On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen squared off against anti-war demonstrators on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. The student protest was sparked by President Richard Nixon’s announcement on April 30 that U.S. troops would invade Cambodia, escalating the already unpopular war in Vietnam.
The deadly confrontation that followed would become known as the Kent State Massacre, and was immortalized in one of rock’s greatest protest songs, “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The day after Nixon’s Cambodia speech, a few storefronts in the town of Kent were trashed by protesters, and cops used tear gas to disperse the crowd. On May 2, Ohio Governor James Rhodes called in the Guard to restore order. That evening, a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building was set on fire as students cheered; guardsmen responded with tear gas and arrested many demonstrators.
A large protest on the university Commons was planned for May 4. As a few thousand students and spectators gathered, undergraduate John Filo grabbed his camera and headed towards the crowd. Filo, who worked at the Kent State photo lab, hoped to catch a few compelling images of the event.
When protesters refused an order to either disperse or face arrest, guardsmen fired tear gas at the crowd. Many students fled the scene, and the Guardsmen followed them to a football field, where the students pelted the soldiers with rocks.
Shortly after noon, the Guardsmen moved back up a hill, as if to retreat. But when they reached the top, they turned and opened fire on the students with their M1 rifles. In just 13 seconds, anywhere from 61 to 67 rounds were fired and four students lay dead; nine more were injured.
Although these are the physical facts that most agree on, it’s at this point that the reason why the Guardsmen fired becomes clouded in controversy.
The adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard told reporters that a sniper had fired on the guardsmen, which remains a debated allegation.
Many guardsmen later testified that they were in fear for their lives, which was questioned partly because of the distance between them and the students killed or wounded.
There is also a well documented account of Terry Norman, who was photographing protesters that day for the FBI and the campus police. He carried a loaded .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 five-shot revolver in a holster under his coat for protection. Though he denied discharging his pistol, he previously has been accused of triggering the Guard shootings by firing to warn away angry demonstrators, which the soldiers mistook for sniper fire.
There is an audiotape made by Terry Strubbe, a Kent State student who put a reel-to-reel tape recorder in his dorm window on May 4, 1970 to capture the sounds of the antiwar protest unfolding below. The audiotape has been analyzed by forensic audio expert Stuart Allen. Allen, president and chief engineer of the Legal Services Group in Plainfield, N.J., worked with a copy obtained from Yale University’s Kent State archives. When he re-analyzed and enhanced the section later, he picked up details of the yelling and what sounded like gunfire. He compared the acoustic signatures to his library of weapon sounds to determine that it was a .38-caliber revolver.
He said he can’t determine whether there is any connection between the incident and the volley of Guard rifle fire that follows approximately 70 seconds later.
I’m looking solely at the contents of the tape, To deduce a conclusion as to cause and effect, I’m not in a position to do that. This should go to the Department of Justice.
So there does exist some questions that will probably never be answered completely to everyone’s satisfaction. Did Terry Norman fire shots that prompted the Guardsmen to fire in response? Was Norman just a photographer hired by the FBI, or was he an employee of theirs and incite the actions deliberately? According to FBI reports, one part-time student, Terry Norman, was already noted by student protesters as an informant for both campus police and the Akron FBI branch.
We do know that, undeniably, when the shooting stopped, 4 students lay dead.
Of the four students killed, only Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller were part of the demonstration. Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were walking to class when they were gunned down.
The iconic photograph of 14-year old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the corpse of Jeffrey Miller would bring the Vietnam War home to America and win Kent State photojournalism student John Filo the Pulitzer Prize.
Filo told Annenberg Digital News:
Blood was just pumping out of his body, on the hot asphalt. I could see the tension building in this girl and finally she let out with the scream, and I sort of reacted to the scream and shot that picture.
Days later, David Crosby handed Neil Young a copy of Life magazine that featured Filo’s photo. Until then, CSNY were known for the gentle lyrics and intricate harmonies in songs like “Our House” and “Teach Your Children.” But Crosby told VH1 that Filo’s photo inspired the raw emotions of “Ohio”:
That girl leaning over the other kid in a pool of blood, and a look of, ‘Whaaa? What? How could this have happened?’ You know it’s shock … grief.
Neil Young recalled:
Crosby came and had the magazine with the Kent State killings. I had heard it on the news, what had happened, but Crosby always had a way of bringing stuff into focus.
Young disappeared into the woods with his guitar. When he returned a few hours later, he’d written “Ohio.”
Bandmate Graham Nash recalled in MusicRadar:
Crosby called me up and said he’d booked a studio, Neil just wrote this song, it’s f—ing fantastic. Get down here.’ Neil played me ‘Ohio,’ and it was ‘Holy f— – fantastic.’ We recorded it in an hour and a half.
The B-side, Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” was recorded in a half-hour and the master was sent to Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun. Nash remembered.:
We mixed it, gave him the two-track and said, ‘Ahmet, we want this out now,’ Ahmet put up an argument, but we were firm. Twelve days later, we put it out in a single sleeve with a copy of the Constitution that had four bullet holes on it.
“The mood was just very intense,” engineer Bill Halverson related on his website. “They were bent on getting it right and were on a mission.”
Though Young would later write “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which criticized President George H.W. Bush, and “Southern Man,” which skewered that region’s racism, “Ohio” would be the singer’s first protest song.
Young, a Canadian, explained in the liner notes of his Decade anthology:
It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song, It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.
Explicit lyrics like “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming … Soldiers are gunning us down … Four dead in Ohio” would get the song banned on some mainstream AM stations but airplay on FM and underground radio would make “Ohio” a Top 20 hit. Crosby wrote in the liner notes of the CSN collection:
For me, ‘Ohio’ was a high point of the band, a major point of validity. There we were, reacting to reality, dealing with it on the highest level we could – relevant, immediate. It named names and pointed the finger.
On May 4, 1997, Crosby, Stills & Nash attended a commemoration of the shootings at the Kent State campus. Graham Nash stated:
Four young men and women had their lives taken from them while lawfully protesting this outrageous government action, We are going back to keep awareness alive in the minds of all students, not only in America, but worldwide… to be vigilant and ready to stand and be counted … and to make sure that the powers of the politicians do not take precedent over the right of lawful protest.
At the end of the ceremony, the trio performed “Ohio” to an enthusiastic crowd. David Crosby told the Akron Beacon Journal:
The students stood up for their God-given right to protest, and they got slaughtered for it, Those people were expressing their constitutional right of assembly and were attacked for it, and they’ve never been apologized to.
The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest issued its findings in a September 1970 report that concluded that the Ohio National Guard shootings on May 4, 1970, were unjustified. The report said:
Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.
Eight of the guardsmen were indicted by a grand jury. The guardsmen claimed to have fired in self-defense, a claim that was generally accepted by the criminal justice system. In 1974 U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti dismissed civil rights charges against all eight on the basis that the prosecution’s case was too weak to warrant a trial.
Civil actions were also attempted against the guardsmen, the state of Ohio, and the president of Kent State. The federal court civil action for wrongful death and injury, brought by the victims and their families against Governor Rhodes, the President of Kent State, and the National Guardsmen, resulted in unanimous verdicts for all defendants on all claims after an eleven-week trial. The judgment on those verdicts was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on the ground that the federal trial judge had mishandled an out-of-court threat against a juror.
On remand, the civil case was settled in return for payment of a total of $675,000 to all plaintiffs by the state of Ohio (explained by the State as the estimated cost of defense) and the defendants’ agreement to state publicly that they regretted what had happened.