IT took half a century to transform Kent State from an obscure teachers college into the second largest university in Ohio, with 21,000 students and an impressive array of modern buildings on its main campus. But it took less than ten terrifying seconds last week to convert the traditionally conformist campus into a bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia. When National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing four students, the bullets wounded the nation.
Paradoxically, the turn toward violence at Kent State was not inspired by the war or politics. The first rocks thrown in anger were hurled through the muggy Friday night of May 1 by beery students who could not resist the urge to dance on a Kent street. Hundreds of students were drinking at the bull-and-beer spots that flourish in most college towns. Spirits were light. A crowd swarmed into the warm night, blocking busy North Water Street, responding to the rock beat.
"Get Out" One irate motorist gunned his car's engine as if to drive through the dancers. Some students climbed atop the car, jumped on it, then led a chant: "One-two-three-four, we don't want your war!" A drunk on a balcony hurled a bottle into the streetand suddenly the mood turned ugly. Students smashed the car's windows, set fires in trash cans, began to bash storefronts. Police were called. Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom had ordered a curfew, but few students were aware of it. Police stormed into bars after midnight, turning up the lights, shouting "Get out!" Some 2,000 more students, many of whom had been watching the Knicks-Lakers basketball game on TV, were forced into the street. Police and sheriff's deputies pushed the youths back toward the campus, then fired tear gas to disperse them.
Saturday began quietly. Black student leaders, who had been demanding the admission next year of 5,000 more blacks to Kent State (it now has about 600), and leaders of the mounting antiwar sentiment on campus talked of joining forces. They got administrative approval to hold a rally that evening on the ten-acre Commons at the center of the campus. There, despite the presence of faculty members and student marshals, militant war protesters managed to take complete charge of a crowd of about 800, many still smarting from the conflict of the night before. They disrupted a dance in one university hall, then attacked the one-story Army ROTC building facing the Commons. They smashed windows and threw lighted railroad flares inside. The building caught fire. When firemen arrived, students threw rocks at them and cut their hoses with machetes until police interceded with tear gas. Without bothering to consult Kent State authorities, Mayor Satrom -asked for help from the National Guard. Governor James Rhodes, still engaged in his toughand ultimately unsuccessfulcampaign for the Senate nomination, quickly ordered Guardsmen transferred from points of tension in a Teamster strike elsewhere in Ohio.