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May 1970: Two weeks when an anti-war uprising changed history

By Wyatt Miller |
May 3, 2020
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Minneapolis, MN - On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon, elected on promises to end the war in Vietnam, instead announced U.S. ground troops would invade neighboring Cambodia to prevent another Tet Offensive.

In a televised speech, Nixon seemed to acknowledge there would be mass opposition. He pronounced, “It is tempting to take the easy political path, to blame this war on previous administrations, and to bring all of our men home immediately - regardless of the consequences, even though that would mean defeat for the United States.” Within hours, the U.S. anti-war movement, enraged, was demanding exactly that: the defeat of U.S. imperialism and victory to the people it targeted.

What followed was an unprecedented, though largely forgotten, revolutionary moment in U.S. history. Over two weeks, millions of people walked out of classrooms, blocked highways, and in dozens of cities set fire to military recruitment centers. Panicking officials deployed National Guard soldiers to college campuses across the country, leading to the events for which the period is most remembered: the shootings of student protesters at the universities of Kent State in Ohio and Mississippi’s Jackson State.

The rapidly deteriorating situation forced Nixon to backpedal. U.S. troops mostly withdrew from Cambodia within 90 days without achieving their main objective. Within U.S. borders, the violent repression of the movement of May 1970 triggered a struggle over the legacy of the movement and the war itself.

Kent State shootings

By May 2, protesters had set fire to the ROTC office at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. At the behest of university and local officials, Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes ordered the National Guard onto campus, declaring on television, “I think that we're up against the strongest well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”

On May 4, with tear gas failing to quash large daily demonstrations, the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of protesters with live ammunition, killing four students: Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William Knox Schroeder and Sandra Lee Scheurer. Nine more were injured, with one paralyzed permanently. The dead were all aged 19 or 20 years old.

The National Guard retreated from campus. But the shootings quickly sent a shockwave through the country.

Following Kent State’s lead, repression expanded nationwide in the following days. Police wounded a dozen protesters at the State University of New York at Buffalo with shotgun fire. National Guard troops attached bayonets to their rifles before charging demonstrators in both Albuquerque, New Mexico and Carbondale, Illinois. In Madison, Wisconsin, guardsmen indiscriminately fired tear gas into student housing blocks.

“It was a full-scale uprising against the war,” says Fight Back! editor Mick Kelly, whose participation in the May 1970 movement as a youth started him on the revolutionary path. He explains it wasn’t only students walking out: thousands of faculty effectively went on strike. Many universities closed for the remainder of the year. On May 8, 100,000 protesters descended on Washington, D.C., at one point forcing Nixon to flee to Camp David, with the 82nd Airborne Division reportedly prepared to deploy in the city. In the streets of New York, huge groups of anti-war demonstrators brawled with mobs of bootlicking pro-war strikebreakers.

The movement weakened the U.S. war effort itself. Thousands of drafted soldiers deserted. Many more began to engage in sabotage and covert disobedience, a trend which would continue through the remaining years of the war.

Black liberation alongside anti-imperialism

Previously, the state had reserved deadly force for repressing uprisings in the Black community - repression which many connected to the plight of the Vietnamese.

“There’s a misunderstanding about the character of the core of the anti-war movement. People weren’t pacifists or ‘Let’s get out of Vietnam’ types,” explains Kelly. “You weren’t chanting, ‘Peace now’, you were chanting ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is sure to win.’” The NLF was the National Liberation Front - the so-called ‘Viet Cong.’

“It was a near revolutionary period,” he says. “You had a powerful Black liberation movement in the streets, everywhere. There’d be people selling the Black Panther Party newspaper. The movement clearly understood that to eliminate war, American imperialism had to be eliminated. It was real solidarity with Vietnam.”

The campus protesters and the Black liberation movement converged in Augusta, Georgia, where police recently had murdered Black teenager Charles Oatman. On May 11, thousands of Black residents rose up. Police responded with shoot-to-kill orders, murdering Charlie Mack Murphy, age 39; William Wright, Jr, 18; Sammy McCullough, 20; John Stokes, 19; John Bennett, 28; and Mack Wilson, 45. At least another 60 were wounded.

Just days later, on the night of May 14, another massacre took place, this time at Jackson State University, a historically Black institution in Jackson, Mississippi. Student protesters blocking roads in the city were attacked by dozens of state troopers, who then advanced upon a dormitory. The officers opened fire for nearly a full minute. Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, age 21 and James Earl Green, 17, were killed; 12 others were wounded.

Struggle over the memory

“Almost immediately after the events, there were those of us in the anti-war movement who raised the slogan, ‘Avenge Kent State and Jackson State,’” Kelly recounts.

Colt Hutchinson is a current student at Kent State University, where his Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter has been organizing around the 50th anniversary of the shootings.

“The university issued a ‘letter of regret.’ It was a very formal letter. But they never admitted that they were the cause of it,” he tells Fight Back!.

Hutchinson explains that the Kent State administration hosted watered-down commemorations on the anniversaries of the shootings. Then, in 1975, the university decided five years was enough. It fell on the students to form a May 4 commemoration task force.

The next year, Kent State decided to erase any physical trace of the shootings from the university. Administrators moved forward with plans to build a gymnasium on the commons where the Guardsmen had opened fire.

A May 4th Coalition led a national convergence on the Kent State campus to fight to preserve the memory of the killings. “It was a major battle, and it was an important battle, because it represented an attempt - by us and by the enemy - to sum up the war and the whole period,” explains Kelly, who was active in one of the groups that led the fight, the Revolutionary Student Brigades. “It involved an attempt by the university administration and the government to basically sweep Vietnam and the subsequent uprising under the rug.”

Once again Kent State became a protest battlefield, complete with National Guard deployment and tear gas. “The gym ultimately was built,” Kelly recalls. “But the memory of Kent State and Jackson State was kept alive.”

Kim DeFranco is a Class of 1988 graduate of Kent State. She recounts a similar attitude from the university at that time.

“The administration hated the attention the shootings brought upon the university. After the shootings and as time passed, little by little they put more focus on becoming a business university rather than a ‘liberal’ one.” she explains.

When the university announced that a memorial for the Vietnam War would omit the four slain on campus in 1970, the student task force mobilized. This culminated in a 1990 conference organized by DeFranco’s group, Progressive Student Network, for the 20th anniversary of May 4. Its theme was “Learning from the Past, Building for the Future.” Black Panther Party members and former SDSers spoke at the event.

“It was important because it also highlighted the killings at Jackson State ten days after Kent State. This was a time when that tragedy was mostly ignored by the media and society, because it happened at a predominantly Black college in the South,” she says.

Thirty years later, Kent State students like Hutchinson were prepared to lead the 50th anniversary this year. But after 45 years of near silence, the university administration suddenly announced that it planned to take over the proceedings.

Hutchinson says students were shocked when they saw the administration’s official commemoration program. “It didn’t represent the student’s interests. It didn’t reflect the radical history of Kent State activism,” he says. “So we’ve initiated a campaign to demand the university give May 4th back to the students.”

What do the students demand? Hutchinson explains: “The university was involved in war research. The ROTC program was producing second lieutenants for Vietnam. The university is still doing that. ROTC is still on campus. We still have the Liquid Crystal Institute, which takes in millions in Department of Defense funding. If they actually wanted to commemorate the death of these four students, they could radically change the university. But that’s not what they’re interested in.”

Turning the tide of history

Along with the Chicano Moratorium protests that August, the events of May 1970 were the nail in the coffin for Nixon’s political efforts to continue the war. The U.S embassy was evacuated exactly five years after Nixon announced the war’s escalation. He failed to avoid the defeat he had feared. The U.S. occupation was routed, humiliated.

“The events of 1970 will in a sense live forever as a profoundly inspiring moment in American history. It was a period when millions stood up, indeed rose up, against an imperialist war on Vietnam and oppressed people everywhere. Doing so helped to turn the tide of history,” Kelly concludes. “The combined power of those two movements got the Americans out of Vietnam. Principally it was the Vietnamese, but they maintain that what was happening here helped. It was amazingly successful.”

He says it can teach the movement nowadays a lesson: “The anti-war movement needs anti-imperialists. It needs people who are opposed to the system of empire and can identify with others who are oppressed by it - and support them politically.”

Kent State SDS is holding an online forum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1970. It will be streamable on the group’s Facebook page on May 3, from 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

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