Updated: Jul 14, 2021
By Bill Woods
May 4th is remembered by many older Ohioans as a day in1970 when a tragedy at Kent
State University shook the nation and garnered feature stories in The New York Times and Time Magazine. Four student protesters were shot and killed that day by members of the Ohio National Guard. Campus protests opposing the Nixon Administration's invasion of Cambodia a few days earlier had sprung up across the country, and Ohio's Governor Jim Rhodes had called out the National Guard to keep the peace on state university campuses such as Kent State. This set the stage for a showdown that ended with four unnecessary deaths.
As can be imagined, this tragic event at Kent State produced shock, anger, and even wider protests at Ohio's colleges and universities. At that moment in time, I was an assistant professor of history and government at Wilmington a College, a Quaker affiliated school one hour north of Cincinnati. Since most of Wilmington's students and faculty were already opposed to the Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia sparked a desire to protest. News about Kent State, however, brought students' feelings to a boiling point.
Several astute administrators and faculty members realized that unless the college took some action, this student energy and anger could get ugly. An evening meeting was organized where students, faculty, and administrators worked together to plan a response to the May 4th tragedy. I remember attending this planning session and how relieved I was that attendees at this hectic and intense event came up with an action plan that was so in keeping with this Quaker institution. Since a protest rally was already scheduled to take place in Columbus later that week, the plan put together at our ad hoc session called for staging a march by students and faculty that would end up at the State House rally.
With classes called off for the rest of the week, my wife and I decided to march with the group. Determining that the marchers needed to look like a diverse collection of people and not just a group of longhaired hippies, I put on a coat and tie for this trek. I also made the mistake of wearing business shoes instead of sneakers, which proved to be very uncomfortable for a daylong walk.
About one hundred and fifty of us marched off to Columbus that first day. I remember the weather was warm and sunny, and we traveled along rural highways dotted with farms. More than once, I thought to myself - "What on earth am I doing with this rag-tag group, and are we really accomplishing anything?"
The spirits of the group were high, but many of us felt some anxiety about the responses a band of young protesters would receive while marching through rural Ohio. Polarized views about the Vietnam War existed at that time, and certainly many people, who President Nixon referred to as "the silent majority," looked on college students, academicians, and ant-War protesters as "the enemy." Just as we marchers viewed our involvement in Vietnam as morally wrong and having detrimental impacts on the country, others saw us as traitors aiding Communism in the Cold War struggle.
Fortunately, we encountered no hostile encounters during this long hike. By the end of the day one, we reached our overnight destination. Arrangements had been made by the college saying that we could camp in an empty field located outside of Washington Court House. We enjoyed a cookout before settling down for the night. I remember experiencing a sleepless night trying to get comfortable bedding down on the grass of our makeshift, outdoor accommodations.
On the third morning of this trek, the Wilmington College marchers reached Columbus to join forces with the many other university delegations participating in the State House rally in response to Kent State. (I had escaped for a night's sleep at home before rejoining the group.) After a final walk through downtown Columbus, we found ourselves scrambling to find a place in the assembling crowd of protesters. An estimated 100,000 people attended this event.
The actual rally is rather a blur in my mind. I remember being awed by the size of the crowd, and I also worried about how a few troublemakers could easily cause a riot. A number of speeches were given depicting the tragic deaths at Kent State, and how activists must continue to protest the War in honor of the four who lost their lives while protesting the invasion of Cambodia.
One speech did leave a lasting impression on me. A speaker representing an all Black university in the south declared that it was only fitting that such a large group had come together to mourn the four slain students. He then pointed out that the similar shooting deaths of several African-American students had received no such public outcry. Once the speeches concluded and the rally ended, we all departed for our respective campuses. It should be noted that the Wilmington College marchers did not walk home.
There is no neat ending to this story of the tragedy at Kent State. The Vietnam War continued and the protests continued. Popular discontent did mount to a point in1972 when a strong anti- War candidate, Senator George McGovern, managed to win the Democratic Party's Presidential nomination to run against Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, won a landslide reelection, carrying every state but Massachusetts, and the War dragged on for another year and a half.
One footnote concerning the Wilmington students and faculty should be noted. That summer after Kent State, I joined two other faculty members who took a class of students for a ten-day study program in Washington, D.C. In an effort to be conciliatory after receiving so much negative press about the Cambodian invasion and its aftermath, the Nixon Administration felt a need to reach out to college students. Our request for an interview with someone from the White House team was surprisingly accepted, and we found ourselves attending an hour-long session with John Ehrlichman, one of the President's right hand men. In a sense then, we had our chance to speak truth to power. I can't conclude we were very successful!