Remembering Kent State

Posted on April 27, 2023


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The news of the United States’ incursion into Cambodia on April 30, 1970 came as a shock to many people as the Nixon administration had been withdrawing troops from Vietnam. 

May 4th crosses cwru

By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.

Although planned as a temporary strategic move, it seemed to be an escalation of the ongoing war in Vietnam and it prompted protests throughout the United States, most particularly on college campuses.

Case Western Reserve University was no exception. Although not viewed as a very radical campus, some CWRU students had actively previously protested the university’s association with industries that produced goods for the war during the late 1960s. The incursion into Cambodia prompted one of the largest student gatherings on the CWRU campus – as it did at other colleges and universities across the nation.

Vietnam protest may 4 1970

Vietnam protest May 4 1970, courtesy of CWRU

The memory of that May 4th Monday afternoon remains somewhat fresh for this writer. The meeting took place on the Case quadrangle. Students were certainly aware of other protests, most particularly, the one at Kent State, which had resulted the burning of the ROTC building and the call-up of National Guard units over the weekend. At CWRU students gathered peacefully on the Case quadrangle, sitting on the grass and listening to a variety of speakers. It began, in a sense, as a “normal” anti-war event, but then the news arrived about the shootings at Kent State. As I recall, hats were passed through the crowd and students donated money to help those hurt and wounded at Kent. At some point the crowd learned that students had been killed. That changed everything.

The crowd left the Case quadrangle and gathered at the intersection of Adelbert Road and Euclid, where a number of students moved onto the street, sat down, blocked rush-hour traffic, and continued the protest. That action prompted a call to the Cleveland Police Department. When the police arrived they told the students to move off the street. CWRU staff also spoke with the students and tried to defuse an increasingly tense situation. Yet, they refused to move and that eventually prompted the police mounted unit into action The mounted police cleared the street and chased the students – both those on the street, and those on the “sidelines” eastward down Euclid Avenue.

That, in one sense, ended the occupation of the street, but not the protest. It would continue with calls for a student strike, and sit-ins in university buildings during the coming days. The administration of CWRU worked with the students to calm the situation and, importantly, to keep the school open. A strike was avoided and the semester would continue, albeit with various options for final examinations.

Today there is, in a perhaps somewhat inadvertent way, a “monument” that reflects on that day. After the protest the students of Case Western Reserve University participated in peaceful memorials for the Kent State students who were killed and wounded. One was a small memorial consisting of a set of four crosses mounted on the lawn on the north side of Euclid, just east of Severance Hall. Those crosses are gone, but ironically (and, perhaps intentionally) there is something else near that site that prompts a memory of that day. It is one of the utility boxes that have been decorated with artwork created by students at the Cleveland Institute of Art. This box depicts a white-bearded older man playing a guitar and a young woman with long brown hair sitting on a porch. It is a depiction of Hessler Road, long the center of activism on campus – it is, I feel, a most appropriate image for the site.

Hessler Utility box, courtesy of John Grabowski

Hessler Utility box, courtesy of John Grabowski

Western Reserve Historical Society is the oldest cultural institution in Northeast Ohio, the region's largest American history research center, and one of the leading genealogical research centers in the nation.

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