Echoes of Kent State still felt in Columbia 44 years later

Sunday, May 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:09 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 5, 2014
Anti-war demonstrators gathered on the Francis Quadrangle at MU on May 11, 1970. A week earlier, four people were killed during a war protest at Kent State University in Ohio.

COLUMBIA — On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War with the invasion of Cambodia, sparking anti-war demonstrations on college campuses across the country.

The most infamous of those was the May 4 protest at Kent State University in Ohio, where National Guard members fired on demonstrating students, killing four and wounding 11.

In days before the shootings, students at Kent State threw rocks through windows and burned the campus ROTC building to the ground. With a state of emergency in effect, tensions were running high at Kent State and at other colleges.

Paul Wallace, an MU professor who helped organized war protests, said Kent State marked an important point in American history.

"Kent State was a turning point for the U.S. in ending the Vietnam War," Wallace said.

When Wallace joined the MU faculty in 1964, he almost immediately became involved in campus protests.

"I was approached by the more progressive members of the faculty," Wallace said. "If there was a social movement, they were involved."

War protests at MU had been going on for some time before violence broke out at Kent State. The Committee of Concerned Students would hold teach-ins where speakers would talk to groups of students, educating them about the context of war and explore ideas on how to end the war. Wallace also stressed that the protests at MU were always a nonviolent effort.

Curtis Edwards, a sociology doctoral student at MU specializing in social movements, said the protests were more radical on the coasts than at MU.

"It seems to me that students were more active, in terms of violence and taking more radical steps, than was the case here in the Midwest," Edwards said.

Soon after the deaths at Kent State, students at MU began what would be a week's worth of protests beginning May 6 and lasting through May 13.

Wallace said Kent State hit a lot closer to home than many other anti-war demonstrations of the time.

"This wasn't Berkeley," he said. "It was right next door."

Wallace said the demonstrations were best described as agitated and feverish.

Bill Wickersham, an assistant professor in recreation and park administration at the time, said the underlying reason for the student reaction to Kent State was the number of professors and students across the country who opposed the Vietnam War and military draft.

"The fact that fellow students were killed while protesting was one of the underlying factors of the protest movement here," Wickersham said.

The week of protests at MU was sparked on the evening of May 4 when someone spray-painted "KENT STATE" across the the bottom of two of the historic Columns on Francis Quadrangle.

On May 6, nearly 2,000 students gathered on Rollins Field, since renamed Stankowski Field, to listen to speakers and demonstrate against both the invasion of Cambodia and the deaths of student protesters at Kent State.

Things got heated that evening as students burned an effigy of Nixon and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the ROTC Building. A car was also driven through the crowd, striking one student.

The protests continued for days across campus, with students skipping classes and some professors canceling classes to allow students to demonstrate. Locations included the campus residence of Chancellor John Schwada, Memorial Student Union, Schwada's Office in Jesse Hall and Francis Quadrangle. Speakers included visiting TV newsman Harry Reasoner and professors from the university.

The protesters had a list of demands for the university administration that included urging Nixon to withdraw from southeast Asia, abolishing credit for ROTC, avoiding disciplinary action against faculty supporting the protests, and offering amnesty for participating students.

During the May 11 demonstration on Francis Quadrangle, Wickersham was taken into custody for disturbing an educational assembly after using a bullhorn to address the crowd.

Wickersham got the chancellor's attention when he was released later that day, saying the demonstration would be defused in exchange for a negotiation of the protesters' demands.

Demonstrations on campus ended May 13 when Wickersham and the MU Faculty Council reached an agreement on the protesters' demands, according to an article in the Missourian. The joint statement, which protesters approved, included the creation of a subcommittee that the university would consult before disciplinary action was taken against students participating in the demonstrations, along with addressing how professors could deal with students who missed classes for the protests and whether it would have an effect on their grades.

Professors who canceled classes to let students participate in the demonstrations were later sanctioned by the UM System Board of Curators with reduced salary for the days they canceled classes. Wickersham, who had been fired by MU, and the seven other professors whose pay was suspended filed a complaint with the American Association of University Professors.

Significant violence was avoided at MU, but the same could not be said for protests elsewhere. At the University of Kansas, the ROTC building was burned to the ground following a protest. At Jackson State in Mississippi, two student protesters were killed.

Edwards and Wallace both think the protests remain relevant today but in a different context.

Edwards said the tactics for subsequent protests have remained largely the same, even as recent as the occupy movement, but the social climate and issues have changed.

"It's not really anti-war anymore, but more like student loans or affordable housing," Edwards said.

Wallace saw echoes of the nonviolent protests serving as a sort of template for what became the anti-apartheid movement on campus in the 1980s. The movement involved a shanty town on Francis Quadrangle for several weeks as pressure mounted for the university to divest its holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. The UM Board of Curators in 1987 decided to divest its stock holdings in the nation.

Wickersham sees the legacy of the protests in the creation of the MU Peace Studies Program. What had started out as an Honors College class, Peace and World Order, that was taught by Wickersham and Donald Granberg became something bigger.

"When I was fired, Granberg picked up right where we left off and put together a curriculum," Wickersham said.

On May 5, 1971, a year after the demonstrations across the country, MU students held a dedication ceremony to rename McAlester Park on the north edge of the campus to Peace Park to commemorate those who died in protests at other campuses.

A peace symbol made of stones was placed along with a plaque bearing the names of those killed at Kent State, and later those in Jackson State, as a memorial. Though the plaque is faded and some bushes have grown into the peace sign, the memorial remains in Peace Park as a reminder of what happened 44 years ago.

Some of the historical details about the MU demonstrations in 1970 were drawn from Missourian archives.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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