It’s Been 53 Years Since the Kent State Massacre

by on May 4, 2023 · 9 comments

in Civil Disobedience, History, Peace Movement, War and Peace

By Frank Gormlie

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.

The most iconic photo taken May 4, 1970 shows Mary Ann Vecchio, the 14 year old Florida runaway, kneeling on the pavement over a body of Jeff Miller.

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.

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 “indefinitely” closed. Immediately, most of the school’s 20,000 students began departing for nearby airports, bus terminals, and railroad stations. Also, within hours of the shootings, Kent police officers began raiding the houses of suspected radicals. Antiwar activists began leaving the town in troves, fearing a reign of terror. A few hundred Kent students ended up at Oberlin College “in exile.” Ohio Governor James Rhodes im­posed martial law and declared both the campus and city were in a state of emergency. Armed an helmeted, rifle-toting guardsmen patrolled the nearly deserted campus and town to enforcing the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

The news of the killings of students at a college campus swept the nation’s campuses like a tsunami, with its massive wall 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-staff, 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 reverberated across the map of the country and forced the best and brightest who were clustered in huge metropoles or small college towns to stop their lives and take hold of the moment.

However, outside the college campuses, however, there was an outburst against students and the young in general in sentiments displayed in polls and newspaper reports. This was most dramatically demonstrated in Kent where every poll and paper showed that the overwhelming opinion, even among those with children in the May 4 demonstration, was that the Guardsmen should have shot every single student on the campus that day. One Kent State student recounted:

When I reported home my mother said, “It would have been a good thing if all those students had been shot.” I cried, “Hey, Mom! That’s me you’re talking about,’’ and she said, “It would have been better for the country if you had all been mowed down.”

In September 1970, 24 students and one faculty member were indicted on charges connected either with the May 4 demonstration or with the ROTC building fire, and they became known as the “Kent 25”. In October, there were two protest actions of thousands of KSU students demanding the indictments be dropped. But five cases went to trial: one non-student was convicted on one charge, two other non-students pleaded guilty; one other defendant was acquitted, and charges were dismissed against the fifth. Finally, in December 1971, all charges against the remaining 20 were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Nearly seven months later to the day, The New York Review published investigative reporter I.F. Stone’s “The Killings in Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished,” in which he claimed Guard officials orchestrated a cover-up. Referring to Kent State and Jackson State, Stone said, “In both cases, the FBI and other government agencies have turned up evidence that the Guardsmen and law officers who did the shootings also agreed among themselves to tell FBI investigators a false story.”

Stone also wrote, “To those who think murder is too strong a word one may recall that even Agnew three days after the Kent State shootings used the word in an interview” in a TV show. Agnew admitted that what happened at Kent State was murder, “but not first degree” since there was—as Agnew explained from his own training as a lawyer— “no premeditation but simply an over-response in the heat of anger that results in a killing; it’s a murder. It’s not premeditated, and it certainly can’t be condoned.”

What happened to the Guardsmen at Kent State? Eight were indicted by a grand jury, but they all claimed to have fired in self-defense. In 1974, a US district judge dismissed charges against all eight on the basis that the prosecution’s ease was too weak to warrant a trial. Between 1970 and 1979 lawsuits were filed by families of the victims against the State of Ohio, but trials at both the federal and state level ended in acquittals or were dismissed, except one. That one was for wrongful death and injury against Ohio Governor Rhodes and the National Guardsmen. Originally dismissed, the dismissal was eventually overturned due to the judge excluding evidence. The students’ families were awarded approximately $63,000 per victim and the defendants agreed to state for the record that they regretted their actions.


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 during the month, particularly 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 had 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 and 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 also ultimately meant that the color barrier in law enforcement shootings had been broken, an historic color barrier established that meant police and National Guard only shot Black citizens during violent episodes. Now, 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.

Yet, it is true but never officially acknowledged, 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 importantly, in the types of less-lethal arms used by law enforcement. And from the record, it appears that over the course of the next day or so immediately after Kent State, 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.

Significantly 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: CSN&Y – 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, it appeared to them that 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 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 have 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 one 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 forthcoming book, The May 1970 Rebellion, A Day-to-Day Narrative of the National Student Strike, by Frank Gormlie.




{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie May 4, 2023 at 11:52 am

Steady Rag readers may recognize some of this writing, as we publish something about Kent State every year, but try to add more each time.


UnwashedwalmartThong May 5, 2023 at 10:41 am

I wasn’t there, but George Santos was.


Frank Gormlie May 5, 2023 at 11:09 am

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 knew Allison Krause and Jeff Miller. He has often said that there wouldn’t have been Devo if there hadn’t been the massacre. For him, the shooting down of young people by the Guard was proof of the “devolution” of American society.


Stuart L Smits May 5, 2023 at 1:00 pm

I remember this day with painful dread.
I was a Senior at Tulane University (New Orleans) and we were having very similar demonstrations, although our Governor was far more tolerant of our civil disturbances.
Within 48 hours, tens of thousands of us were on our way to Washington DC for several days of protests.
On Saturday, we had over 500,000 people assembled on the Ellipse, while Pres. Nixon claimed to have watched a college football game and didn’t notice us on his doorstep.
Later that weekend, we were repeatedly tear-gassed throughout the town.
We were all numb by the horror of the events in Ohio.
It was just the beginning of the horrors of Vietnam coming home to roost for the next 5 years.


Frank Gormlie May 5, 2023 at 1:11 pm

Stuart – thanks for sharing your memories (although I believe estimates for Sat. May 9th were more like 120K to 150K). My book does describe some of what happened at least at Tulane U.


Stuart May 5, 2023 at 1:32 pm

Well, it sure seemed to be a lot larger.
Our mutual hermano, David Helvarg, was no doubt out there with me that weekend.


Stuart L Smits May 6, 2023 at 8:08 am

Reading your article and exchanging comments has triggered some profound memories for me.
I remember the acutely emotional times that era represented.
There was an overriding fear on many levels that we overcame and took to the streets to demand action. We had the literal fear of being shot. Bill Schroeder could have been any one of us. The randomness of the Kent State deaths was at the forefront of our minds.
I remember riding on the buses from New Orleans to Washington DC and hearing that the KK Klan knew we were en route and were waiting for us. Our stops along the way were hardly restful, but we pushed through that fear.
Mostly, the strongest emotion I felt throughout that experience was a sense of pride. The pride of patriotism.
We were standing up for our Nation and demanding accountability from the President and Congress for the escalating war which seemed so antithetical to our fundamental values.
This was the time when Nixon played the cultural divide card and called out the “silent majority” and the hard hats in NYC to beat up on us. This was the beginning of the schism that has been perpetuated for the past 50 years by politicians who prosper by stoking otherism.
I am currently reading Tim Egan’s book “A Fever In The Heartland,” and Jeffrey Tobin’s “Homegrown,” which both chronicle the history of fascist movements in America.
I have wondered where the courage will come from for us to stand up and reclaim our values-driven Country and flip the script from the putrid and divisive political dialogue these days.
Recalling the courage exhibited by so many during the May 1970 protests gives me great hope that millions of us boomers and these inspiring younger generations will respond in kind.
Keeping the candle burning,


sealintheSelkirks May 5, 2023 at 4:00 pm

I’ve commented in earlier years of this article including about the tape recording found with the order to fire that was from a student’s dorm window overlooking the firing line.

What really gets me is this:

“However, outside the college campuses, however, there was an outburst against students and the young in general in sentiments displayed in polls and newspaper reports.”

Has anything really changed in this country? Other than we’ve become even more aligned along Fascist right wing thought? 72 million people voted for the Fascist Trump in the last election and there are still politicians that supported/organized/pushed for the 2020 GOP coup to overthrow the election and install a Fascist dictator. Why aren’t these people swinging from the yardarm yet instead of WRITING NEW LAWS for the rest of us to live under? Why hasn’t Ginny Thomas been arrested for Treason yet? Etc etc.

Saw a great cartoon recently. Wish I could post it here but the picture is of WWII soldier standing on a Nazi flag rifle in hand with the caption “My Grandpa was ANTIFA in WWII.” So were both my grandfathers.

Secession has already happened in this country, there isn’t any ‘fixing this’ at this point that I can see. The South has risen again…like cancer in a patient in remission and it’s poisoned the entire body and the body is dying in bits and pieces.

And the Trump-installed Federal Reserve chairman is trying his best to crash the economy…so Trump can ‘win’ this time with the gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics the GOP-run states have gone rampant doing? Does that surprise anyone? Why are Democrats so damned useless to even try to stop any of this?



Chris May 7, 2023 at 10:10 am

As I posted in the 2019 article about this, I still wonder what goes through the mind of the Guardsmen who actually pulled their triggers? What affect has this had on them in the years since? Has it changed from the immediate aftermath through all the years to now? Has it had any affect on their relationships with people who’ve come on gone in their lives?
I’m sure many will read this and think “who gives a s**t about these murderers”. Well, I do in that I am sincerely curious but I accept I will never know.


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: