Today in History: Four Students Murdered at Kent State University (1970)

Today in History: Four Students Murdered at Kent State University (1970)

Matthew Weber - May 4, 2017

By 1970, Americans were fed up with the Vietnam war, and it was showing in the almost constant protests taking place across the country. The United States government could show almost no progress in the war, and any announcement about the conflict caused backlash all around the U.S.

On May 4, 1970, four students were killed by National Guardsmen during one of these protests at Kent State University in Ohio. This particular protest was in response to President Nixon ordering an incursion into Cambodia. It was seen as yet another expansion of a war that nobody in the U.S. wanted any part of.

Today in History: Four Students Murdered at Kent State University (1970)
The National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons, May 4, 1970. Slate

The protests actually started on May 1, when around 500 people rioted in downtown Kent, throwing beer bottles at police, breaking windows, and setting bonfires. On May 2, the protests continued, and the Ohio governor called in the National Guard.

By the time the Guard arrived, the ROTC building on campus had been set on fire, though it has since been found out that the fire was not set by Kent State students.

May 3 was mostly a quiet day, but tensions were high. Students who came out to help businesses clean up from the rioting were sent home due to fears that more violence would break out. By 8 p.m. that night, another rally was underway, and National Guardsmen were forced to fire tear gas into the crowd in order to get them to disperse. It wasn’t until 11 p.m. that night that Guardsmen forced students to remove themselves completely from the protests, some of them at bayonet point.

May 4 saw the biggest protests yet. Nearly 2,000 students and other protesters gathered at the commons area at the university. The rally had been banned by the university, so the Guard and the Kent police department almost immediately tried to get the crowd to disperse. They were successful with some of the crowd, but many students stayed, berating and throwing things at the soldiers.

At 12:24 p.m., the Guardsmen started shooting into the crowd of students who refused to leave parts of the campus. Nearly 70 rounds were fired into the group. Four students were killed, and 11 were wounded. The Guardsmen would eventually be charged with their murders but were found not guilty.

Two of the dead students weren’t even part of the protests but were instead walking from one class to another.

The senseless tragedy is but one of many examples of how tense the United States was in the early 1970s. The Vietnam War was very unpopular, and with every death overseas, more and more people took to the streets to protest the ongoing war effort. It wouldn’t be until 1973 that the U.S. would finally call it quits in the Vietnam War.

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