May 4, 1970 -- 42 years ago today -- was the day protesting the war in Vietnam became serious.
On April 30, 1970 President Nixon had announced an invasion of Cambodia, seeking to destroy North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front operations in the border area. Protests spontaneously broke out at universities all over the country.
On May 4, National Guardsmen fired on a group of protesting students at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine. Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer became casualties of the war. A presidential commission later concluded that the shooting was "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
The shooting led to even more massive demonstrations. On May 8, A hundred-thousand protesters gathered in Washington and another 150,000 in San Francisco. Protests continued on campuses across the country: ROTC buildings went up in flames or were bombed, clashes occurred between students and police, and National Guard units were mobilized. A student strike of walkouts and protests spread nationwide, ultimately including more than four million students at 450 universities, colleges and high schools. Ten days after Kent State, police fired on students at Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi, killing two students (Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green), and injuring 12.
Demonstrating students are often shot in other countries, but not in the U.S. While African-American demonstrators in the civil rights movement had frequently faced death or serious injury, protesting the war seemed easy and cost-free to many white college students. On May 4, the war came home. I remember the day well -- I was a first-year college student active in the anti-draft and antiwar movement. The news from Ohio was shocking and sobering, a realization that protesting government policy could be costly.
Kent State was a turning point for the movement. Some became frightened and disillusioned, others became more extremist and violent -- the first communiqué, "A Declaration of a State of War," was released by the Weather Underground several weeks later. But for those of us whose anti-war work was deeply grounded in nonviolence, it was a time for serious reflection and re-commitment. Following Jesus' way of peacemaking isn’t always easy, there might be a cost. It's a lesson I still carry with me more than four decades later.
Several weeks after the shooting, Neil Young wrote Ohio, immediately recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. It still brings back memories of that day.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners. Follow Duane on Twitter @DShankDC.