NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, May 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
Fifty years ago today, the Ohio National Guard killed four student protesters at Kent State University during an anti-war rally. The incident shocked a nation already weary of huge casualties in the Vietnam War.
EICHER: Today, to mark the tragedy: a virtual commemoration online.
Correspondent Maria Baer now with a special edition of The WORLD History Book, taking us through what happened on that day.
MARIA BAER, REPORTER: April, 1970. The Vietnam War rages on for the 15th year, despite growing anti-war sentiment across the United States.
The draft is forcing young men off to war, and political leaders are struggling to define “victory.” President Richard Nixon had recently promised to withdraw 150,000 American troops. But on April 30th, he makes a different announcement.
Addressing the nation in front of a large, colorful map of the region, Nixon lays out his plans to move U.S. troops into Cambodia.
NIXON: This is not an invasion of Cambodia…
The announcement starts a new wave of anti-war protests across the country, many on college campuses.
SONG: [ALL WE ARE SAYING IS GIVE PEACE A CHANCE]
May 1st. Student protestors at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio clash with local police. Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes issues a state of emergency, calling in the National Guard.
Saturday, May 2nd. As the National Guard arrives, hundreds of Kent State students gather at the empty ROTC building on campus and set it on fire. Alan Canfora, a junior that year and an active anti-war protestor, sees some of his friends throw Molotov cocktails.
CANFORA: The building went up in flames, I mean it was a glorious fire, you could see the flames from miles away…
The National Guard disperses the students with tear gas.
Monday, May 4th. It’s a sunny spring day. As students walk to class, dozens of National Guardsmen roam the campus, armed with rifles. Despite a campus-wide restriction on crowds, students gather for an anti-war rally at the Victory Bell on the campus Commons.
NEWSCAST: [VICTORY BELL RINGING, STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE]
One student, Dean Kahler, gives a short speech.
CANFORA: He said, ‘Is it the feeling of the students on our campus that we should join the national student strike to protest the invasion of Cambodia?’
Somewhere a photographer captures a now famous photo of Canfora, with long wavy hair, in a standoff with eight National Guardsmen.
CANFORA: I was waving a black protest flag, I was shouting at them, I was cursing at them, shouting insults toward them, but I didn’t think that they would shoot.
After dispensing tear gas, the guardsmen retreat back up what’s called Blanket Hill.
NEWSCAST: PROTEST SOUNDS
But a few minutes later, at 12:24 p.m., they open fire. This is actual audio of the shooting, courtesy of NBC News.
They hit 13 students. Canfora tries to take cover behind a tree, but he’s shot in the wrist.
CANFORA: And I looked, I felt the pain, I saw the blood, just dripping down into the grass, and I thought to myself – I cannot believe I have been shot!
Canfora’s roommate Thomas Grace is shot through the ankle—Canfora sees his boot blown off.
NEWSCAST: SOUND OF YELLING
In 13 seconds, the National Guard fires 67 bullets. Two student protesters, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, don’t survive their wounds. Neither do Bill Schroeder or Sandra Scheuer—they’re killed as they walk through a parking lot to class, nearly 400 feet away from the guardsmen.
When the popping of gunfire stops, photojournalism student John Filo takes a photo of a young woman, mouth open in a scream, standing over the body of Jeffrey Miller. He’s lying facedown on the pavement; his arms tucked awkwardly beneath him. He’s dead. The photo would later win a Pulitzer Prize, becoming an icon of the anti-war era.
NEWSCAST: And today the guardsmen opened fire on the students, killing four of them, two young men and two young women…
To this day, the National Guard officially maintains there was no direct order to fire. Guardsmen say they were in fear for their lives; that students were throwing rocks. Some guardsmen claim there was a sniper on campus, but the FBI later debunks that theory.
NEWSCAST: What the investigators have to determine then, is whether indeed there was a sniper, and whether the guard was justified in firing its weapons…
A grand jury indicts eight National Guardsmen on charges of violating Kent State students’ civil rights. All those charges are later dropped.
In 2007, Canfora uncovers an audiotape—recorded May 4th by a student from his dorm window.
AUDIO: [AUDIO TAPE]
Canfora tells the FBI it’s proof there was a command to fire. He says within the garbled audio, he hears a guardsmen yell: “Right here, point, fire.”
Five years later, following analysis by multiple audio experts, the FBI says the tape is inconclusive.
Today, Kent State’s campus is full of reminders of what happened May 4th, 1970. The site of the shootings is now a National Historic Landmark.
A granite memorial near the Commons is surrounded by a field of nearly 59-thousand daffodils – one for each American killed in the Vietnam War.
Popular 60’s rock’n’roll band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young release a new song just a few weeks after the incident, called “Ohio.”
AUDIO: …four dead in Ohio…
That’s this week’s WORLD History Book, I’m Maria Baer.