On May 4, 1970, at Ohio's Kent State University, four American citizens were murdered by their own government. A line of 29 men of the Ohio National Guard marched up before a group of unarmed protesters and opened fire, killing four and wounding nine others. It's an episode now burned into history as the Kent State Shootings.
The students were calling for peace. They were protesters demonstrating against the Vietnam War and against America’s intention to move into Cambodia. Too many soldiers had died — the protesters thought — many of them students whose names had come up in the draft lottery. The students wanted the killings to stop.
On May 1, 500 students filled the Kent State campus, where they marched and made speeches that terrified some of the people around them. One pulled out a copy of the United States Constitution and burned it, trying to demonstrate how Nixon had violated it – but some didn’t quite understand. Some saw the protestors as a danger.
The protesters continued on for the next few days, with the crowd growing larger. By May 4, the day of the Kent State Massacre, there were 2,000 people on the campus handing out leaflets, making speeches, and standing up to demand peace.
Nervous about what these people would do, the state sent in the National Guard and ordered the demonstrators to disperse. However, they weren’t ready to leave. Some hurled rocks at the National Guardsmen and chased them away. But soon the guardsmen came back, this time with gas masks, tear gas, and rifles.
The National Guardsmen hurled tear gas into the crowd and chased the people who fled. Then, when some demonstrators wouldn’t leave and tried to hurl the tear gas back at them, they pulled out their rifles and opened fire.
“The crackle of the rifle volley cut the suddenly still air,” John Kifner, a New York Times writer who was on the scene, wrote. “It appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer.” Kifner watched as the students next to him fell to the ground, one shot in the head, another hit in the back, and saw them bleed out onto the concrete of their school parking lot.
“I was a white hippie boy, and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew,” another witness, Gerald Casale, who would later become a member of the band Devo, recalled. “None of us knew, none of us could have imagined… They shot into a crowd that was running away from them!”
Over the next few days, 4 million people came out in protest of the Kent State Massacre. Anti-Vietnam campaigns became bigger than ever, and the way the US responded to protests changed forever.
Demonstrators run for safety as National Guardsmen move in. May 1970
The scene of Kent State University becomes a battlefield as National Guardsmen unleash tear gas and bullets on the students. May 1970
Students gather around John Cleary, who has been shot by the National Guard.
A student grabs a tear gas canister and throws it right back at the attacking National Guardsmen.
14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screams over the body of 20-year-old Kent State student Jeffrey Miller, shot dead by the National Guard.
Demonstrators run as National Guardsmen fire tear gas and bullets into the crowd.
The National Guard moves in and orders the protesters to disperse. These men were chased away by the protesters. They would come back, however, armed and ready to fight.
A National Guardsman throws a can of tear gas into the crowd.
The National Guard presses forward toward the protesters.
The Ohio National Guard give up on tear gas and open fire.
An injured student is carried off to a stretcher in a mad scramble to get him to a doctor before he bleeds out.
Students at Kent State protest the Vietnam War and Nixon's expansion into Cambodia. Some of the students here would not leave alive, including Jeffrey Miller, seen here in a cowboy hat.
The National Guard move in on the students, now with gas masks covering their faces.
Students gather around a victim that has been shot, trying to get them to safety before the National Guard returns.
The National Guard, with gas masks covering their faces, fire barrages of tear gas into the crowd of protesters.
The National Guard charge forward.
Students make a circle around Joseph Lewis Jr., a wounded student who had taken a bullet from the National Guard. They eye the soldiers who shot him, unsure how this will play out.
Students help paramedics get their bleeding friend into an ambulance.
An irate student stomps on the bloodstain left by one of his friends, mere moments after the massacre ended.
The day after the massacre, students come out in droves to protest at the Capitol. Washington, D.C. May 5, 1970.
Students on strike storm the University of Virginia, standing up for those who died at the Kent State Massacre. Charlottesville, Virginia. May 6, 1970.
A crowd of 9,000 students on strike, protesting the massacre at UCLA, boo their chancellor as he comes out to plead for them to calm down. Los Angeles, California. May 7, 1970.
Protesters at a sit-in at the Capitol join the nationwide student strike in protest of the massacre. Washington D.C. May 9, 1970.
The National Guard at UCLA tries the same tactic again the day after the massacre.
This time, the students are ready for them. This student grabs the tear gas canister and throws it right back.
Los Angeles, California. May 5, 1970.