Students had gathered to protest the invasion of Cambodia, which had been announced on April 30. On May 1, a crowd of student protestors and locals became unruly, and there was some property damage. Kent mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency and Ohio governor James Rhodes sent in the Ohio National Guard.
On May 4, the Guard prepared to break up a rally scheduled for noon in the university Commons area. With guns drawn, the Guard used tear gas canisters to disperse a crowd of students.
The Guard then marched up a hill, turned around and opened fire on students in a parking lot. Firing 61 shots in 13 seconds, the Guard killed four students and wounded nine.
The shootings were widely reported in national newspapers, stirring support for the antiwar movement and provoking student protests and strikes. Even conservative campuses became engulfed in student activism and 100,000 students marched through Washington.
A photograph of a girl weeping over the body of victim Jeffrey Miller became the defining image of not only the shootings, but also the antiwar movement as a whole.
President Richard Nixon was unsympathetic to the protesters, saying, “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” Under intense pressure for his handling of Cambodia and Kent State, he lost the support of the American people and his administration began to unravel.
Today, the shootings are memorialized annually at Kent State and the four students are remembered as martyrs of the antiwar movement.
The Adjutant General of the Guard, Sylvester Del Corso, claimed that there had been sniper fire directed towards the Guardsmen, prompting the violent response. John Kifner of The New York Times denied this version of events: “this reporter, who was with the group of students, did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley.”
Kent State was never a bastion of student activism, but the antiwar movement had become so widespread that it even reached the conservative Ohio school. After Nixon’s announcement of the Cambodian invasion, there were raucous protests, fires, and smashed store windows. After the National Guard arrived, tension between students and the Guard grew steadily. The May 4 Archive provides a chronological account of the events leading up to the shooting, profiles of the victims and witness accounts.
A May 18, 1970 article in Time magazine addressed how the shootings had transformed the antiwar movement. Previously, protests were marked by violence and property damage, but leaders soon tried to establish more peaceful means of expressing dissent. “I talked about violent overthrow myself,” said a Kent State student, “But when those rifle bullets cracked past my head, I suddenly realized you can't fight pigs with bricks. Whatever we do, it's got to be peaceful.” Meanwhile, Nixon had lost his chance for “wide domestic support, or at least acquiescence, for his policies. Now it is the opposition that has gained strength.”
Kent State student John Filo photographed 14-year old runaway Mary Vecchio kneeling and crying over the body of victim Jeffery Miller. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo became the most memorable image of the tragedy and of the antiwar movement.