The May 4th Deaths: Kent State 30 Years Ago

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four college students and wounded nine others – one of them, Dean Kahler, is paralyzed below the waist – on the campus of Kent State University. Nobody was found guilty of the bloodletting.

On that awful day, Guardsmen fired M-1 rifles, .45 pistols and a shotgun for 13 seconds, killing Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, ROTC student William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer who was on her way to class, while wounding nine others. Many Americans were outraged at the shootings but the vast majority were not, apparently believing that a nation at war was threatened by "radical" challenges on college campuses and elsewhere and that a government at war was perfectly justified in spying on its dissenting citizens and sending provocateurs to disrupt antiwar opponents. (On May 14-15, 1970, in Jackson, MS., Phillip Gibbs, a Jackson State junior, and James Green, a bystander and high school student, were killed by officers called to the scene following disturbances and student protests against the Vietnam war and continuing bias against blacks. A dozen students were also wounded by gunfire. Again, no one was ever convicted. (See, for example, Tim Spofford’s Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College Kent State University Press).

Antiwar protests in Kent erupted following Richard Nixon’s TV speech announcing on April 30 that the US had invaded Cambodia, thus expanding a war he had once pledged to bring to an end. The following day Nixon denigrated antiwar students as "bums."

At Kent State and in the neighboring town of Kent, there had been some student vandalism and property damage. The college ROTC building was set afire on May 2nd for which students were initially blamed and soon the Ohio National Guard was dispatched to the school. On May 3rd, one day before the shootings, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, a pro-Nixon conservative running for the Senate, described antiwar students as "worse than the Brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor in America."

In the years following that horrifying afternoon there have been judicial, journalistic and historical investigations, a trial, and yearly memorials to the dead and wounded. But for most Americans, there is only historical amnesia. In 1975 a civil suit brought by the parents found for the defendants, but an appellate court overturned the verdict. Still, after nine years, the worn out plaintiffs opted to settle with Ohio for the modest sum of $675,000 and a statement signed by Rhodes and the Guardsmen saying, "We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted." The families of the dead and the surviving wounded also stated their feelings. "We have learned through a tragic event that loyalty to our nation and its principles sometimes requires resistance to our government and its policies – a lesson many young people, including the children of some of us, had learned earlier. That has been our struggle – for others this struggle goes on. We will try to support them."

To this day, we don’t know to what extent the Nixon White House and other agencies may have been involved. We do know that, according to a government memo dated October 9, 1973, "undercover federal narcotics agents were present on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970." Also, it since been widely alleged that still other agents had been or were still on campus. Then, too, the government’s infamous COINTELPRO program, aimed at crushing antiwar dissent, was in full bloom on May 4th. Was Kent State on its agenda? And did Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, neither of whom had any affection for antiwar dissenters, really want a fair investigation?

Immediately after the murders, rumors abounded that Jeffrey Miller was found with a gun (untrue), that a student sniper was in the area (also untrue) and that students burned the ROTC building (never proven). Nor do we know why the National Guard – that era’s safe harbor for men trying to avoid Vietnam – were called in and why they opened fire on unarmed college men and women.

Still, many began to ask questions and express doubts. Charles A. Thomas, for one, worked in the National Archives for twelve years and between May 1-4, 1975 was assigned to its Motion Pictures Unit to study and describe films of the shootings. He came to believe that, "none of the available footage showing dead and wounded students following the lethal volley had been used in assembling the compilation film shown at the public hearings" of the Scranton presidential commission in August 1970. " It looked very much," he concluded in Kent State/May 4 (Kent State University Press), edited by Scott L. Bills, "as if someone had doctored the evidence to minimize any impression of the Guard’s brutality and to plant the spurious notion that the soldiers had been confronted with a raging student mob."

After the Guard opened fire, Glenn Frank, a conservative Kent State geology professor, tried to convince its officers to stand down and then made an impassioned and successful plea to students, begging them to leave, lest they too be slaughtered. In the years following, Frank (now deceased) sought to understand what had happened. His son, Alan (a former Kent State student who by his own estimate was some fifty to seventy-five feet from the Guard when they opened fire and thought they were shooting blanks) is now at work on his father’s papers. His father, he says, had become increasingly dubious that justice had been served.

Perhaps the closest we have come to a evenhanded though still extremely tentative verdict was that of the Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest (the Scranton Commission, 1970) which, while liberally casting responsibility for the heated atmosphere leading up to May 4th, came down sharply on those who carried the weapons: "The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable."

Failing the discovery of a "smoking gun," a deathbed confession, or the release of all

local, state and federal documents, we may never know exactly what happened and why. All the more reason, then, to convene an independent Truth Commission with subpoena power to scrutinize archives opened and those still closed and re-interview everyone still alive to try to answer whether a government at war in Asia extended its war to a college campus.

Isn’t it time that the nation learned the truth?

Author: Murray Polner

Murray Polner has written for The New York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal, The Nation, The American Conservative, Columbia Journalism Review, Newsday, and other publications.