the protesters; at least two students suffered bayonet wounds.
Monday, May 4th: classes resumed; the campus, incredibly, remained open. Protests continued, so loud and disruptive that professors were forced to cancel their classes. Thus, as protesters and Guardsmen geared up for another clash, hundreds of students uninvolved in the unrest were wandering around campus; “it looked for all the world like a gathering,” Rick Perlstein writes. Tension was heightened when one student began ringing the Victory Bell, even as others tried to stop him, viewing it as a potential provocation.
Guardsmen based at the remains of the ROTC building, commanded by General Robert Canterbury, were ordered to chamber live rounds and fix bayonets. They moved in two formations, one (under Captain Ron Snyder) to the north, the other (under Major Harry Jones) to the east, spraying teargas as they moved. With a bravado Governor Rhodes or Spiro Agnew would envy, the General boasted that “these students are going to have to find out what law and order is all about.”
Some students remained defiant, throwing rocks and curses; a few hardy souls retrieved teargas canisters and hurled them back towards the Guardsmen. One especially bold protester ran up to one of Jones’ men and attempted to wrestle away his rifle. But most dispersed, or peacefully assembled on the Student Commons, showering the soldiers with insulting chants. One professor at Taylor Hall, overlooking the scene from the south, “saw not one weapon” from the protesters “that could be considered lethal.” A researcher, helping James Michener compile his book on the protests, concluded that the rock throwers were so far from the soldiers that “Joe DiMaggio couldn’t have reached them.”
Such assessments, however objectively true, don’t account for the mindset of a twenty year old Guardsman harassed and harried through several days of rioting and abuse. A few rock throwers could have seemed like the vanguard of a more lethal force. A perception that the swarms of students released from class, and the constantly-ringing Victory Bell, reinforced. The campus’s geography further offered the appearance that Snyder and Jones’s men were in mortal danger. What ultimately happened, then, was understandable; but those granted the power to dispense lethal force cannot be excused merely by understanding them.
As Major Jones’ men advanced towards Taylor Hall, they found themselves boxed in by an athletic training field ringed with a chain link fence. After several minutes of confusion they resumed their patrol, moving up a rise called Blanket Hill; at one point, several stopped and aimed their weapons at students in a nearby parking lot, but restrained themselves and continued marching. Finally, at 12:24 Sergeant Melvin Pryor suddenly stopped, aimed his .45 pistol at the crowd on the Commons and fired. Several other Guardsmen, apparently without a verbal order, dropped to one knee and shot into the crowd.
Jerry Casale, then a young Kent student (and later co-founder of DEVO), recounts what happened next:
For a moment, time stood still. It was like a Scorsese film, like Raging Bull, where suddenly Jake LaMotta is getting hit in the face and it goes into slow motion. And then it snaps back just like a Hollywood movie, and, bang! Back to real time. Here’s the blood, the screaming, the crying, the chaos …
I turn around and I see a guy on his belly on the road. People are starting to gather around, and there’s blood running out of his head and neck area. The blood is glistening in the noon sun. I realize it’s Jeff Miller. I get sick to my stomach and I feel like I’m going to pass out.
I sat down on the grass. About 30 seconds later, I realize there are people screaming, “Allison! Allison!” I can’t really see her, but I see all these people hovering around somebody laying on their back in the student/teacher parking lot, not moving. That turned out to be Allison Krause.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next and there’s screaming and crying and chaos. There were these student monitors out during the protest, sort of like the friendly cops. They were wearing arm bands and yelling out, “Don’t move! Don’t move! Just sit down! Don’t run!”
We didn’t know if they were going to keep shooting. We didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. And you’re frozen in trauma and fear. You just about shit your pants. The students are 18, 19, maybe some were 20. I was 20. I wasn’t going to move anyway. I couldn’t move. I was shaking. I saw what real violence is and what happens when M1 rifles are fired with military shells and go through humans.
Another future musician, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, recalled her experience:
I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: “They fucking killed somebody!” Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier.
The ROTC building, now nothing more than a few inches of charcoal, was surrounded by National Guardsmen. They were all on one knee and pointing their rifles at … us! Then they fired.
By the time I made my way to where I could see them it was still unclear what was going on. The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam.
In all, sixty-seven shots were fired in thirteen seconds; 29 of the 77 soldiers admitted to shooting into the crowd with semiautomatic rifles or, in Sergeant Pryor’s case, a pistol. “I was scared to death,” admitted Staff Sergeant Barry Morris, who thought the protesters “were bent overtaking us.” The casualty toll might well have been higher if not for Major Jones, who beat his soldiers about their helmets with a swagger stick, desperately pleading for them to cease fire. Jones later admitted that “the firing was not justified under those circumstances.”
Two protesters died. One was Allison Krause, who cried out “Barry, I’m hit!” before dying in her boyfriend’s arms, a bullet through her chest. The other was Jerry Casale’s friend Jeffrey Miller, a longhaired Long Islander who’d recently transferred from Michigan State to study psychology. Like Krause, Miller was both Jewish and deeply committed to politics. Two hours before his death Miller told his mother, who disapproved of his activism, that “if you feel strongly enough, you have to take a stand.” He was shot through the mouth, killed instantly. Photographer John Filo won a Pulitzer for capturing Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen year old runaway from Florida, wailing in horror as she knelt over Miller’s body.
Two bystanders, William Schroeder (ironically, an ROTC student from Colorado who’d won an academic award from the Association of the Army) and Sandra Lee Scheuer (a Youngstown native studying speech therapy) were also killed, and nine others wounded. Among the latter were Dean Kahler, an aspiring football coach paralyzed for life by a bullet through the spine (a successful Ohio businessman and local politician, Kahler insists that “I only had one bad day at Kent State”), and Joe Lewis, who brazenly flipped the soldiers the bird moments before they opened fire. None of those hit were within 300 feet of the Guardsmen, who silently marched from the field as survivors chanted “Murderers!” after them.
The event triggered a fresh wave of protests and massive press outcry. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young immortalized the shooting with their plaintive ballad “Ohio,” the first of many cultural commemorations. Allison Krause’s father spoke at a rally, proclaiming that “My daughter was not a bum.” Richard Nixon was deeply disturbed by the backlash, enough to make a nighttime sojourn to the Lincoln Memorial to speak to antiwar students. Still, outrage wasn’t the only, or even the prevailing reaction, as noted in a previous How We Got Here:
Nixon decided that talking to students was a lost cause, returning to his beloved “Silent Majority.” He took solace that many, perhaps most Americans agreed with him. A poll taken shortly after Kent State showed 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for their own deaths. “If I’d been faced with the same situation and had a machine gun,” an Akron lawyer commented, “there probably would have been 140 of them dead.” A Kent resident opined that “anyone who appears on the streets of a city like Kent with long hair, dirty clothes, or barefooted deserves to be shot.” These sentiments represented the creeping disgust of middle America towards students whose only crime, it appeared, was to oppose the war.
- Eventually, a presidential commission on campus unrest declared the shootings to be “unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.” But the backlash, the backlash to the backlash (culminating in New York’s Hard Hat Riots), and Nixon’s inability to reach the students, led to the creation of the Huston Plan and the first tangible steps towards Watergate. As for the families of the slain, they had to content themselves with a wrongful death settlement nine years later, and the peripheral notoriety of a martyr’s family.
Laurel Krause, Allison’s sister, environmental activist and head of the Kent State Truth Tribunal, gave a speech to the United Nations in 2014 expounding the lasting significance of Kent State (whose campus commemorates the shooting each year):
The right to assemble and protest is professed as a cherished American value and is a fundamental facet of our democracy. The Kent State precedent has cast a shadow over this democracy for over 40 years. If Kent State remains a glaring example of government impunity, it sends a message that protesters, especially young men and women, can be killed by the state for expressing their political beliefs. My sister died protesting for peace and I would like to honor her memory by ensuring that this never happens to another American protester again.
Unfortunately, this noble goal is far from being achieved. Despite Allison’s plea, authorities still seem determined to answer criticism with bullets instead of flowers.