High Times Greats: Kent State—May 4, 1970

A look back 50 years ago, when a college campus became a battleground and its students became the enemy.
High Times Greats: Kent State—May 4, 1970
The Kent State University Press/ Howard Ruffner

From the May, 1990 issue of High Times comes Steve Bloom’s remembrance of a dark day in American history, when the government turned its guns on its own future—and fired.

During these passive times, it’s hard to believe that once upon a time in America students closed down campuses, marched en masse for what they believed in, and finally were able to put an end to America’s illegal and despicable war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The anti-war movement took shape in 1967 with a huge march on the Pentagon. In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention, police beat the hell out of demonstrators as “the whole world watched” on national television. America’s counterculture flexed its muscle in 1969 with massive communal events like Woodstock. Sweeping changes in society seemed just around the corner.

But President Richard Nixon had other ideas. Despite nationwide calls to withdraw American troops from Southeast Asia, Nixon forged ahead with his own personal Cold War. On May Day, 1970, when Nixon disclosed that American troops had recently invaded Cambodia, campuses erupted. A coast-to-coast college strike, led by both students and faculty, was announced. At Columbia University in New York, the school Senate voted to “suspend normal classes for two days in order to express our shock and grief” over the Cambodian invasion. In a telegram addressed to Nixon, three dozen university presidents urged a “prompt end to America’s involvement in Southeast Asia.” At Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling marched with students, called the invasion “madness,” and demanded Nixon’s impeachment.

That was all before Kent State.

Kent State—the two most important words in the history of the anti-war movement. For those who don’t know the full meaning of Kent State, read the following account carefully:

On May 2,1970, students who attended Kent State University in Kent, Ohio (about 35 miles southeast of Cleveland), directed their anger at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. A constant target of anti-war demonstrators, students had routinely demanded the removal of ROTC from their campuses. Kent State consistently refused the students’ demands; on that day the building was firebombed. In response, the University’s president, Robert White, and Kent’s mayor, Leroy Satrom, banned further demonstrations on the campus and imposed a curfew on the school and city. Gov. James Rhodes added to the already combustible situation by calling in the National Guard.

When 2,000 students marched through downtown Kent on Sunday, guardsmen used tear gas and bayonets to break up the protest. The stage was set for Monday. According to New York’s Daily News, this is what happened on the campus of Kent State University on May 4,1970:

“Determined to bring the issue to a head, students began gathering on the Commons early today, some of them ringing the Victory Bell, traditionally sounded to signal Kent State athletic victories. The students were told by a campus policeman using a bullhorn: ‘You have five minutes to leave this area. Leave this area immediately.’”

“As the policemen, riding in a jeep with three National guardsmen, circled the demonstrators four times with the warning, the students shouted back: ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your bloody war.’ Then the jeep stopped and the guardsmen began firing tear gas.”

“Guardsmen moved in behind a blanket of tear gas and the students retreated to higher ground encircling the Commons. Some students pounced on the canisters before they exploded and hurled them back at the advancing troops, veiling the battleground in a cloud of dense smoke.”

“One student who tossed a tear gas bomb back at the troops was pursued up a slope by three guardsmen, one of whom beat him to the ground with a billy club, while the others pointed their guns at him.”

“Then the shooting started.”

Then… the… shooting… started. Say it slowly. On this spring day in the United States of America in the year 1970, armed troops took aim at college students and fired their guns. Nine were shot; four died. The next day, the picture of a fallen student with a young woman grieving over him made every front page across the nation. While the famous photo of a naked, terrified Vietnamese girl whose family had just been napalmed revealed the horrible crimes America had been committing on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Kent State photo exposed America for what it really was—a shallow, despotic republic impervious to the call of its citizens. “This should remind us all once again,” Nixon predictably commented, “that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” After Kent State, America would never be the same.

The deaths of Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Schuer, and William Schroeder were subsequently whitewashed by numerous government investigations. Nixon’s Scranton Commission called the shootings “unwarranted, unjustifiable, and inexcusable,” but stopped short of condemning the National Guard’s murder spree. In Ohio, a grand jury indicted 24 students, including one who was shot; except for two who plea-bargained, all were found innocent.

Perhaps worst of all is how the University has dealt with the legacy of May 4,1970. Seven years later, Ben Masel wrote in the Yipster Times: “On the grassy slopes of Kent State University, the Board of Trustees plans to build a new gymnasium… The site pinpointed for construction just happens to be the spot where National guardsmen murdered four students… Students, not about to let the Administration sweep the massacre under the rug, reacted strongly.” For two months in 1977, the May 4th Coalition camped out on the site. Hundreds of arrests later, the “Move the Gym” movement proved futile. The gym was built.

But “Kent State” will never be forgotten. During the last year, we’ve seen tanks bulldoze Chinese students and Romanian troops mow down hundreds of protestors. These events from around the world have lulled us into thinking that such brutality—a government against its citizens—can’t happen here. But it happened during the Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. It happened in Chicago in 1968. It happened on May 4,1970. And it’s happening every day in the ever-ferocious War on Drugs.

Remember Kent State.

Featured photo by Howard Ruffner from Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience of Kent State 1970, published by the Kent State University Press.

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