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May 6, 2011

May 4, 1970: The Kent State Shootings Happened

On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed student protesters at Kent State, killing four and seriously injuring nine others. The horrific massacre is regarded as a historic moment of public unrest during the Vietnam War.

Ohio National Guardsmen clash with students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

The tragedy set off a nationwide student strike participated by no fewer than eight million students that shut down hundreds of colleges and universities and came to symbolize the sharp political and social divisions of the age.

Among the most potent images to emerge from the incident is this photo of 14-year-old runaway from Florida Mary Vecchio wailing over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of the slain students. Snapped by John Filo, an undergraduate photojournalism major, the shot appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the country and won a Pulitzer Prize.

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, taken by Kent State photojournalism student John Filo, Mary Ann Vecchio can be seen screaming as she kneels by the body of a slain student.

At the time John Filo was in the University student photography lab when the shots rang out. He quickly ran outside and below recalls what happened:
The bullets were supposed to be blanks. When I put the camera back to my eye, I noticed a particular guardsman pointing at me. I said, “I’ll get a picture of this,” and his rifle went off. And almost simultaneously, as his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree.

I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition. I don’t know what gave me the combination of innocence and stupidity... I started to flee--run down the hill and stopped myself. “Where are you going?” I said to myself, “This is why you are here!”

And I started to take pictures again. ... I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob. And it culminated in her saying an exclamation. I can't remember what she said exactly … something like, “Oh, my God!”
To take the picture John used a Nikkormat camera with Tri-X film and most of the exposures were 1/500 between 5.6 and f 8 depending on whether the sun was behind a cloud or not.

On Friday, May 1, 1970, students at Kent State stage a protest on campus, the first in a series of protests.

A night of violence in downtown Kent is followed by a student march to the campus ROTC building the next day. Some students try to burn the building down. While the protesters claim they left the building intact and in the hands of campus police when they returned to their dorms, the building is destroyed. It is still not clear who burned it down.

The burning of the ROTC building brings the Ohio National Guard to the campus. Some students described their presence as "frightening," and called it a military takeover. Others said the guardsmen were congenial and chatted with the students, with no sense or feeling that violence would soon overtake the grounds.

The Ohio National Guard is called in to disperse a rally scheduled for at noon on May 4, 1970. Shortly after the protest began, guardsmen fired tear gas at the students. Some students said they were surprised the guardsmen followed them as they ran away from the tear gas. The guardsmen were clearly armed, but many students later said they believed their weapons were not loaded with actual ammunition.

A student throws a tear gas canister back at National Guardsmen. After several standoffs, the troops headed back up a hill in the direction of the ROTC building. As they reached the top, they turned toward the demonstrators and opened fire.

Wounded Kent State student John Cleary is attended to by other students, who helped save his life, May 4, 1970.

The Ohio National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons on May 4, 1970.

Guardsmen surround the charred remains of the Army ROTC building, May 4, 1970.

Students run for cover after the National Guard opens fire. Twenty-eight guardsmen fired into the crowd for 13 seconds, wounding nine students and killing 4.

Guardsmen patrol the empty Kent State University campus on May 6, 1970. The school was immediately closed and a strike involving more than 4 million students nationwide followed.


  1. WOW. I'd never heard of this...pretty scary stuff!





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