May 4, 1970: The Kent State shootings take place.

The shooting of unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, was one of the most notorious domestic events of the Vietnam War Era. It took place in the midst of a protest which itself was a reaction against government policy; antiwar sentiment was widespread throughout the nation, particularly among young people, so when President Nixon announced in late April that the U.S. military was to conduct military operations in Cambodia in pursuit of the PAVN and Viet Cong forces (which seemed to contradict his policy of Vietnamization and détente), student-organized protests on university campuses across the country erupted. These student strikes eventually involved at least 400 campuses, although the National Guard was deployed to only twenty-one of them, one of which was Kent State University in Ohio.

The Kent State demonstration began on May 1; the National Guard was called to the campus on May 2 by Governor James Rhodes, who denounced the student protesters and claimed that they were ”the worst type of people that we harbor in America”, comparing them to Nazi brownshirts and the Ku Klux Klan. Many in Kent and across the nation agreed with the governor’s condemnation of student protests, but just as many disagreed, to varying degrees. When the shooting and killing of Kent State students made national headlines, the issue remained just as divisive, with many believing that the students had brought the violence upon themselves. On May 4, the tensions between the guardsmen and students heightened. Tear gas was used in the guardsmens’ attempts to disperse the crowd, and at some point in the confusion, for some still unknown reason, a little under half of the 77 guardsmen present began to fire into the crowd of students. The guardsmen later claimed that they had been shot by a sniper and were firing in self-defense; this claim was denied vehemently by the students, who admitted to throwing rocks, and also by the New York Times reporter who had been on the scene. The reporter also wrote:

As the guardsmen, moving up the hill in single file, reached the crest, they suddenly turned, forming a skirmish line and opening fire.

The crackle of the rifle volley cut the suddenly still air. It appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer.

Some of the students dived to the ground, crawling on the grass in terror. Others stood shocked or half crouched, apparently believing the troops were firing into the air. Some of the rifle barrels were pointed upward.

Near the top of the hill at the corner of Taylor Hall, a student crumpled over, spun sideways and fell to the ground, shot in the head.

When the firing stopped, a slim girl, wearing a cowboy shirt and faded jeans, was lying face down on the road at the edge of the parking lot, blood pouring out onto the macadam, about 10 feet from this reporter.

Four students were killed, and nine were wounded (one was permanently paralyzed from chest down). Of the four killed by rifle fire, two had not been participants in the protest. According to eyewitness accounts, the students were shocked at the fact that the guardsmen had fired upon them and even more shocked that they had fired live ammunition instead of blanks. John Filo, the photographer who captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller (pictured above), also believed at first that the guardsmen were firing blanks. President Nixon expressed regret for the killings, although he suggested that the students’ disruptive activities had “[invited] tragedy”, and, according to a Gallup poll, the public agreed - according to the survey, only 11 percent placed blame on the National Guard, while 58 percent blamed the students. Eleven days later, two black students were killed at Jackson State University during an antiwar protest, though these events failed to capture national attention as the Kent State shootings did.  

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