Kent State Shootings
(Created by Constance Rambo, History 135, November 2006)





Related Events

Course home page


American history in the 1960s and 1970s was wrought with turmoil and civil unrest as the nation was divided in a way not seen since the Civil War.  As one looks at the events of this era, one major aspect stands out:  the political activism of the young people on its college campuses - known as The Student Movement.  Civil rights demonstrations and anti-war protests were prevalent on campuses across the nation as a gap between generations grew and old ideologies and traditional values were challenged.  Oftentimes violence followed these demonstrations.  No other event captures this truth more than that of the tragic shooting that took place in a little university town in Kent, Ohio in May of 1970.



Explain which group(s) or individual(s) you feel played a significant part in causing this May 4th tragedy.  What, if anything, could have been done differently to change the outcome of these events?



The events which occurred at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970 have been listed as one of the catalysts that helped turn U.S. public opinion against the Vietnam War.  What started out as a peaceful protest culminated into 4 days of unrest that ended in tragedy.  During the Kent State Massacre (also known as the Kent State Shootings,) 4 college students were killed and 9 others wounded when the Ohio National Guard fired shots into a crowd during an anti-war protest on campus grounds.  Although many of the details of events leading up to the tragedy were unclear, the affects on a divided nation shined brightly.

President Nixon’s announcement on April 30, 1970, that American troops had invaded Cambodia as a means to attack the Viet Cong headquarters spurred dissent among anti-war demonstrators.  Many Americans saw this invasion as a renege on promises made by President Nixon to end the Vietnam War.  On May 1st, anti-war protests were held on college campuses across the country, and Kent State University was no exception; however, the disruptions that ensued that evening incited turmoil that outlasted the 4 days of turbulence.

Sometime during that evening, a conflict at the local bars between police and protestors occurred with the result of protestors vandalizing local stores, banks and police cars, as well as starting bonfires in the streets of town.  When Kent’s Mayor Satrom declared a state of emergency and ordered all bars closed and requested the assistance of the Ohio National Guard, the unrest grew.  The trouble continued into the weekend as over one thousand protestors surrounded the ROTC building at Kent State University and someone set fire to the building.  When protestors interfered with the ability of the firemen to fight the fire, the National Guard used tear gas and arrested protestors.  As the intensity of the situation continued to grow, Ohio Governor Rhodes stated that he would declare a state of martial law.  Although this declaration was never issued, both the university and guard assumed that the governor had followed through, and that the National Guard had control over the campus with all demonstrations prohibited.

The turbulence peaked on May 4th, when 3000 people (approximately 1,500 demonstrators and 1,500 bystanders) gathered in the University Commons to object to the National Guard presence on campus as well as to the Vietnam War.  As the National Guard tried to disband the crowd, discord grew with rock throwing and yelling as the guards were trapped on a field for approximately 10 minutes.  Only after the guards returned to the top of a hill, "twenty-eight of the more than seventy Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired" their weapons.  (Lewis and Hensley, dept.kent.edu/sociology/lewis/LEWIHEN.htm, 2006)  "A total of 67 bullets were fired" in a time frame "that lasted only thirteen seconds."  (Kent State shootings)  Innocent bystanders were among the victims, with 2 of the 4 students killed being caught in the fire while walking to class.

Although 8 National Guardsmen were brought up on charges in both criminal and civil trials, criminal charges were dismissed and a jury for the civil trial found that "none of the Guardsmen were legally responsible for the shootings" (Lewis and Hensley, 2006) due to their testimonies that they felt their safety had been threatened by the demonstrators.  The State of Ohio ended further legal proceedings by settling out of court with the victims and their families, and the guardsmen issued a statement of regret concerning the incidents that occurred.  The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, which President Nixon established, "concluded that the Ohio National Guard shootings on May 4, 1970 were unjustified."  (Kent State shootings).

The consequences from the tragic events affected not only Kent State University, which closed for the rest of the semester, but the country as well.  It caused a nationwide student strike which closed hundreds of colleges and universities; it highlighted the need for law enforcement and military to develop better ways to manage conflict between its citizens; but most importantly, the events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State became a symbol of political and cultural division in America "which occurred at the height of the Vietnam War era."

Please read my short interview with Mark Maedeker, a student at Kent State in 1970.

Photo of Student Protest; courtesy Kent State Library
Student Protest at Kent State University


Thursday, April 30th

Friday, May 1st

  • In the afternoon, some students at Kent State University held a demonstration protesting the invasion of Cambodia.  They buried a copy of the Constitution and planned another demonstration for noon on Monday, May 4th.
  • Conflict broke out that evening between police and protestors in the city of Kent, Ohio, resulting in vandalizing by protestors.
  • Bars were closed by local authorities and hundreds of people pushed toward the campus with tear gas from police.
  • Kent’s Mayor Satrom declared a state of emergency and telephoned Gov. Rhodes asking for assistance from the National Guard.

Saturday, May 2nd

  • Rumors regarding radical activities spread throughout the town and campus, and university officials acquired an injunction prohibiting the damage to campus’ property.  (Leaflets were distributed by the Office of Student Affairs informing students of the injunction.)
  • In the evening, over a thousand protestors surrounded the campus’ Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building and set it on fire.
  • Protestors interfered with firemen trying to put out the fire as fire hoses were punctured, etc.
  • The National Guard arrived on campus and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd and gain control of the campus.

Sunday, May 3rd

  • Sunday morning, Gov. Rhodes issued a statement that he would seek a court order declaring a state of emergency.  This would give control of Kent State University to the National Guard under martial law.  (He did not actually seek a court order.)  There was misunderstanding among government and university officials regarding control.
  • Most of Sunday afternoon was comparatively calm on the campus and in the city, with the National Guard occupying the university.
  • In the early evening, a crowd gathered at the Victory Bell located on the Commons.  When the crowd would not disperse, the Riot Act was read and tear gas was used by the National Guard.
  • Demonstrators regrouped and blocked traffic at the intersection of East Main and Lincoln streets.  When the crowd was said to have grown hostile at 11:00 p.m., the National Guard read the Riot Act and used more tear gas.  Both demonstrators and guardsmen were injured, causing tension on both sides with some protestors more resolute to rally on Monday and guardsmen set on disbanding a gathering.

Monday, May 4th

  • At noon, people gathered in the vicinity of the Commons.
  • The National Guard’s order to disperse was met by rock throwing and cursing from some protestors.
  • The National Guard then fired tear gas canisters.  When this backfired due to the direction of blowing wind, the guards preceded toward the crowd with fixed bayonets, forcing protestors to withdraw to an athletic field near Taylor Hall.
  • The guards became boxed in on the practice field (that was fenced on three sides,) as discord among protestors grew.  More physical and verbal assaults were exchanged between guardsmen and the crowd (with more tear gas and rocks being thrown.)
  • After approx. 10 minutes, the guards returned to the top of the Blanket Hill with some demonstrators following.
  • The guard turned and 28 guardsmen fired between 61 and 67 shots in 13 seconds toward the parking lot killing four students and wounding nine others.
  • Professor Franks persuaded an angry crowd to disperse.
  • The Kent State University President closed the school and ordered all students to leave the campus as soon as possible, and an injunction to close the university indefinitely was attained by the county prosecutor.  (Normal classes on campus did not recommence until that summer.)

Weeks following Monday, May 4th

  • A nationwide student strike protesting the shooting at Kent State and Jackson State universities closed hundreds of colleges and universities.
  • A President’s Commission on Campus Unrest was created.


  • Kent State created The Center for Peaceful Change (now known as The Center for Applied Conflict Management), which was one of the first degree programs of this kind in the United States
  • A President’s Commission on Campus Unrest was created.


  • A federal criminal trial against 8 of the National Guard was dismissed by Judge Battisti.

January 1979

  • A federal civil trial was settled out of court.
Photo of National Guard Deployed at Kent State University; courtesy Kent State Library
National Guard Deployed at Kent State University


Pictures of Kent State (Eyewitness at Kent State), 1970

Some video clips:  Dean Kahler, recorded in 2000 by WAOH and an audio documentary

There are many other websites available with information about Kent State.

The wikipedia article on the Kent State Shootings is surprisingly good (and not too long) and includes some excellent website source recommendations.

  • Kent State/May 4: Echoes Through a Decade (1988) by Scott Bills
  • I Was There: What Really Went on at Kent State (1974) by Edward J. Grant & Michael Hill (Book written by one of the members of the Ohio National Guard)
  • Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State? (1990) by William Gordon
  • The Kent Sate Coverup (1980) by Joseph Kelner & James Munves
  • Violence at Kent State, May 1 to 4, 1970:  The Student’s Perspective (1971) by Stuart Taylor, Richard Shuntlich, Robert Genther & Patrick McGovern (Book studying the feelings, attitudes, etc. of Kent State students shortly after the shootings.  Based on a questionnaire of approx. 7,000 responses.)
  • Communication Crisis at Kent State: A Case Study (1971) by Phillip Tompkins & Elaine Anderson
  • Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest (1970) is a very, very large *.pdf file. See also the FBI investigation report.
  • Time Magazine (May 18, 1970) cgi.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1996/analysis/back.time/9605/20/
  • Kent State (1981), Movie depicting the shootings; directed by James Goldstone
  • The Year That Trembled, Fictional movie set at Kent State about students facing the Vietnam Lottery; Directed by Jay Craven

Related Events

This page is copyright © 2006-12, C. Rambo and C.T. Evans
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu