Mr. Beat tells you everything you need to know about the Kent State shootings, a terrible and shocking tragedy that was symbolic of how hostile and chaotic things got at the height of the Vietnam War.
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Produced by Matt Beat. Music by Electric Needle Room (Matt Beat), Daniel Lewis Diedrich, and Jermaine Hysten. All images and video either by Matt Beat, Kyle Noyes, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines.
Also thanks to the AP Archives for additional footage.
Friday, May 1, 1970. Students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio gathered to protest the war. Even though President Richard Nixon got elected promising to end the Vietnam War, U.S. troops had just invaded Cambodia, a country next to Vietnam. These students demanded the troops be brought home. They buried a copy of the Constitution to symbolize how Congress had never declared war like the Constitution says they were supposed to.
On the evening of May 1st, protesters got pretty angry. They threw rocks and bottles at police officers. They built bonfires. Because of this, the police ordered local bars to be closed early in an attempt to limit the stupid behavior that often follows when people get drunk. Well this just made some protestors even angrier. A handful of them got violent and began to break windows and even loot stores. In no way did these few bad apples represent the vast majority of protesters, but obviously police began to blame all the protesters.
The next day Leroy Satrom, Kent’s mayor, declared a state of emergency. He asked the governor, James Rhodes, to send the Ohio National Guard to his city to keep order. National Guard members got to town that night. As they arrived, someone set fire to the Reserve Officer Training Corps building on campus. No one knows who started the fire, but some of the protesters cheered it. Some even sliced the hoses the firefighters were using to put the fire out. Needless to say, these Guard members were a bit on edge after this. They released tear gas to break up the protesters.
By Sunday, May 3rd, about 1,000 National Guard members were on campus. While most were friendly to each other, things became more tense throughout the day. Governor Rhodes talked some trash when he said “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.” Dude, that didn’t make the protesters happy. As the protesters refused to go home, some National Guard members threatened them with bayonets. More rocks were thrown, more tear gas released.
Monday, May 4th. Classes resumed on campus, but the protesters returned, scheduling a rally at noon. University officials tried to prevent the gathering but there were just too many students- around 3000 ended up showing up. After the protest began, National Guard members released more tear gas at the students, but it wasn’t working due to the wind. Some protesters threw more rocks. In response, around 77 National Guard members moved toward the protesters with armed rifles and bayonets. Suddenly- some started firing their guns at the protesters. No one knows who fired the first shot. The gunfire lasted between 13 seconds and one minute. Between 28 and 29 of the National Guard members fired a total of between 61 and 67 shots. When the firing stopped, nine students lay wounded, four dead. Two of those killed weren’t even participating in the protests. Jeffrey Miller, age 20, who was shot in the mouth, was the only victim to die instantly. Here is a famous picture of him by John Filo that shows him lying on the ground as a woman above him screams. The average distance between the shooters and all the victims was about the length of a football field. The other three who later died were Allison Krause, age 19, William Schroeder, also age 19, and Sandra Scheuer, age 20. All of the students shot were in good standing with Kent State University.