ON THIS DAY: May 4, 1970, National Guard opens fire on Kent State students, killing Churchill woman

KENT, Ohio — National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, on May 4, 1970. The students were protesting the invasion of Cambodia and the presence of the National Guard on campus following earlier protests that turned violent. Four people were killed, including honor student Allison Krause, 19, a political science major whose parents lived in Churchill.

Guardsmen fired 67 shots into the crowd in a 13 second volley. Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder were also killed. Gunfire wounded an additional nine students, including one who was permanently paralyzed.

Outrage over the “Kent State Massacre” rippled across the country. Student strikes shut down universities and colleges nationwide, the stock market had its biggest one-day loss since President Kennedy was assassinated, calls for impeachment were directed at President Nixon and even soldiers in Vietnam began forming organized resistance to the war.

Born in Cleveland on April 23, 1951, Krause graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, before her parents moved to Churchill where her father worked as an executive for Westinghouse.

The day before the shooting, Krause was with her boyfriend Barry Levine when she said she wanted to talk to the guards at their encampment. Levine said she struck up a conversation with a soldier who had a lilac in his gun barrel, put there by another student. After his commander ordered the soldier to remove it, Krause offered it back, saying “What’s the matter with peace? Flowers are better than bullets!” Her proclamation would soon become a national anti-war mantra.

As student protesters faced off with the National Guardsmen on May 4, the soldiers fired tear gas at the rally. The guardsmen fixed their bayonets and several students were cut as the soldiers pushed protesters back. The bloodshed further enraged the students and attracted the attention of bystanders, most of whom were students between classes. When the soldiers reached the top of an area called Blanket Hill, they spun and fired on the crowd in the parking lot below.

Miller and Krause likely had been protesting. Scheuer and Schroeder were simply passing by after classes were canceled. The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest found no evidence that the students posed any immediate threat to the soldiers, despite claims the students were throwing rocks. The nearest student injured was at least 20 yards away. Miller was the closest person killed, at least 85 yards away from the soldiers.

28 guardsmen later acknowledged firing from Blanket Hill. Some said they were deliberately firing into the air, over the heads of the students and were later shocked to find out other soldiers had not. Of the thirteen students hit by gunfire, 11 were hit in their sides or backs. One of those killed, Schroeder, was lying prone on the ground.

A single bullet hit Krause, passing through her upper left arm and entering her chest. She died later that day from massive internal injuries.

Doris Krause, Allison’s mother, said the family learned of her death from reporters who called their home. Rushing to Ohio, no one met her at the hospital. She told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2010 that the only acknowledgment they ever received was a partial reimbursement of Allison’s tuition, which arrived after the funeral in a check made out in the deceased student’s name.

On a campus where only 5% of students were Jewish it seemed an odd coincidence that three of those killed were Jews. As their lives were memorialized in the days after the shooting, the Jewish community took the lead, fighting to have plaques and commemorations held as the anniversary arrived with the Vietnam War still raging. More permanent markers were eventually placed in 1990, with yearly candlelight walks and vigils continuing to be held.

Investigations into the events leading up the shootings point to a contentious atmosphere between students and National Guardsmen brought in at the direction of Ohio Gov. James Rhodes. Threats were rumored to be circulating about the burning of the ROTC building on campus, which did end up in flames the following day.

Gov. Rhodes had visited the campus the day before the shooting and gave a speech to promote his run for U.S. Senate that highlighted his “law and order” platform. He called the demonstrators “the worst type of people we harbor in America” and promised to use “whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent.” Gov. Rhodes ultimately lost his bid for the Senate, but was reelected as governor two more times after the shooting.

Krause’s family filed lawsuits against those involved, leading to cases that dragged on for years. Her father, Arthur, went on a public crusade to bring justice to the families of the students killed and accountability to those who gave the order to fire on unarmed students. Finally, in 1979, the Ohio State Controlling Board approved an out-of-court settlement that paid victims’ families $15,000 each and a signed “Statement of Regret” from Gov. Rhodes and the 27 National Guardsmen who were defendants in the case.

Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman later wrote that the President suggested outside agitators were responsible for provoking the shooting, despite a lack of evidence. Haldeman also pinpointed the Kent State shootings as a turning point when Nixon’s claimed “Silent Majority” began to question the existence of his plan to end the unpopular war.