HistoryExplainer

50 years ago, the Kent State shootings sparked student unrest across America

The killing of four students by armed guardsmen in 1970 is one of the most divisive moments in U.S. history since the Civil War.

Photograph by AP
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Ohio National Guard soldiers moved in on war protestors at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Four students were killed and nine were wounded when the guardsmen opened fire. The university, located in Kent, Ohio, had planned an elaborate multi-day commemoration for the 50th anniversary. Events were canceled or modified because of social distancing restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Photograph by AP

Fifty years ago today, Monday, May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War on the campus of Kent State University. In just 13 seconds, four students were killed and nine were injured. The Kent State shooting was a watershed moment in American history, viewed as the day the United States turned its back on the young people who were supposed to be its future.

Five days earlier, on Thursday April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon, who won the 1968 election in part due to his promise to end the Vietnam War, announced that the United States would invade Cambodia in an attempt to target the headquarters of the Viet Cong. The announcement sparked unrest at college campuses nationwide among students opposed to the war. At Kent State, a public university just east of Akron, Ohio, students broke windows, threw bottles at police cars, and on Friday night set a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps building on fire.

The next day, Republican Ohio governor James Rhodes, who was in a hotly contested primary race for the U.S. Senate, called in the Ohio National Guard to help contain student protests. Nearly 1,000 guardsmen were sent to Kent State. Outraged, the students now resisted both the war in Vietnam and the use of armed forces on their campus.

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Kent State University students disperse as Ohio National Guardsmen (background) follow in pursuit on the university's campus May 4, 1970.

On the third day of the Ohio National Guard’s presence on campus, May 4, tensions escalated. Thousands of students gathered near the university’s Commons area for a scheduled noon protest. The guardsmen ordered students to disperse. As students defied the order, guardsmen fired tear gas into the crowd. At 12:24 p.m., in an apparent moment of panic, multiple guardsmen fired 67 shots from M-1 rifles into the crowd of student demonstrators.

Four students, Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer, were killed. Nine others were injured. Documented in a film, The Day the ‘60s Died, the shooting and aftermath have been called the most divisive moment in American history since the Civil War.

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William Schroeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Lee Scheuer were killed when guardsmen opened fire on students.

Nationwide furor

The Kent State shooting quickly garnered international media attention, and nationwide student furor followed.

On May 15, 1970, more student lives would be lost when about 40 Mississippi law enforcement officials fired 150 rounds into Alexander Hall, a dormitory at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). Students at the historically black college, had protested the historic racial tension and harassment by white motorists who traveled on Lynch Street, a major thoroughfare that linked the campus to downtown.

Jackson State students, local youths and law enforcement clashed following a false rumor that the mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, had been assassinated. During 30 seconds of gunfire, Philip Gibbs, a junior at Jackson State, and James Earl Green, a high school senior, were both killed, and 12 others were injured.

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On the 30th anniversary of the Kent State shooting, student Kelley Corbet stands at a candlelight vigil at the memorial to Allison Krause, one of the students killed by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970 during an anti-war protest.

The tragedy at Jackson State largely has been overshadowed by the May 4 events at Kent State, but both incidents of state-sponsored violence against students reflected the disconnect between government and the citizens it was sworn to protect. Student strikes shut down numerous college campuses across the U.S, some for a few days, others for the rest of the academic year.

On May 5, Rhodes lost the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate to Robert Taft Jr., grandson of U.S. president William Howard Taft. Rhodes ultimately served four terms as Ohio’s governor, from 1963 to 1971 and again from 1975 to 1983.

Following the Kent State shootings, 25 students and faculty members were indicted by an Ohio grand jury for 43 crimes. One was convicted of interfering with a firearm, two pled guilty, one was acquitted, and the rest had charges dismissed due to lack of evidence.

In June, Nixon appointed a President’s Commission on Campus Unrest to examine the events at Kent State and Jackson State. The commission wrote that “the actions of some students were violent and criminal and those of some others were dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible” but issued a damning indictment of the shootings. “The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable,” the commission wrote.

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Before the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, illuminated posts mark the locations where four students were killed. The first set of lights in the foreground mark the spot where student Jeffrey Miller was shot and killed. The markers commemorating where the others were shot, from left to right in the parking lot are for Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder.

Legacy of the shootings

The tragedy at Kent State galvanized the fight for the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Students had argued for the amendment, saying that if they were old enough to be eligible for the draft they should be allowed to vote for someone who might end the war. The 26th Amendment was approved in March 1971, less than a year after the Kent State shootings.

The civil rights and anti-war protest movements were a cornerstone of American student activism and a precursor to current movements such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.

Kent State University has wrestled with its history. Controversy erupted in 1977 when the university decided to build a gym annex on part of the site of the shooting. The annex did not cover any of the spots where students were shot. In 2010, the site of the Kent State shooting was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2016 was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

In the years since the attack on student protesters, Kent State has created a May 4 legacy scholarship for students majoring in peace and conflict studies, opened a May 4 Visitors Center, and hosted annual commemorations including a speaker series, musical and documentary film tributes, photo exhibits, and a candlelight vigil.

Kent State University had a number of events planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the May 4th shooting. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic many of them were cancelled or scheduled to take place virtually.