Kent State killings sparked 1970s activism

Branden Peterson

AMary Stegmeir Although antiwar activism has dimmed on campus in recent weeks, history has proven one event can quickly rally shouts and demands from the University community and change the daily lives of everyone on campus.

After four Kent State University students were killed by national guardsmen May 4, 1970, activism at the University reached a fevered pitch.

Hoisting signs proclaiming “U of M on strike,” University students and faculty sought to shut down the campus.

“This wasn’t a time where you saw people waving the American flag,” University history professor Hy Berman said.

He said the protests, like many during the Vietnam war, were marked by a high level of emotion.

“(The campus) was sharply divided,” he said. “There were students that were deeply concerned and there were students that were deeply angry about the killing of students.”

As news spread of the deaths, many students and faculty felt coursework could no longer take priority over political activism. They needed to send a message.

The message came in the form of a strike, and 5,000 University community members participated. The group’s demands included the complete removal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia, a statement from the University Senate endorsing the strike, and another decree condemning U.S. action in Vietnam.

Now, more than 30 years after the historic level of campus activism, Nathan Mittelstaedt, a Students Against War member, said student protesters view the Vietnam antiwar movement as an inspiration.

“Looking back at the legacy of Vietnam (antiwar protests) can show people that they can take a stand and make a difference,” he said.

Today’s peace movement, he said, must emerge from the shadow of the 1960s and 1970s protests to reach its full potential.

“We have to find our own voice,” Mittelstaedt said.

“One of the big turnoffs to kids is a stereotype of what a protester is and what a protester does. (The movement) has suffered from the benign, lackadaisical, hippie image that isn’t as appealing to kids right now as it was in the 60s.”

“We’ve already seen protests at a national level that are approaching the largest ones during Vietnam,” he said.

A campus divided

At a university level, Vietnam-era protests crippled the campus.

Despite growing numbers of striking students after the Kent State shootings, it was the job of University President Malcolm Moos to keep the institution running.

The day after the Kent State shootings, protesters captured Morrill Hall, the University administration building, and demanded that Moos address the University.

He obliged, inviting students to voice their opinions but to remain peaceful.

Moos suggested setting aside one day per week for students to reflect on events at home and abroad. The policy was not mandatory, and some faculty followed Moos’ “Peace Friday” decree, while others chose to hold class.

Emotions ranging from anger to sadness ran high that week when students and professors participated in teach-ins discussing U.S. foreign policy, mass picketing and large, vocal gatherings.

The future of activism

Mittlestaedt said the protesters who took to the streets in response to the violence at Kent State University in 1970 were operating in a completely different protest environment.

Changes in modern warfare have transformed the timetable in which protesters operate, he said.

“The Vietnam movement had a lot of time to mature,” Mittlestaedt said. “There is a real sense of urgency in what we’re doing right now in the antiwar movement.”

The Vietnam war, which lasted from 1961-75, gave protesters the luxury of time when organizing marches, rallies and strikes, Mittlestaedt said.

Recent international conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo did not allow protesters as much time to develop a protest plan or gain wide acceptance.

However, technological advances such as the Internet have made protests easier to organize, Mittlestaedt said.

“The Internet has helped coordinate large amounts of people in very short amounts of time,” he said.

Mittlestaedt added he also believes today’s student protesters will leave their own mark on the history of student protests.

“I think we have been able to strengthen antiwar messages,” he said.

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul

campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]