Memory  /  Comment

Decades After Kent State Shooting, the Tragic Legacy Shapes its Activism

The university where 13 student protesters were killed or injured during the Vietnam War era worries that other schools have learned nothing from its history.

May 4, 1970

The weekend had been tumultuous on campuses from coast to coaststudents protesting President Richard M. Nixon’s announcement that the United States would invade Cambodia as part of an escalation in the war. At Kent State, the wooden ROTC building had been set on fire, and Gov. James Rhodes had flown in. He derided the protesters as “the worst type of people that we harbor in America” and vowed to use any means necessary — including guns — to end the unrest.

By Monday, nearly 1,000 members of the state’s National Guard occupied the northeastern Ohio campus. By noon, they were confronting about 3,000 students gathered in a large, grassy area called the Commons. The Guard declared the assembly unlawful and ordered them to disperse. Few did, and the soldiers started marching forward while firing tear gas canisters into the crowd.

What happened next stunned America: The students retreated up Blanket Hill and then down the other side toward a parking lot and practice football field. Most of the soldiers followed but stopped on the field. About 10 minutes later, the troops went back up the hill. Students like Joe Cullum thought the protesters had won.

“It just felt a little bit like a celebration,” he recounted this week during the final class of “May 4, 1970 and Its Aftermath,” a course the university offers annually.

Then, at 12:24 p.m., dozens of Guard members turned in unison and aimed at the crowd.

“They’re going to shoot,” Dean Kahler thought, picking up the story from Cullum. He remembers looking around for cover, but there was nothing to hide behind. “All of a sudden, I heard bullets hitting the ground real near where I was — I mean, they got real close.” He suddenly felt a sting in his lower back, like from a bee. It was a bullet in his spine, he told the students. He’d never walk again.

In 13 seconds, the soldiers fired more than 60 bullets down the northeastern slope of Blanket Hill. Students Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were fatally injured.

Cullum, a 74-year-old retired high school social studies teacher, connected past and present during the class conversation and pivoted to the pro-Palestinian campus protests and arrests happening elsewhere. “I don’t expect [universities] to agree to all the demands that students are making, but I expect them to have a conversation,” he said.