116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s been a half century plus one year since four students protesting the Vietnam War were shot and killed at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, on May 4, 1970 — deaths that inflamed protests and riots across the country, including in Iowa.
The Vietnam War appeared to be winding down in accordance with President Richard Nixon’s campaign promise to end the conflict. But then, on April 30, Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
Protests erupted across the nation May 1. At Kent State, the Ohio National Guard was called in to stem violent confrontations. The soldiers arrived in time to see the ROTC building ablaze.
A May 4 rally on the campus Commons attracted more than 3,000 people. Guard Gen. Robert Canterbury ordered the demonstrators to disperse. His order was ignored.
Canterbury ordered tear gas fired into the crowd, and the Guardsmen began marching through the Commons to break up the rally. At the top of a hill, some of the Guardsmen turned and fired, most firing into the air or the ground, but some firing into the crowd.
Four students were killed and nine were wounded.
At the University of Iowa, about 400 protesters, angered by Nixon’s announcement, marched into an ROTC awards ceremony at the recreation building. Armed with sticks and throwing eggs, they tore off a door and broke in, disrupting the event.
The campus returned to calm until the May 4 Kent State shootings. Firecrackers were set off in the Quadrangle after 11 p.m. A crowd of up to 700 began to march to the armory, where windows were broken and park benches were used as battering rams to try to break down the doors.
Dispersed by police, students moved to the Iowa City Civic Center two blocks away where some began throwing rocks and eggs. Other protesters headed for Old Capitol, but police got there first, so the protesters headed downtown, where windows were broken in about 13 businesses.
‘Believed in you’
Out of the almost 19,000 Iowa students, an estimated 3,000 were active protesters. “Of those involved in the demonstrations, 250 to 300 were described as ‘militant’ and 30 to 50 as actually destructive,” The Gazette reported.
The demonstrations over the next few days resulted in University President Willard Boyd saying he would use emergency power to suspend any student violating school conduct rules.
By Sunday, May 10, Boyd was contemplating a Student Senate request to close the university for the rest of the semester. This request followed two fires on campus, one destroying the Old Armory Temporary and the other damaging a restroom in East Hall.
Boyd made a surprise appearance at an evening student rally and said he could not close the university or end ROTC programs, but told students he “believed” in them.
He gave students the option of taking a “pass” grade, assuming they were passing their classes on May 3, and leaving campus. More than 11,000 of them did just that.
At Coe College, a peace vigil involving about 100 students began May 6 in front of the Linn County Selective Service office in the Guaranty Bank Building. About 48 hours later, the demonstrators packed up their belongings and walked back to the campus, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
By mid-May Iowa colleges such as Luther and Cornell were making plans for student information centers, workshops on the Indochina war and issuing policies denying military recruiters access to campus until the U.S. withdrew from Southeast Asia.
A year later
The memory Kent State was still raw a year later when anti-war protesters organized a May 5 convocation and march on the Pentacrest in memory of the Kent State students.
The march erupted into a melee when a service truck driver tried to force his vehicle through the crowd, hitting three protesters. Suddenly, rocks were flying through the air, hitting cars and buildings.
While student monitors linked arms to protect buildings from rock throwers, police and state deputies arrived by busloads and began arresting people.
The evening’s rioting was witnessed by Gazette reporter Ford Clark, who was arrested by a highway patrolman but released after being recognized by a Johnson County deputy. A part-time reporter for the Press-Citizen, Tom Walsh, who later became a Gazette reporter, also was arrested, along with other student journalists.
By 1 a.m., the Iowa City downtown was empty, according to Clark.
On May 7, the Iowa City Civic Center was damaged by a bomb. Student leaders reacted by ordering protesters to remain on campus.
“It’s time to cool it,” one person said. “This bombing has got the city so uptight that civil protest on city property would really be asking for it. We’re better off to stay on our own turf.”
In Cedar Rapids, about 125 protesters — identified as Cedar Rapids high school and college students — gathered at Coe College and Greene Square before a May 5, 1971, march to the federal building in a peaceful protest.