History of dissent at Kent State, before and after May 4, 1970

By Evan Heichelbech and Lane Hedrick, F/G Scholars

Sixty-seven rounds in 13 seconds. Four dead and nine wounded. These are the numbers that would consume the public’s attention in the days following the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University. But those four numbers do not tell the whole story of Kent State’s legacy. In fact, those statistics came from just one day of Kent State’s rich history of protest, a day that was preceded by years of powerful and memorable scenes of American dissent in action.

“We weren’t exactly the most radical school,” says Alan Canfora, a former Kent State protestor. “But we knew, when the time came that we had a plan. Our goal was to be heavier than [the University of California] Berkeley and to inspire them. And we did it.”

Canfora, a survivor of the May 4 shootings, was a junior at Kent State in 1970 who became an experienced protester on campus against the Vietnam War. A son of two military veterans, Canfora was not originally opposed to the war until his childhood friend Bill Caldwell was killed in Vietnam.

“At that point you could say, for us, the war had come home,” Canfora said of he and his roommates. “We were experienced protesters at that point. We said, ‘At our next opportunity, we’re gonna send a message to President Nixon: Stop this bloody war in Vietnam.'”

Student activist organizations were particularly engaged on Kent State’s campus. In the 1960s, two rose to prominence: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Black United Students (BUS). SDS was founded nationally in 1961 and reached Kent State in 1968 to advocate against the Vietnam War and challenge university reform policies. BUS was founded on campus in 1968 after years of black student protest against policies of segregation and civil rights. Earlier in the 1960s, black students led a walk-out to challenge segregated housing on campus. These students were no strangers to a challenge, and 1968 represented a watermark moment for their movements.   

“When I first got here on this campus I joined the College Democrats and I thought they were kind of lame,” Canfora said. “So a month later [my roommate] Tom Grace and I joined the SDS and they were militant and they were radical.”

The 12 months of 1968 are a cornerstone of American history, especially in the Midwest and Ohio rust-belt. The levels of political discussion and activism had accelerated quickly.

“The difference between when I started in 1965 and the change over the years, particularly in ‘67 and ‘68 was tremendous,” said JoAnn Bohr, a 1969 graduate of Kent State. “When I started, I had to wear skirts and nylons to class, and by 1967 it was hip-huggers. Life had changed so quickly in so few years. It was amazing.”

Amongst the excitement of the 1968 Democratic Convention, Richard Nixon visited Akron, Ohio, and his opponent Hubert Humphrey visited Kent State. But above all, the Vietnam War was rapidly emerging as the largest point of national discussion, division and dissent. As Americans learned more about the war, they became more opposed to it. The nation’s draft that challenged the futures of young men on college campuses including Kent State became the most polarizing topic of debate surrounding the war.

On April 4, 1968, when Humphrey visited campus, SDS and BUS joined together and led a walkout to show the Democratic Party that their liberal policies were no longer in line with the student vote. This disdain also infiltrated hatred towards the military and police. In November 1968, the two groups protested the Oakland Police Department’s recruitment on Kent State’s campus, pointing to its ruthless and repressive treatment of the Black Panthers.

The following year proved to be as equally defining as 1968. In the spring of 1969, SDS ran a campaign against the campus ROTC program. Hoping to abolish its existence on campus, SDS launched what they called a “Spring Offensive.” During the protests, local police arrested four SDS students and the university expelled them. The SDS’ charter was revoked and many of its members faced jail time, but in the minds of many student activists, the fight was far from over.

“[ROTC] was a target because it was a link between the college and the war in Vietnam,” Canfora said.

The next year would bring the largest amount of activism that the campus would ever see. On April 30, 1970, the United States invaded Vietnam’s neighboring country of Cambodia. The ripple effect of the Cambodian invasion reached Kent State in a major way. The four days that followed Nixon’s announcement of the invasion would forever change the course of the campus’ history.

“We had no idea that our actions in downtown Kent the next evening after that announcement would be somewhat of a catalyst that helped to trigger four days of protest which only culminated with the shooting incident,” Canfora said.

May 1 began with a small student assembly and a burying of a copy of the Constitution, as the students claimed the Constitution had been buried the day before when American troops invaded Cambodia without any official declaration of war. Later in the day, BUS held a pre-scheduled rally to discuss bouts with the increasing presence of the Ohio National Guard on campus. By the evening, an anti-war rally had developed and the crowd had grown much larger than the size of BUS. All kinds of Kent State students joined and started to occupy downtown Kent. In the midst of yelling and chanting, 43 windows of local businesses and banks were shattered and about $5,000 in damages were accumulated.

“It went from a peaceful protest on the sidewalk of rowdy students to beer bottles, beer glasses, occupying the street, moving down the street and breaking windows,” Canfora said. “The radicals then escaped back to our apartments. Mission accomplished. We had done something significant, trying to send a message to President Nixon which is what we swore we would do.”

May 2 brought several students into the streets once again – this time to clean up downtown. As they cleaned, talk of the ROTC building increased. It was believed to be the target of militant students that evening, except students were not the only listeners. The mayor of Kent called into Ohio Governor James Rhodes, asking him to put the Ohio National Guard on alert in case anything else happened. That evening, student protestors attempted to break the windows in the ROTC building and catch it on fire. Despite tear gas and bayonets from the National Guard, protesters continued to throw rocks on guardsmen before eventually retreating to the commons outside area. The building had been fully demolished, one of 30 ROTC buildings burned across the nation that May.

“I remember [my boyfriend and I] standing and seeing the ROTC building burn and seeing tanks everywhere on my campus and soldiers and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this,’” Bohr said. “I was stunned … having my car stopped by soldiers asking, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing?’ that type of thing. It was just a surreal experience.”

In response to the day before, Ohio National Guard troops were now stationed throughout campus on May 3. This was the same day that Gov. Rhodes released a statement claiming the protesters were, “the worst type of people we harbor in America.” That evening, students gathered near the outside commons again, refusing to disperse despite an effort from the Guard urging them to do so. As the night went on, tear gas was used and students were placed under a curfew with many of them pushed into their dormitories by guardsmen. According to Canfora, about six students were stabbed by bayonets on guardsmen’s rifles as they tried to shuffle students into dorms.

While the third day of May 1970 seemed relatively uneventful in comparison to the first two, May 4 certainly was not. At noon, a gathering of students quickly grew from 200 to 1,500 with many spectators alongside the demonstrators on the hill in front of communications classroom building Taylor Hall. Students were told to disperse, but they did not. It was at this time, according to Kent State’s May 4 website, that 116 men equipped with M-1 rifles and tear gas formed a line around the students. As students began running to avoid the tear gas, the guard marched down the hill and stayed there for 10 minutes. As they began marching back up toward Taylor Hall, some students threw rocks. None expected gunfire. In the next few minutes, several guardsmen turned and fired their weapons, killing four students and wounding nine more in 13 seconds. Canfora was one of the nine wounded, suffering a shot that pierced through his hand from 225 feet away.

“There were some significant gunshot wounds, and luckily, I’m the one who lived to tell the story,” he said.

The fallen victims’ names– Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder– are still celebrated and remembered at Kent State today. Krause and Schroeder were not part of the protest. Instead, they were walking to class hundreds of feet away in a parking lot when they were shot and killed. Schroeder was a member of the ROTC.

“I have tried, along with many other people including the students on this campus down through the years, to be the voice of Jeffrey Miller. Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder,” Canfora said. “I think we’ve achieved much of our goal, but the goal has not been fully attained until the government admits the wrongfulness of what happened here.”

Kent State was not the only campus that lost students at the hands of those charged with protecting them. In Mississippi, Jackson State University witnessed similar student-led protests. On May 15, 1970, 70 police shot into a crowd of students. Two were killed and 12 were wounded. The legacy of student activism and its intersection with police and guardsmen had officially been cemented.

May 4 shocked Kent, Ohio. It shocked other campuses. It shocked the nation. But the events of that day are why Kent remains an important piece of American history today. While the national implications are well researched and reported on, especially concerning how Kent State’s student protests led to so many others, few discuss the impact the event had on the campus where it took place. Immediately following the shootings, the parents of the victims sued the State of Ohio in a civil court, claiming that political interference in the judicial process had failed to bring justice to their sons and daughters.

“It still is a hard thing to believe,” Bohr said. “I think what’s an interesting thing is how Kent did try to bury the May 4th murders for so, so long, and it made me so angry. I can understand the parents of those children must have been furious.”

Years later, the university hoped to move on from the memory of the shootings by constructing a gymnasium on the same grounds. Peaceful protests occurred with the parents of the victims who so adamantly spoke out serving as some of the primary protesters. Many were arrested and the gymnasium was constructed anyways. It took Kent State upwards of 20 years to build memorials for the victims of the shootings.

“There wasn’t even a place or any records of where the first students were killed,” Bohr said. “I remember thinking that cars were parked there and leaking oil on the place where these students were killed. It seemed so wrong.”

For many Americans, the Kent State shootings marked the day the Vietnam War came home. Every year, a memorial celebration is held to recognize the victims, the wounded and the stories they were trying to share at the place they called home.

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