On May 4th, 1970, The National Guard fired a spray of bullets into a mostly white college protest at Kent State University in Ohio. They killed four students, wounding nine. Two of the students killed were not even attending the protest.
The protesting was sparked by the US military invasion of Cambodia, considered an escalation of an unpopular war. By the time the National Guard sprayed bullets on the green campus lawn, the movement to end the war was over.
Nationwide, student protests were losing their fight to end the war. Many individual campus leaders were expelled, arrested, and charged for their involvement. The movement, at a crossroads without a passionate unifying national voice, was seeded with division and disorganization.
In May, 1970, tensions were high at many universities across America. Fueled from years of tension without resolution, bitter divisions across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Kent State is a public university 40 miles from downtown Cleveland, Ohio. In May of 1970, 55% of the student body identified as politically progressive. Student enrollment was 19,000 mostly white middle and upper middle class undergraduates.
Locals in Kent, Ohio, screamed “young rowdies” out of their car windows at Levi clad campus pedestrians. The dislike between student and local raged in many university towns across the United States as a charged diorama of the have and have not’s in American life.
On May 1st, 1970, student protesters, intoxicated and angry smashed out windows and vandalized local businesses in the middle of the night after the local bars closed. They were at the high point of frustration over their inability to end the war, and they set fire to the ROTC building on campus, burning it to the ground. They threw rocks at police who responded to the calls.
The police response, and high tensions in the community kept the protesting going for several days.
The Mayor thought the solution was to close all of the bars near campus. This escalated the problem.
The Governor of Ohio described the protesting at Kent State on May 3rd:
“We’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.
The entire speech was lies. The campus protests of the 1960’s were far from organized. There was some functioning element of regional organization, through student groups like SDS (Student Democratic Society), but these groups were mostly left to locally make their own decisions.
The student protesters were not well trained, and hardly revolutionary. They were a mix of angry middle class kids who didn’t want to get drafted, who pushed for less social formality and for gender equality in university rules. These groups mixed with more organized Black civil rights groups exerting pressure for increased African American enrollment and faculty.
Still, tensions were high nationwide. Students were angry that years of protesting was not achieving a desired outcome. The Vietnam war waged forward, and the invasion of Cambodia infuriated those who opposed it. The draft system was notoriously discriminatory, and efforts to improve the system through the lottery were not effective.
On May 2nd, 1970, at 5 pm, the Governor of Kent declared a state of emergency and asked the National Guard to step in and dissipate the protesters. The presence of the National Guard on Kent State campus pitted the 19 year old working class soldier against the 19 year old upper middle class college student both enraged at the broken promises of capitalism, the definition of freedom, and the decidedly unfair government draft system.
Sandy Scheuer was an honors student in speech and hearing therapy at Kent State. On May 4th, 1970, she wore her dark brown hair carefully curled and pinned back with bobby pins. It was unusually warm. Her cheeks covered in tiny freckles, she wiped sweat from her forehead as she walked to class that afternoon.
Sandy did not really have an opinion about the Vietnam war, but she walked slowly, curiously watching the chaos unfold. Her parents were immigrants from Europe, her father had survived the Holocaust. She was a serious student, but she was looking forward to a summer with friends. She was excited to be turning 21 in August.
By lunchtime the protests had escalated on campus. Protesters were throwing empty tear gas cans and rocks at The National Guard. Perhaps, one of the young soldiers got frightened. There was no order to fire, but one soldier did, followed by twenty nine others. For 13 seconds bullets rained into the crowd of unarmed people killing 4, paralyzing 1, and injuring 8 others.
Unexpectedly, a National Guard’s bullet struck Sandy Scheuer from 400 feet away. When she opened her eyes, she was laying on the cement sidewalk unable to move. The bullet hit her jugular vein and she died over the next five or six minutes, totally alone, still clutching a textbook in her arms.
At the time of the shooting, the American public blamed the protesters. Parents reportedly disowned their children who were involved in protesting on campus.
College students became the most hated group in America. The media backlash was instantaneous. Accused of treason, the antithesis of the values of American exceptionalism. It was the final blow to a movement already dead.
No one was ever criminally charged for the deaths of the students. Later, some of the National Guardsmen admitted to aiming at some of the protesters who were shot.
The legacy of Kent State is the high point of a movement that created a larger divide in economic equality across America. A system of meritocracy without the windfalls of eradicating systemic poverty.
It reminds us of the limits of social movements to predict where organizing will take them, and the work that continues to be done. The movement was over, but it emerged and shape shifted to address the needs of a new generation.
It was a tale of progress for some, surely, at the cost of many. The poor, people of color, and working class men continued to serve in the military and die at a disproportionate rate in Vietnam. At any time during the war, at least 80% of the armed forces came from the lower classes.
A 4-H draft deferment, like the one that helped Donald Trump avoid the draft cost at least $10,000 adjusted for inflation. It was still easy to avoid the draft for men of a certain economic situation.
In 1970, rural whites, for their part, showed tremendous disdain for college campus protests that many viewed as tone deaf and unpatriotic. Many rural white Americans watched the protests from their TV, while their family members were drafted and killed in a war that made no sense, but from which they had no way out.
The nightly news media often portrayed the protesting on campus as unpatriotic, unsympathetic, and communist. Many veterans began to view college students as elitist, and the anti war protesting as a personal hatred. American flags began showing up on front porches in these communities as a sign of their allegiance, and support for their communities having lost so many to fighting communism overseas in Vietnam.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s many of these communities elected local politicians that supported legislation to cut state aid to public universities in sweeping terms. States with large rural conservative constituents in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan would vote to decrease funding year after year. Public universities would continue to raise tuition to compensate for the loss in funding at a rate often significantly higher than inflation.
This legislation is largely to blame for the incredibly high college tuition rates students face today, and the burden of student loan debt drowning a generation.
Today, the American Flag sweeping a Trump supporter’s Facebook page has come to mean more than a dislike for elitist college students, but as a symbol fighting against a government that has long forgotten their existence.
Baby Boomers rewrote Kent State not as a shooting, but a massacre. They meant for you to connect those that died at Kent State to those that died in the Boston massacre, patriotic American heroes. Baby Boomers still consider Kent State the end of the anti war movement as much as Columbine changed public schools, and the Boston Massacre changed the trajectory of the American Revolution.
Campus protests against the Vietnam war may not have ended the occupation of the United States in Asia, but it definitely ended the draft system in America. Although the American government can still enact conscription in the U.S. at any time, it is so grossly unpopular with every sector of the American populace to actually ever be a reality.
The draft is forever gone from American life because it was forever a system so inequitable and discriminatory. So unequal, the all volunteer military in America continues to struggle with systemic racial and socioeconomic status among service men and women today
The legacy of Kent State remains a lesson in the plasticity of democracy pushed to the edge, and the legacy of that democracy to endure. It reminds us that protesting enacts change. The constitution can bend and stretch to accommodate the changing ideals of the will of the people over systemic systems of inequity. Even in the face of a tragedy, or the spirit of unity through the chant “No justice, no peace,” America can handle these changes. America’s democracy can absorb shock, come to the brink, and become stronger. Ready to handle the next challenge.
Joy Ellen Sauter is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington with her partner, Nathan, two teenage boys, and two cuddly pit bulls. She writes about mental health, popular culture, and disability rights. She studied History at Penn State University, concentrating on American popular culture and social movements. Joy’s work has appeared in Mammamia, Scary Mommy.
She is looking for representation for her upcoming book, “I Want To Change the World.” A dystopian novel of historical fiction about the psychedelic 1960’s and 1970’s