May 4 is the 44th anniversary of the shooting deaths of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. The shootings of May 4, 1970, occurred during an ongoing series of antiwar protests on campus, sparked by the April 30 announcement of President Richard Nixon that American forces had begun an “incursion” in Cambodia.
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The four students who lost their lives that day were Allison Krause, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder. By what seems to be nothing more than a surprising coincidence, three of the four were Jewish – surprising, because the percentage of Jews in the Kent State student body never exceeded five percent. In addition to the four deaths, the 67 rounds fired by the troops over the course of 13 seconds wounded another nine people, one of whom ended up paralyzed.
The extension of the Vietnam War to neighboring Cambodia, where Communist troops had taken up a presence with impunity, was not anticipated by the American public, as there was a general perception at the time that the war was winding down. On Friday May 1, the day after President Nixon’s television address, some 500 students demonstrated on the Kent State campus against the widening of the war. That night, there was violence in the center of Kent, with some storefront windows being broken and bottles thrown at police; some students were apparently involved.
The next day, Kent’s mayor, LeRoy Satrom, declared a state of emergency and asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send troops from the state’s National Guard to the town to maintain order. Rhodes consented, but the soldiers arrived only late that Saturday night. In the meantime, protests continued on campus, and the local ROTC (Army Reserve Officer Training Corps) office was set on fire.
Governor Rhodes arrived in Kent on Sunday, where at a press conference he declared the student protesters “the worst type of people that we harbor here in America.” They were, he elaborated, “worse than the brown shirts and the communist element, and also the night riders and the vigilantes,” and he promised, “We are going to eradicate the problem.”
On the Monday, although university officials tried to prevent another antiwar demonstration from taking place on campus, some 2,000 students gathered at the university’s commons. The Guard tried several times to make the crowd disperse and started making arrests. They also used tear gas. A little before 12:30 P.M., as a standoff took place between members of the university population and the troops, members of the National Guard began firing.
Krause and Miller had been participants in the protest. (It is Miller’s body that we see in the iconic photograph, made by photojournalism student John Filo, of a young woman screaming over a body lying face down on the ground. Filo won the Pulitzer Prize for the image.) Scheuer and Schroeder were bystanders, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All were shot with National Guard M1 Garand rifles, but despite many different investigations of the day’s incident over the years, it has never been firmly established who gave the orders to shoot or who shot whom.
The killings at Kent State sparked additional protests across the country, with some 900 colleges and universities closing down in the wake of student strikes. Not that Americans were of one mind about the meaning of the deaths: A Gallup poll performed shortly after May 4 revealed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students for the violence, and only 11 percent saw the National Guard as responsible.