|A firsthand account of the Kent State shootings|
By Doug Nutter • Progress Publisher
Today is May 4.
That date doesn’t mean much to you, but it is a day I will never forget.
May 4, 1970, will remain vividly in my mind for the rest of my life. A few of you might recall what happened that day, but for the rest of you, let me share with you this historical day and the events leading up to it.
May 4, 1970, was the day of the Kent State shootings. I was a freshman there at the time and witnessed this event.
As many of you are aware, in 1970, the United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. It was a year that the country went to a lottery draft.
In 1969, when I went to college, I was on a student deferment but early in 1970, with the war escalating, they did away with my deferment and had a lottery draft. They used your birthdate and had a drawing and the sooner your date was drawn the sooner you would be drafted. Out of 365 days, I was drawn 163rd that year and they took numbers through about 145.
The night of the drawing, about 75 of us met in the lobby of our dorm. We all put money in a pot and the lowest number and the highest number split the pot. A guy that lived down the hall from me was drawn number 4 and it wasn’t long before he left for the army.
College campuses were quickly becoming a hotbed for antiwar protests during the spring of 1970.
Students react to invasion
On Thursday, April 30, the United States invaded Cambodia, which was clearly another move at stepping up the war effort. On Friday afternoon May 1, about 400 students gathered on the Commons to stage a nonviolent protest against the Cambodian affair. A copy of the U.S. Constitution was buried and discussions of protests at other college campuses in Ohio were the focus.
Although many students were not aware of this protest, there were a great number on campus that were fed up with the Nixon Administration’s inability to listen to their concerns.
Downtown Kent on Friday night is when the violence began. Music, beer, restless students, motorcycle gangs and most of all, outside influences, ignited the fuse. At this time, there were characters (non-students) moving from campus to campus inciting violence. The outside influences would be a big part of the events over the next three days.
Around 11 p.m. Friday night, crowds began to gather outside the bars chanting antiwar slogans. Soon after, a bonfire was built in the street and a police car was pelted with bottles. Shortly after midnight, police and deputies in riot gear moved in, which caused the protesters to smash windows. By 1 a.m., the crowd was dispersed and an 8 p.m. curfew was put on the city for Saturday.
National Guard called in
On Saturday, May 2, the mayor decided to ask for the National Guard to come in to curb any future violence. The unit that was called in was brought from nearby Akron where they had been on duty against striking Teamsters and were already weary. The troops arrived on campus about 9 p.m. Saturday, but unfortunately by then the damage had been done. Around 8 p.m., a small group of students and non-students marched around campus gathering curiosity seekers as it went and ended up around 600 strong at the ROTC building at 8:30 and by 8:45 it was in flames.
The ROTC building is where armed forces officer training was held. When the fire department arrived, the fire hoses were cut by protesters and police came in with tear gas to disperse the crowd.
I was at this event and watched peace-loving students become involved in something that was organized in part by non-student agitators called SDS and Weathermen.
Sunday, May 3 was an uneventful day. By this time there was a huge contingent of National Guard, city, state and county law enforcement on campus. Other than a few minor skirmishes, Sunday was quiet.
Protest at noon
I remember on the morning of Monday, May 4 someone came to our dormitory handing out leaflets that there was going to be a large antiwar demonstration on the commons at noon. The commons was a large field in the middle of the university. After the last three days and what transpired, some students were becoming involved in the antiwar demonstrations, but most were becoming curious bystanders to see what might happen next.
I was a peace activist and did not like seeing all the violence. I wanted the war to end, but could see the situation at Kent State was now being controlled and organized by radical organizations that would use violence to get their point across. I was curious what the next page of this drama might be, so I headed for the commons about 11:45.
Lines clearly drawn
When I arrived at the commons, the lines of confrontation were clearly drawn. At one end of the commons, in front of the burned-out ROTC building, was the National Guard and 100 yards away the demonstrators gathered at the Victory Bell. In an enormous circle around this scene stood thousands of students as curious innocent bystanders, so I took my place amongst them. It was like being in an arena preparing to watch the gladiators. About 250 antiwar dissidents on one side and about 100 armed National Guard on the other.
Through a bullhorn, you could hear the National Guard saying that this was unlawful assembly and that the crowd must disperse. On the other side, you could hear the students yelling, "Pigs off campus" and "End the war now."
The guard began to disperse tear gas and protesters were throwing large rocks from a nearby parking lot. I was watching but not believing what I was seeing. I wondered how this was going to end up.
Crack of gunfire
The National Guard turned and marched up Blanket Hill. It was 12:24. What happened in the next 20 seconds is embedded in my mind. The Guard took a shooting stance with some rifles pointing in the air. One sharp crack of gunfire followed in a second by a long barrage of gunfire, a few seconds of silence, then screams of hurt and rage.
I watched in shock and disbelief as I saw fellow students laying on the ground. The result: four dead and nine wounded.
Some of these were not at the rally that day. Because the guard shot from up on a hill and many were shooting over the protesters, bullets were flying a long distance. One of the dead was actually heading from the library back to their dorm.
I remember the sounds of the ambulances first.
Next, teachers and students were trying to restore some type of order.
Third, Jeeps driving around telling us the university was closed until further notice and ordering us to go back to our dormitories and leave the campus immediately.
Campus nearly deserted
My dorm, which was Apple Hall, was about a 20-minute walk away from the commons. It only took about 30 minutes for me to pack up a duffle bag and walk off the campus. It was already nearly empty.
At the time, Kent State was the second largest university in Ohio, with 22,000 students and, with the exception of some foreign exchange students, was empty within hours.
As I walked off campus, I didn’t even know where to go. I was in shock, but knew I was forced to go somewhere. I hitchhiked to my brother’s house in Lansing, Mich., to stay for a few days. I got there about 10 p.m.
As people picked me up along the way, I felt the need to tell them what I had just seen. Some had heard the news on the radio, some were hearing this tragic story for the first time. There are many theories on what happened that day. My theory is that one national guardsman got to the breaking point. One of the most active protesters that day was shot and killed with a bullet to the head. I think that was the first bullet heard which sparked the barrage of gunfire that led to this historical event. No proof, just theory.
Spring semester was canceled and we finished up all our classes through the mail.
Immortalized in song
That summer, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had a big hit with the song “OHIO.” The song told us:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming 4 dead in Ohio
Gotta get down to it, soldiers are gunning us down....
Next fall, I went back to Kent State and continued my education, but I had changed. I went to Washington. D.C., twice that year to march in huge, PEACEFUL antiwar marches. If anything good came out of the Kent State shooting, It helped make millions of Americans aware that we were involved in what many considered an unjust war that was killing thousands of our young people.
The memorial provides visitors a retreat for reflection. Plaza walls extend into the hillside, the jagged edges represent "disruption and conflict" the pylons stand at the edge of the memorial commemorating the memory of the four dead students. The walls are meant to symbolize both shelter and division. The site is surrounded by 58,175 daffodils, the number of deaths suffered by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
To read the rest of this article please subscribe or sign in