May 4, 1970 Remembered

by on May 4, 2022 · 3 comments

in History, Peace Movement, War and Peace

The following are excerpts from the author’s forthcoming book, The May 1970 Rebellion — A Day-to-Day Narrative of the National Student Strike.

By Frank Gormlie

Monday, May 4 – Introduction

For at least an entire generation of Americans, the day May 4, 1970, will always be associated with the shootings of unarmed students by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed – two had nothing to do with the protests, one was an ROTC cadet – and nine others were wounded, including one permanently paralyzed. The shootings will be eternally remembered as a grim stain upon US history.

Kent State University – Ohio

Students just waking up Monday morning or coming onto the Kent State campus for the first time since the protests the week before, were shocked and angered to find their school occupied by hundreds of uniformed and armed National Guardsmen.  Guard troops were positioned at campus entrances, at buildings and at the remains of the ROTC building that had been torched and destroyed Saturday night during protests.  Late in the morning, an informal, word-of-mouth call to assemble at the Commons area for a noon rally spread like wildfire. When the Victory Bell rang at 11:58, 2,000 to 3,000 students – including Jeff Miller and Alison Krause – gathered to continue the protest of the war and to protest the presence of National Guardsmen on their campus. Another 1,000 students were also in the area, either 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 by to check out the demonstration.

Out in the Commons, demonstrators faced off with Guardsmen who wore helmets, gas masks and carried M-1 rifles. The standoff continued until Guard commander General Robert Canterbury approached the crowds in a jeep and ordered protesters to disperse. He was met with jeers and chants, “Fuck you!”, “We don’t want your fucking war!” Canterbury tried two more times and each time he was met with the same barrage of obscenities. Finally, out of frustration, the general ordered his troops to fire two volleys of teargas into the crowds – causing some to scatter. But the main crowd held their ground, their “turf”, and they continued to yell and chant.

At 12:05, Canterbury ordered the Guard to advance and clear the Commons area of demonstrators. During the advance, the Guard broke into two contingents while each one continued to fire off teargas. A few students threw rocks which mostly fell way out of range. The main student throng split in half to escape from the teargas and to get out of the way of the advancing Guard lines. People ran inside buildings while others tried to out-maneuver the soldiers and moved around them. Some cannisters were thrown back toward the troop lines, and some Guardsmen threw stones back at the students.

After about twenty minutes, one Guard contingent had cleared the Commons and the small hills that surrounded it on one side. That unit began to return to its original position. The other contingent – which included Troop G – proceeded further than planned and moved to the high point near the Kent State Pagoda. At 12:24, members of Troop G wheeled to their right, and faced students in a distant parking lot. Whether there was a command or not, soldiers of Troop G lifted their M-1 rifles in unison and fired towards the crowds. In 13 seconds, Guardsmen fired off 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. 28 of the rounds impacted people, trees, cars and other objects. When the smoke cleared amid the screams and shrieks, four students were dead or dying, and another nine seriously wounded – one paralyzed for life.

Out among the student protesters that sunny afternoon was Gerald Casale, the founder and bassist of the well-known 1970s punk rock band, Devo. Casale – who knew Allison Krause and Jeff Miller – recounted how he had witnessed the shootings 50 years later in a Rolling Stone magazine interview. “[National Guard] all have gas masks on and you can’t hear anything clearly, but I saw somebody in charge yelling at these two lines of National Guardsmen, and then he made a hand gesture. That is when they started shooting. For a moment, time stood still. …And then it snaps back …and, bang! Back to real time. Here’s the blood, the screaming, the crying, the chaos …I turn around and I see a guy on his belly on the road. People are starting to gather around, and there’s blood running out of his head and neck area. The blood is glistening in the noon sun. I realize it’s Jeff Miller. I get sick to my stomach and I feel like I’m going to pass out. I sat down on the grass.”

“About 30 seconds later, I realize there are people screaming, ‘Allison! Allison!’ I can’t really see her, but I see all these people hovering around somebody laying on their back in the student-teacher parking lot, not moving. That turned out to be Allison Krause. We don’t know what’s going to happen next and there’s screaming and crying and chaos. …We didn’t know if they were going to keep shooting. We didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. And you’re frozen in trauma and fear. …. I couldn’t move. I was shaking. I saw what real violence is and what happens when M1 rifles are fired with military shells and go through humans.” Casale stated, “I’ve said it often and I mean it, but I don’t think there would have been a Devo if not for Kent State.” For him, the murder of students by law enforcement represented the devolution of humanity.

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 wreaked havoc with her body, fragmenting ribs and penetrating her lungs. She was DOA before her body reached the hospital.

William Schroeder, 19 years old, carrying his books and a notebook, appeared to have dropped in on the protests to simply check them out. An ROTC cadet who ranked second in his ROTC class, Schroeder had turned away from the protests and was walking away from the crowds when he was hit by a bullet in the back. The impact thrust him 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 active in the protests over the long weekend. On Monday, he tossed teargas canisters back at the Guardsmen and joined in with anti-war chants. An eyewitness reported that just at the moment Miller threw a rock, 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 of Mary Ann Vecchio, the 14 year old Florida runaway, 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 the round penetrated her jugular vein. She bled out before any help could arrive.

As the smoke from M-1s and teargas faded and blew away, disbelief, horror, shock, rage, confusion, and fear gripped the campus. Emotionally-wrought students reassembled back on the Commons. Many sat down on the grass in defiance of any orders to move. Young men tore their shirts off and painted large, black X’s across their chests – and were ready to run out in front of the Guardsmen and yell, “shoot me, next!” Just at that moment, Guardsmen were massing on a nearby hill and looked like they could shoot more rounds off.

The most iconic photo taken May 4, 1970. Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14 year old Florida runaway, is kneeling on the pavement, over the body of Jeff Miller, her arms raised in horror. The famous photo was taken by John Filo, a student and part-time news photographer.

Fortunately, geology professor Glenn Frank rushed up and addressed the assembled students – who numbered in the hundreds, perhaps a 1,000. The well-liked professor pleaded with them to not do anything rash and get shot. “I am begging you right now,” he said, “They are going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter.” He cried, “Would you please listen to me! Jesus Christ! I don’t want to be a part of this!” As he appealed to their senses, Frank broke down and wept – yet he convinced them not to run out against the Guard or attempt any other militant protest. Glenn Frank probably saved lives that day, including that of his son, Alan, who was one of those ready to defy the Guard.

Nine students suffered lacerations from gunshot wounds. Seven of them were taken to nearby hospitals, with six listed in critical condition and one in serious condition. One of the wounded had been 250 yards from the skirmish line and was struck in the back of the neck. Student Dean Kahler lost the use of his legs for the rest of his life. Alan Canfora was hit in his wrist as he ran from the skirmish line. Once he recovered, Canfora dedicated his life to ensure Kent State University – and the nation – never forgot what happened on May 4. (Alan Canfora passed away at the age of 71 in the fall of 2020.)

Within hours of the killings, University President Robert White ordered the Kent campus closed “indefinitely.” Immediately, most of the school’s 20,000 students began departing for nearby airports, bus terminals, and railroad stations. Ohio Governor James Rhodes im­posed martial law and declared both the campus and city were in a state of emergency. Helmeted, rifle-toting guardsmen patrolled the nearly deserted campus and town to enforce the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

The news of the killings of students at a college campus swept the nation like a tsunami, with its massive ripples spreading out coast to coast. Instantly people at colleges and universities began to react: meetings, demonstrations, and candle-lit vigils were held, campus flags were flown at half-mast, schools went out on strike, ROTC and other campus buildings and intersections were taken over, and there were violent clashes with police.

The fatal shootings of Jeff, Allison, Sandy and Bill poured gasoline on a smoldering fire. The protest movement against the Cambodian invasion had already been lit just days before with Nixon’s announcement. But the deaths – the massacre — ignited a nationwide explosion on college campuses, an intensity and ferocity not seen before or since. Their deaths sent off a shock wave that reverberated across the map of the country and forced the best and brightest clustered in huge metropoles or small college towns to stop their lives and take hold of the moment.

Before the shootings at Kent State changed everything, on Monday morning the National Student Association announced that over 100 universities across the country had participated in the nationwide student strike for Monday they had called against the Cambodia invasion. The Student Strike Information Center set up over the weekend at Brandeis University also reported Monday that it count­ed 157 colleges and universities across the country with student strikes.

International reaction to Cambodia also became known Monday. Premier Alexei N. Kosygin of the Soviet Union declared that the United States had created a “new hotbed of war” in Cam­bodia and appealed for action to stop it. He announced the Soviet Union would re-examine its military aid commitments to North Vietnam as a result of the U.S. and South Vietnamese incursions into Cambodia. At the same time, the Peoples Republic of China issued a statement calling U.S. intervention in Cambodia a pro­vocation against China as well as Southeast Asia and the world. It said China will serve as a “great rear” for the fight against the Americans and South Vietnamese.


UC San Diego

As promised, student protesters returned Monday to the campus of UC San Diego for another sit-in. The previous Thursday, at the conclusion of an 18-hour sit-in by 150 students, organizers had pledged to continue the actions against campus war-related research. In the interim, the William McGill administration had obtained temporary restraining orders (TROs) against several known activists. When Monday’s sit-in was announced, its location had been kept a secret. Only participants knew it was going to be on the 5th floor of Urey Hall at the de­partment of Aeronautical and Me­chanical Engineering Sciences (AMES). The goal of the occupation was to stop research on the fifth floor for one working day, from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. The administration, expecting another action at the Institute for Pure and Applied Physical Sciences – the site of earlier sit-in, had locked the building up, chaining and boarding up the doors.

Around 7:30 am, students gathered on Revelle Plaza, the main quad rally site – and then rushed for the ground floor of nearby Urey Hall. A gaggle of administrators waddled after them, who in turned were followed by a process server. Two people were served with TROs as they made their way to Urey. As students entered Urey’s ground floor doors, they found the administration surprised and “easily overcome”. The process server and administrators grabbed the doors and tried to prop them open. In the ensuing struggle, the process server tossed TROs over the heads of students who had turned their backs to him. Other students pushed the administrators out and slammed and locked the doors.

On the other side of Urey Hall, the chief of campus police tried to pass out “suspension notices” to students as they ran past him and up the stairwells. Three were served this way. The notices themselves were extremely vague, with no names – and were clearly meant to scare students from taking direct actions. To top that off, the chief did not take any names of the students he had supposedly served. Meanwhile, students raced up the stairwells, commandeered all the elevators, and on the two targeted floors jammed chairs at the elevator doors to keep them open. Occupiers moved around the building on the exterior walkways and banged on lab and office doors. They shouted: “Floor is closed! No war research!”, “On strike! Shut it down!” When Chancellor William McGill arrived on site at noon, there was an unsuccessful attempt by a few administrators and campus cops to retake the building. Frustrated, McGill announced a 5 p.m. deadline and warned students he would declare a state of emergen­cy and summon police to forcibly move them out.

For the next few hours, students hung out on the fifth floor, lounged over the balcony, laughing, smoking cigarettes, and waiting for the school’s response. A group photo was taken of dozens of occupiers with fists raised, backs turned toward the camera. Someone had brought a large, leather sack full of rocks as a possible defense measure, but they were never used. Joints were lit and smoked. A small radio perched on a chair next to the railing brought the protesters news of other demonstrations and actions from across the state and country. Then the chilling news about Kent State came in and a grim determination swept through the occupiers. There was no more laughter or nervous joking. No tears were shed – not then. It could be us next, they thought. But they held their ground and remained on the balcony. The floor was closed down for the entire day and not one employee had been able to get to their lab.

Near 5 pm, the sit-in ended peacefully. The occupiers marched down the stair wells and rushed out to meet 250 supporters gathered outside the Urey Hall basement ex­it. The crowd gathered for one final victory whoop, and then dispersed in different directions. Organizers felt this sit-in was even more successful than the one the week before as over 200 students had been involved and for the second time in a week, a peaceful sit-in had halted war research for an entire day. Noticeably, despite its threats the administration was unable to stop the second sit-in.

Campus Survey

In one day, May 4, 1970, there were twice as many protests, strikes, and demonstrations than the entire four day period following Nixon’s invasion announcement. Clearly, the killings at Kent State ignited a furor never before seen in history among American students. From our survey of the records of campus protest on this infamous Monday in Chapter 2, nearly 90 colleges and universities experienced some kind of reaction to the invasion and killings, involving an estimated 65,000 people – the vast majority of them college students – in over 70 protests, demonstrations, mass meetings and memorials to the Kent State Four.

Strikes and/or boycotts of classes were held or called at 42 campuses, including 10 where the student government led the strike effort. ROTC facilities on campuses were the biggest target Monday with protests at 17 schools, including five sit-ins blocking or inside ROTC offices, four trashing of offices, and five efforts– or attempts – at burning ROTC facilities. Three schools experienced sit-ins and occupations of other campus buildings, five had campus windows broken out and two campuses experienced fires.

On Monday alone, there were seven violent clashes between students and law enforcement, and teargas was used in at least three of them. The record showed that 175 people were arrested, including 100 at the University of Maryland and 51 at the University of Iowa. Besides the four deaths at Kent State at the hands of law enforcement, 64 students were injured, including two students wounded by buckshot. During the day’s protests, there were four take-overs of major roads, four protest marches into local downtowns, and three sit-ins or occupations of downtown streets and intersections. The National Guard was called out or continued to be deployed at three campuses: Kent State University, University of Maryland, and Ohio State University, Columbus.

May 4, 1970: A Day of Infamy

The impact of the national revulsion from the massacre at Kent State – especially among college students and young people — was particularly felt over the next several days as hundreds of thousands took to the streets and shut down American academia. The reaction from White, middle-class America, however, was quite different. Polls taken immediately after the shootings found many Americans faulted the students and not the Guardsmen, and Nixon continued to have widespread support.

With time, though, public sentiment towards the Vietnam war suffered a tectonic shift. First, the response from the campuses forced the Nixon administration to pull troops back from Cambodia earlier than planned, and Nixon continued to withdraw US forces out of Southeast Asia. American opposition to the war continued for the next several years but the highwater mark established by the reaction to the Kent State deaths was never met again. Eventually, the president was nearly impeached for abuse of power and forced to resign four years later. Today, a half century later, it is rare to find anyone who supports the Vietnam war – at least publicly.

Still, much of the nation was shocked after the shootings. Already fractured through more than a decade of social and political upheaval, assassinations, war, civil rights struggles, Black liberation — the massacre visibly and viscerally divided the country even more. At the time, America was experiencing a deep cultural divide across its social landscape, where “straight” culture painfully birthed its opposite – the hippie counter-culture. And on May 4, 1970, that divide became manifested in live bullets taking the lives of living people. May 4th made it very apparent that establishment America was prepared to shoot down its children to maintain business as usual – which meant the continuation of the Vietnam War — over the bodies of college students. It also meant the monstrous war profiteering would continue – as ‘war was good for business.’ And it meant American hegemony would continue in Southeast Asia.

The shootings of four White students at Kent State ultimately meant that the color barrier in police and National Guard shootings of Black citizens had been broken and America was prepared to shoot down its White, middle-class young.

May 4 set up the rest of that week as one of the most explosive and volatile periods in modern American history. The angry student response over the course of the next four days, from Tuesday, May 5, through Friday, May 8, was monumentally historic.

Each day, an average of 200,000 people were activated and energized in protests, mass meetings and memorials. Over the week, nearly 500 campuses were on strike, staging class boycotts or being shut down. There were protests against ROTC on 90 campuses, with at least 20 sit-ins, 10 trashings, and 16 efforts or attempts to burn ROTC property. Fifty-three campuses also saw sit-ins or occupations of school buildings during those four days. At least 19 freeways or major roads were taken over by protests, 64 city downtowns experienced marches with a minimum of 21 cities having sit-ins in major streets or intersections.

From Wednesday through Friday across the country, there were at least 44 clashes between students and law enforcement and teargas was used in 16 incidences. Over 1,550 arrests were made, and from 750 to 960 students and young people were injured or wounded.

Yet, it is true, that after May 4th, university and college administrators, chiefs of police, National Guard commanders and governors suddenly had second thoughts about issuing live ammunition to their police officers and Guardsmen. Live ammunition that could possibly be used on unarmed, White college kids and create another ‘Kent State.’ There was a general and noticeable de-escalation in terms of rhetoric by politicians and the types of arms used by law enforcement. And from the record, it appears that over the course of the next day or so, campus and city police intentionally held back in dealing with protests erupting from the campuses and allowed marches and take-overs of local streets to proceed without interference.

Importantly and also in response to the fatal shootings, “guns on campus” instantly became an issue – whether carried by campus or city police or by National Guardsman. After May 4, many students pushed for a ban of guns on campus and added it to their other demands.

The May 4th massacre and the alienation felt by a generation were immortalized in the song “Ohio,” by one of the best American bands of the 1970’s: David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. Written by Young and released on May 21, just 17 days after Kent State, it instantly became a theme song for that generation.

Lyrics to “Ohio”

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Four dead in Ohio (Four dead)
Four dead in Ohio (Four)
Four dead in Ohio (How many?)
Four dead in Ohio (How many more?)
Four dead in Ohio (Why?)
Four dead in Ohio (Oh!)
Four dead in Ohio (Four)
Four dead in Ohio (Why?)
Four dead in Ohio (Why?)

For many students across the nation, Jeff, Allison, Sandy and Bill were killed doing what many of them were doing – protesting Cambodia. Yet, if these four had not been killed, surely others would have been. In death, they helped to de-escalate the arming of law enforcement and their deaths literally prevented others from being fatally shot, bayoneted or suffocated. If it hadn’t happened at Kent State, it very well could happened at the University of Maryland or at Ohio State — Columbus or at the University of Buffalo or at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, or at any of the other campuses occupied by National Guard troops, or at the numerous campuses engulfed in fierce clashes between students and police. Or it could have happened to others at Kent State on May 5th.

The above are excerpts from the author’s forthcoming book, The May 1970 Rebellion — A Day-to-Day Narrative of the National Student Strike.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

sealintheselkirks May 4, 2022 at 1:02 pm

You should link the tape recording taken from a dorm room window that, after being run through a computer recently and cleaned up, you can clearly hear the order to ‘FIRE’ by the officer in charge. I have it somewhere maybe on my retired XP computer but it should be easy to find on a search engine.

I remember this day far too well. My Peace & Freedom Party activist step-mom just freaked, others gathered for a meeting at the MB house, and I was party to all the conversations and arguments that swirled through my house the next few days. That was the year my stepmother took a hike and divorced my Nixon-voting father…probably had a lot to do with his supporting the murders I’m guessing. Funny that two years later my dad switched to D because he was so disgusted…



Frank Gormlie May 4, 2022 at 1:07 pm

should of could of would of


Chris May 4, 2022 at 1:58 pm

There’s always the could of should of. Think of the veterans who may have participated in the slaughter of innocent civilians but when they got back (and separated out of the service) became peace activists. Live and learn.


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