Protests had been going on for a few days.
A chronology of the week’s events from the Kent State University library details the confusion both on campus and in the city of Kent just before the incident. President Nixon made his announcement about the “Cambodian Incursion” on April 30. Students rallied on May 1 and planned another rally for May 4. The evening of May 1, vandals damaged buildings in town, breaking windows. According to the [library chronology], the mayor of Kent “heard rumors of a radical plot, declared a state of emergency, and telephoned the governor in Columbus for assistance.” Bars were closed, and those in the street were tear-gassed by riot police. On May 2, the mayor made the decision to call in the National Guard after hearing about threats to local businesses and rumors of radical protestors trying to destroy the city. That evening, there was a large demonstration happening on campus, and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building was set on fire. Another demonstration on campus occurred on May 3, where tear gas was fired. And the protesting continued on May 4, resulting in deadly violence.
It’s not totally clear why the guardsmen opened fire in the first place.
The students protesting were unarmed, but 28 guardsmen opened fire on the crowd. They fired between 61 and 67 shots in just 13 seconds.
Two of the students killed were protesting, and two were bystanders who were walking from one class to the next.
The victims were all white. They were Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Scheuer, both 20, and Allison Krause and William Schroeder, both 19.
The shootings caused even more protests.
NPR reported that colleges and universities across the U.S. were forced to close when the shootings triggered a nationwide student strike. Historians estimate that about 4 million students went on strike, causing 800 institutions to close.
And tragically, students at another university were shot and killed just days later.
On May 15, 1970, police confronted a group of African-American students protesting at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi. Apparently, students had been throwing rocks at white motorists driving through campus, and tension heightened when a false rumor spread that a local politician and civil rights activist, Charles Evers, had been killed. Police fired more than 150 rounds into the crowd, killing 21-year-old Phillip Gibbs and 17-year-old James Earl Green. Twelve other students were injured.
People credit the Kent State shootings with waking them up, in the same way police violence sparks protests and rallies today.
“Up until that incident, I had been a pretty conventional young person,” one woman told NPR. “I was 20. But when I saw my government killing innocent students who were just walking to class, I was radicalized, totally radicalized. From that day forward, I began to immerse myself in national and international news and politics and have never since allowed myself to be so ignorant of what’s going on as I was before that day.”
Related: College Students Are Totally in Favor of Free Speech With One Exception