In early May at Kent State University in Ohio, a mass protest of recent military action in Cambodia — part of the Vietnam War — went tragically wrong.
After several days of disturbances, including the burning of the campus ROTC building, the Ohio Army National Guard was called in. On May 4, some 2000 students held a rally on the Commons. Guardsmen attempted to disperse the crowd, first with tear gas and then by charging toward them with rifles fixed with bayonets. After nearly half an hour of both groups advancing and retreating to different points, the Guardsmen began to fire.
Exactly why the Guardsmen began to shoot at the unarmed students is still disputed, but the results were horrifying to the nation. Nine students, all 19 or 20 years old, were injured, and four were killed: Allison B. Krause, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer, and William Knox Schroeder. Krause and Miller were participating in the protest; Scheuer and Schroeder had simply been walking to class.
For more on the incident, see the resources at the KSU Special Collections And Archives page Kent State Shootings: May 4 Collection.
The Kent State shootings set off a nation-wide student strike. On many college campuses, protests both peaceful and violent led to schools being temporarily closed.
At the University of Alabama on the afternoon of May 4, more than 1000 students congregated at the Alabama Union (now Reese Phifer Hall), where they heard from fellow students as well as at least two faculty members, Dr. Iredell Jenkins (Philosophy) and Dr. Joseph Bettis (Religious Studies), who advocated calm and non-violence.
Closing the school was considered, in discussion with faculty and student leaders, but ultimately rejected. However, President David Mathews, a 33-year-old University alum not long in the position, encouraged discussion of the Kent State incident in classes.
Only a small number of University students were particularly radical, but an incident like this was bound to touch others, those not interested in protesting Vietnam but moved by the tragedy. Students and faculty alike felt that something needed to be done to recognize the incident. A memorial was set for the evening of May 6, planned by Cheryl Knowles and Carol Self of the Tuscaloosa Women’s Movement.
The memorial was a simple, peaceful affair, but when the smoke cleared the next morning — literal smoke, from a purported arson — about 150 law enforcement officers were on the campus.
View the map below to see descriptions and images of the events of May 6-7.
Campus was now in a catch-22: the presence of law enforcement seemed warranted, as it had at Kent State — but there was also warranted fear that the University of Alabama could turn into another Kent State. Thankfully, it did not, but things were by no means peaceful.This was just the beginning.
“Ohio,” performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and written by Neil Young, was recorded on May 21, 1970 and released as a single in June
- Earl H. Tilford, “May 1970: Days of Rage and Reason,” Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2014, pgs 190-208.
- Pete Cobun, “Campus Under Police Siege; Flames Gut Dressler Gym,” Crimson-White, May 7, 1970, pg 1, 2.
- “Peace and Remember Kent State” [editorial], Crimson-White, May 7, 1970, pg 1.
- Paul Davis, “College Situation a Sad One — And Frightening,” Tuscaloosa News, May 10, 1970, pg 1, 2.