XXI: Politics

Kent State

Kent State, 1970. News Service Photographs. May 4 Collection. Department of Special Collections and Archives. Kent State University Libraries and Media Services.


      The May 4, 1970 tragedy at Kent State University sparked campus demonstrations across the country and highlighted divisions in American society. On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced a military invasion into Cambodia. In response, protestors rioted in Kent, a small, northeastern Ohio town. Students and non-students alike destroyed private property, threw bottles at the police, and burned the ROTC building. Ohio Governor James Rhodes sent the Ohio National Guard to quell the unrest. He enflamed matters with his brutal rhetoric, promising “to eradicate the problem. On May 4, several hundred protestors taunted the guardsmen. A few threw rocks. The Guard responded at first with tear gas. Then, without a clear order, several Guardsmen fired on protestors and innocent by-standers, killing four and wounding nine. In his Grand Expectations, James Patterson notes that Kent State triggered a wave of confrontations that hit over three hundred campuses and included an estimated two million students.
      The turbulence of May 1970 betrayed a divided America. The sides were often described starkly, if too simplistically: university radicals against the patriotic working class. At a New York City memorial rally shortly after Kent State, approximately two hundred construction workers descended on the group and beat them, using hardhats as weapons. Days later, the local union chief presented Nixon with a hardhat. He accepted the gift as symbolic of American “freedom and patriotism.”
Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987); James Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (1996); President's Commission on Campus Unrest, The Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest (1970).