Remembering May 4, 1970 Half a Century Later

by on May 4, 2021 · 2 comments

in History, Peace Movement, War and Peace

This is a famous photo of Kent State student Alan Canfora waving his black flag in front of kneeling National Guardsmen. They did not shoot at this point, but did moments later. Canfora was wounded and spent his lifetime ensuring the Kent State campus and the nation never forgot about May 4, 1970. Canfora passed away in late 2020.

May 4, 1970 for at least an entire generation of Americans will always be associated with the shootings of unarmed students by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State Ohio. Four students were killed – two having nothing to do with the protests, one was an ROTC cadet – and eleven were wounded – they will be remembered as a stain upon US history for eternity.

At the time, it shocked the nation – and visibly and viscerally divided the country, already fractured from more than a decade of the African-American movement for civil rights and a handful of years of the ever -increasing militancy of the anti-Vietnam war movement centered on college and university campuses. A deep cultural divide had also developed in America into a Grand Canyonesque social landscape, where “straight” culture painfully birthed its opposite – the many-faceted hippie counter-culture.

Yet, on May 4, 1970, that division became manifested in live bullets taking live people. America was prepared to shoot down its children to maintain business as usual – which meant that the Vietnam War continued over the bodies of college students. And the profits continued. And American hegemony continued in that part of the world. That the four killed at Kent State were White meant the barrier between police and guard shootings of Black citizens and students had been broken; America was prepared to shoot down its White, and middle-class young.

The fatal shootings of Jeff, Allison, Sandy and Bill poured gasoline on a smoldering fire – the protest movement against the Cambodian invasion already in motion and that had just kicked into gear days before. Their deaths ignited such a nationwide intensity that its like has not been seen before or since. Their deaths sent off a shock wave that reverberated across the plains, mountains, deserts, lakes and swamps and forced the best clustered in huge metropoles or small college towns to stop their lives.

For many, Jeff, Allison, Sandy and Bill were killed for doing what many of them were doing – protesting Cambodia. Yet, if these four had not been killed, others surely would have been. Their deaths literally prevented somebody else from being fatally shot, bayoneted or suffocated. If it hadn’t happened at Kent State, it could have happened at the University of Maryland, or in Buffalo or Syracuse, New York, or at Ohio State at Columbus, or New Mexico University at Albuquerque, …. or any other of the numerous campuses occupied by National Guard troops, or it could have happened at Kent State on May 5th.

After May 4th – university and college administrations, along with police departments and even National Guard units on patrol on campuses now thought twice about live ammunition being used on unarmed college kids. And importantly, suddenly guns on campus – whether by campus or city police or Guardsman – became an issue. Demanding a ban of guns on campus became a demand by students of their administrations.

[For more See May 4, 1970: Kent State Murders 50 Years Ago Today – ‘The Day the World Turned Upside Down’by Frank Gormlie on May 4, 2020.]

Strikes

Early on Monday, the National Student Association announced that over 100 universities across the country had participated in the nationwide student strike, that they had called for on Friday. A student strike information center set up over the weekend at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., also reported Monday that it count­ed 157 colleges and universities in the country with student strikes.

Kent State University – Ohio

Monday, May 4, 1970

Students just waking up Monday morning or coming onto campus for the first time since the week earlier, were shocked and angered to find 850 uniformed, armed National Guardsmen positioned at entrances, buildings and at the remains of the ROTC building.  It was late Monday morning when there was an informal, word-of-mouth call to the Commons area at Kent State for a noon rally. When the Victory Bell rang at 11:58, 2,000 to 3,000 students – including Jeff Miller and Alison Krause – had gathered in the area to continue their protest of the war and the presence of National Guardsmen on campus. Another 1,000 or students were also in the area, in between classes like Sandy Scheuer or on their way to lunch. Some, like Bill Schroeder, an ROTC cadet on the way to class, had stopped to check it all out.

Out in the Commons, there was a non-violent standoff between Guardsmen and student protesters. But it changed after a Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury, drove out closer to the crowds in a jeep three different times and ordered them to disperse. Each time he was met with jeers and chants. The commander then ordered two volleys of teargas to be shot – which scattered some protesters, but the crowds held their ground, their “turf”, yelling and chanting. At 12:05, Canterbury ordered his troops to advance on the demonstrators and clear the Commons area. During the advance, the Guard broke into two contingents and continued to fire off teargas. Some students responded with rocks but most fell way out of range. The crowds split in half to get out of the way of advancing Guard lines; people ran inside buildings to get away from the teargas while others tried to out-maneuver the soldiers. Some cannisters were thrown back towards the troop lines and some Guardsmen threw stones at students.

After about twenty minutes, it appeared that one Guard contingent had cleared the Commons and the immediate small hills surrounding it on one side and began to return to their original position. The other contingent – which included Troop G – had proceeded further than planned and began moving to the highest point around near the Pagoda. At 12:24, members of Troop G wheeled to their right to face students in a distant parking lot, and in unison lifted their M-1 rifles and fired. In 13 seconds, Guardsmen fired 67 rounds. Some of the troopers fired into the ground in front of them, some fired into the air – but others fired directly at the crowds. When the smoke cleared, four students were dead or dying and another 11 seriously wounded.

Allison Krause, an Honors student, had been active in the protests over the weekend and was out there that afternoon. No militant, she was photographed standing by a Guardsman with a lilac sticking out of his rifle barrel. The bullet that struck her played havoc through her body, fragmenting her ribs, and penetrating her lungs. She was DOA on arrival at the hospital.

William Schroeder was 19 years old, when he appeared to have dropped in on the protests to simply check them out, carrying his books and a notebook. Schroeder was actually a ROTC cadet and ranked second in his ROTC class. He had begun walking away from the crowds when he was hit by a bullet in his back. The impact thrust him backwards to the ground. People rushed up to help him and he was still breathing when the ambulance arrived. He died either in route or moments after getting to the hospital.

Jefferey Miller, 21, was continually active in the protests over the long weekend. On May 4, he tossed teargas canisters back at the Guardsmen and joined in the anti-war chants. An eyewitness reported that he had just thrown a rock and was shot the minute he threw it. A bullet went through his mouth. He was 95 yards from the Guard skirmish line and was the closest student to die. In the most iconic photo taken that day, the one where Mary Ann Vecchio, the 14 year old Florida runaway, was kneeling on the pavement, over a body laid out, with her arms raised in horror. That was Miller on the ground. After being hit, he stumbled a good 50 feet and collapsed onto a road in a “river of blood” – his own.

Sandra Scheuer had not attended any of the protest rallies – and certainly not that day. Friends described her as not having a political bone in her body. She was 130 yards away from the Guard skirmish line, walking between classes with a friend when the volley erupted. She was hit in the neck and had her jugular vein penetrated. She bled out before any help could arrive.

Besides the four dead, eleven were wounded. One of those wounded had been 250 yards from the skirmish line and struck in the back of the neck. Needless to say, disbelief, horror, shock, outrage, confusion, fear gripped the campus as the smoke from M-1s and teargas faded and blew away. At one point, students assembled back on the Commons – some wanted to run out in front of the Guardsmen and yell, “shoot me, next!” As Guardsmen massed on a nearby hill, Faculty marshal and well-liked geology professor Glenn Frank pleaded with the students assembled not to do anything rash and get shot. Frank broke down during the emotional moment and convinced students not to mobilize against the Guard. Frank is credited with potentially saving lives that day. The 11 students wounded suffered lacerations from gunshot wounds. Seven of them were taken to nearby hospitals, with six listed in critical condition and one in serious condition.

Within hours after the killings, University President Robert White ordered the Kent campus closed “indefinitely.” Most of the school’s 20,000 students began departing immediately for nearby airports, bus terminals, and railroad stations. As helmeted, rifle-toting guardsmen continued to patrol the nearly deserted campus and town, Ohio Governor James Rhodes declared both the campus and city in a state of emergency, im­posed martial law on the town and a strictly-enforced 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

The news of the killings of students at a college campus swept the nation like electricity, and instantly people at colleges and universities coast to coast began to react, meet, demonstrate, take over buildings and go on strike. The impact of the national revulsion – especially among college students and young people – was felt the very next day, and set up Tuesday, May 5, 1970 to be one of the most violent days in modern American history.

The reaction, however, of White, middle-class America was quite different. Polls taken immediately after the shootings found many Americans faulted the students and not the Guardsmen. With time, though, public sentiment towards the Vietnam war suffered a tectonic shift and the Nixon administration pulled troops back from Cambodia earlier than planned and continued to withdraw US forces out of Southeast Asia. Eventually, the president was nearly impeached and forced to resign 4 years later. Today, no one supports the war – at least publicly.

The above are excerpts from an upcoming book about the May 1970 Student Rebellion.

Post-Script: More deaths would come: on May 15 two young African-American men were shot to death, and scores wounded, by police during a protest at Jackson State. George Winne, a student at UC San Diego, set himself on fire on May 10, in protest of the war.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Lynn May 4, 2021 at 11:56 am

Very good story about Mary Ann Veechio
“The girl in the Kent State photo: She was only 14.
Here’s how her life turned out
by Patricia McCormick The Washington Post
May 2, 2021

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 4, 2021 at 12:05 pm

I saw that! Pretty amazing story. That moment of infamy really affected the rest of her life.

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