Student activism in tumultuous times: Responses to the Kent State shootings and invasion of Cambodia

By Lane Hedrick, F/G Scholar

May 4, 1960 will forever represent a turning point in anti-Vietnam rhetoric. Just days after President Richard Nixon had declared a United States invasion of Cambodia – a nation which had not been present in the Vietnam War until this point – protests popped up across the country. Protesters advocated against the war, against the invasion of Cambodia, and often against further use of violence. In response, students affiliated with anti-war efforts at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio began a series of demonstrations.

May 1 brought a small assembly of students burying the Constitution in an act of defiance. The next day, anti-ROTC protesters were tear-gassed by the National Guard – who had been called in by Ohio Governor, James Rhodes. The events of May 2 also lead to the burning of the campus ROTC building, as the ROTC was viewed by many as an institutionalized continuance of America’s imperialist agenda. The May 3 was uneventful, but May 4 brought over 1,500 demonstrators, who were tear-gassed and shot at. Four students were shot by Ohio National Guardsmen: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Saundra Scheuer and William Schroeder.

Public responses to the shootings spiraled into mass student protest across the country. Student newspapers published frequent editorials and headline stories about the event, both peaceful and violent protests emerged in both cities and small towns, and many students urged their universities to take a stand against the war. These responses held immense value for the global community – signaling that American youth were no longer supportive of the Nixon Administration and would not tolerate the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians. America had had enough. My research focuses on the history of such student movements – specifically, on the campuses of the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Columbia University and Western Kentucky University. Each university is unique in its location, student population, and response. Nonviolence was common as these students protested the very violence being perpetuated by the United States government.

The University of Texas at Austin

UT Austin
Image Credit: UT Austin Department of History

The University of Texas at Austin and its student newspaper, The Daily Texan, were quick to respond to the shootings and the invasion of Cambodia. On May 5, the day after the shootings occurred, several articles were published concerning protests that would be happening on campus and in the city. These articles, which often included republications from the Associated Press or the Washington Post, were tame in their responses to the events. Another, underground student newspaper would give the most student attention to the topics. The Rag became the primary voice of the movement on campus – encouraging everything from petitions to skipping class – anything to get the university to take a stand. The university did take a stand, just not how the students expected. A large protest on May 8, which was heavily pushed for via The Rag and protest signs across campus, had a heavy FBI presence as the campus had brought in FBI agents, who were stationed in the famous UT tower. Despite police presence, the protesters remained nonviolent. Nonviolence became a statue of their campaign.

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Image Credit: Kent State University Digital Archives

The Daily Tar Heel, UNC Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, responded as critically as The Rag at UT Austin did, and published even more than The Daily Texan. A focus in the beginning days of protest was given to the ROTC. Across the nation, university students believed that the ROTC represented the institutionalized legacy of American imperialism. On May 5, the Air Force ROTC building on campus was burned down – symbolically signaling disdain for its presence. UNC Chapel Hill also featured a large student government response, with the president of the student government, Tom Bello, encouraging nonviolence across the board. The student government went as far as  to fund buses to take 400 students to Washington D.C. to meet with North Carolina Representatives, as well. UNC Chapel Hill faculty were also not immune to the desire to protest, and many of them became faculty representatives for the student movement to speak to. There was not a single report of violence reported on the campus in the days or weeks following the Kent State shootings or the invasion of Cambodia.

Columbia University

Image Credit: Columbia University Libraries

Image Credit: Columbia University Libraries

The Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, published six to ten articles daily about the Kent State shootings or the Cambodian invasion. As a large, diverse, richly academic campus, divisions in protest were bound to occur. These divisions were seen from the beginning, as there were fragmented lines between those who encouraged violence as a way to reach their goals and those who did not. The Spectator published about these divisions frequently. Columbia, like UNC Chapel Hill, had faculty participation. But it also had administrative participation. University President Cordier spoke to the first group of student protesters, and faculty and administrators peacefully assembled for strike at the university’s convocation that month. While there were student groups on campus that did advocate for violence, including one (The Students for a Democratic Society) who broke windows across campus, the movement was largely nonviolent.

Western Kentucky University

WKU was a smaller, regional university instead of a large, well-known university like Columbia. Yet this did not keep its students from participating in the national student movement. Its student newspaper, The College Heights Herald, was late to the publishing game with its first article about Kent State or Cambodia on May 8, 1970. However, protests began the same day the shooting occurred. Students met in front of the administrative building, held a candlelight vigil, and encouraged the president to speak out. Their demands also included the removal of academic credit from the ROTC program. As the University President, Dero Downing, begged the students to remain nonviolent, they did. There was one incident in which the administration building was threatened, but the threats were later disproven. On Friday, May 8, the group (who even had shirts that read STRIKE WESTERN) and several faculty members stayed up all night on the lawn of a large area of campus, known as the Colonnades, to protest. This was the only mention of faculty participation. However, the administration came to comply with several of the student’s requests, and Downing went as far as to write a letter to President Nixon asking for the withdrawal of troops from Cambodia. All because the students were nonviolent.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 1.37.14 PM

Image Credit: Western Kentucky University Special Collections


Across the nation, students were relatively unified in their responses to the Kent State University shootings and the invasion of Cambodia. Nonviolence seemed to be the largest unified effort across each of the four schools I reviewed, and nonviolence seemed to encourage faculty participation in three of the four schools. In one, it even encouraged the administration to participate. These ideas force modern student protest movements to reconsider the tactics of their parent’s generation and recognize the value in truly nonviolent protest.

For the full research paper and compilation, as well as works cited, click on this link:

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