Kent State Shooting A Wound Not Quite Healed
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Four decades ago, protests on college campuses focused on the Vietnam War and some turned deadly. Americans were shocked when Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on students at Kent State University. It happened 40 years ago this week and it came to be called The Day the War Came Home.
As Mark Urycki of member station WKSU reports, the shootings marked a turning point in the nation's history.
MARK URYCKI: The shootings at Kent State came after a decade of turmoil when a president and two national political figures were assassinated. America was polarized on many fronts.
Former Kent State student activist Bill Arthrell.
Mr. BILL ARTHRELL (Former Student Activist): You had, you know, the black power and black nationalism and the student movement and the hippy subculture. Feminism was blossoming as well and the environmental movement, I mean, just a tremendous push from the left to change society and a total cultural revolution.
URYCKI: Richard Nixon had run for office promising a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. But on Thursday April 30th, 1970, he announced he was expanding it into Cambodia. Protestors hit the streets in Kent and many other American cities. On a visit to the Pentagon the next day, President Nixon contrasted young soldiers with college protestors.
(Soundbite of broadcast)
President RICHARD NIXON: You know, you see these problems, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, our boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world.
URYCKI: On the next night, Saturday May 2nd, some Kent State students set fire to an old wooden house used as the office of the reserve officer training corps on campus.
(Soundbite of campus)
Unidentified Woman: Chief Miller wants another unit up on campus. The kids have cut the hoses to the fire trucks and they are setting fire to the buildings.
URYCKI: As the building went up in flames, units of the Ohio National Guard, requested by the mayor, rolled into Kent and established de facto marshal law. Tensions only increased the next morning when Governor James Rhodes, who was running for the U.S. Senate gave a press conference in Kent and denounced the protestors.
(Soundbite of press conference)
Governor JAMES RHODES (Republican, Ohio): Let me say this, that if they can intimidate and threaten Joe, the merchants of this community and other people, no one is safe in Portage County. It's just that simple. No one is safe.
URYCKI: On Monday May 4th, at the governor's order, Kent State opened for classes. The National marched on a crowd of students and broke up a new rally.
(Soundbite of rally)
Unidentified Man #1: Please, for your own safety, all (unintelligible). For your own safety, please...
(Soundbite of chanting)
URYCKI: Guardsmen fired teargas, the students threw rocks. When the Guard retreated, protester Bill Arthrell thought it was over.
Mr. ARTHRELL: I thought that they had given up and we had prevailed.
URYCKI: But that's when the soldiers turned and fired.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
Unidentified Man #2: Student are hurt. About 12:25.
Mr. ARTHRELL: It looked like to me that scores of people had been killed.
(Soundbite of sirens)
Unidentified Man #3: If people (unintelligible).
URYCKI: Thirteen students were hit, four of them killed, two of those were not involved in the protest, but just walking to class.
While a federal investigation called the Kent State shootings inexcusable, none of the shooters was convicted of a crime.
Art Krummel was a guardsman in Kent that day, but not among the shooters.
Mr. ART KRUMMEL (Former National Guard): To my mind I can't figure out how anyone could shoot blindly into a crowd of kids. I can't even imagine just flicking the safety off your rifle and shooting a number of rounds into this mass of kids.
URYCKI: The shooting sparked the largest ever student protest in America. One-hundred thousand protestors gathered in Washington and 150,000 in San Francisco. Kent State student Dean Kahler was left paralyzed by a guardsman's bullet. Then came the hate mail.
Mr. DEAN KAHLER (County Commissioner, Former Kent State Student): Jim Rhodes basically said that we were the worst element that we harbor in our society. So it was easy for people to write me letters from all over the country, condemn me and pray that I was dead, which they all did.
URYCKI: Kahler became a county commissioner and eventually made eventually made peace with former Governor Rhodes. But he fears that America is moving again towards a polarized society, much like that 40 years ago.
For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki.
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