The social history that made Kent State what it is today


Students come together to protest against the new credit hour fee outside the library on April 12. Photo by Nancy Urchak.

Rachel Jones

Editor’s note: The May 4, 1970 information incorrectly listed 200 protestors at the Commons. There was 2,000-3,000 at the Taylor Hall Hill. The $440-per-credit-hour fee was incorrectly reported as issued April 4. It was issued March 14. The errors occurred in the reporting process.

Standing in front of dozens of Kent community members in the Unitarian Universalist Church Oct. 19, Karch Marhofer described his reasons to hold an Occupy Kent State movement downtown.

As he started to reveal his plan to line the sidewalks with tents and peacefully offer solutions to make positive changes in the community, Marhofer stops himself.

“I know when you say ‘protest at Kent State,’ it’s different than protest at any other place,’” the senior general studies major said.

The crowd politely nods, knowing the history of social protests and grassroots movements attached to the university.

A Legacy of Dissent

Stephen Paschen, the university archivist at Kent State, said he has had questions about either May 4 or other protests at Kent State almost every day during his six years of working there.

“Dissent and protest never go away,” Paschen said.

The reading room in the 12th floor of the University Library is packed with archives reflecting the social history at Kent State.

Paschen said one of the best sources is A Legacy of Dissent: The Culture and Politics of Protest at Kent State University 1958-1964.

It was written by Thomas Grace in 2003 as a dissertation for the University of New York in Buffalo. Grace was one of the people wounded during the May 4 shooting, taking a bullet to the ankle.

“He has a Ph.D. in history, so it’s interesting he ended up being a part of history,” Paschen said. “He didn’t choose it. It just happened.”

Grace’s dissertation explored all of the protests and grassroots demonstrations leading up to the May 4 shooting.

According to Grace, the first student rally on campus was in 1925, just 13 years after the school was established.

John McGilvrey, the president at the time, recognized the movement toward industrialization in the U.S. and wanted to help students out with academic quarters (not semesters), no fees and pass/fail grading.

When the rural community disapproved, David L. Rockwell urged the Board of Trustees to end McGilvrey’s presidency. The student body rallied, signing petitions against Rockwell.

Ties to the town

Grace also noted how the political atmosphere in the town of Kent affected the social movements.

Looking back on his Occupy Kent State demonstration held Oct. 27 and 28, Marhofer said the public was actually positive.

“Not only was it a positive reaction, there were actual comments made about the nature of our demonstration,” he said. “They said they were expecting something a little different, but after seeing how we put everything together, they actually appreciated this point of view.”

The community was not always as supportive of students, as Grace noted.

On May 3, 1970, students held a sit-in on East Main and Lincoln Streets to protest the Ohio National Guardsmen’s presence on campus, which the townspeople did not like.

Protesting today

Most recently, Kent State students have been protesting the $440-per-credit-hour fee issued March 14.

While Marhofer did not participate himself, he did look into the demonstration.

Like the other protests held at Kent State, this one has strong political ties.

“I’ve seen [President] Lester Lefton taking a lot of heat from the signs and the messages that were being put out there, but it’s a much deeper problem than that,” Marhofer said. “It’s a very systematic problem intertwined with our political system.”

Demonstrations after May 4 and are still occurring today:

According to Thomas Grace’s dissertation, these are some of the most significant events:

  • 1925 – Students sign petitions against David L. Rockwell, who was trying to get the Board of Trustees to end John McGilvrey’s reign as university president.
    • Students from Lorain publish the school’s first underground newssheet, Red Flame.
    • When the editors are expelled, students boycotted the university, which decreased enrollment.
  • 1949 – The first article to question U.S. support for the North American Treaty ran in the Daily Kent Stater.
    • A rebuttal ran a few days after, so students picketed the Stater offices.
  • Fall 1956 – Students and faculty wrote The Kent Quarterly to condemn the “valueless culture, Greek life, mediocre education and people seeking a money degree.”
  • 1958 – Organized labor held campaign against “Right-to-Work” movement.
  • 1960s – John H. McCann became the first radical organizer.
  • Oct. 28, 1960 – Kent State’s first organized protest. Eleven black students had a nonviolent sit-in at Kent’s Corner Bar, which refused to serve black people.
  • May 8, 1961 – Students presented a petition with 1,200 signatures to university president George Bowman and other university officials to eliminate policies of discrimination in student housing based on race.
  • May 11, 1961 – Forty students picket race issues and guests speakers from Soviet Union’s Embassy.
    • Bowman told the NAACP he’d make a clear, equal policy before the end of the 1961 school year.
  • April 1963 –Students petition to end atmospheric testing.
  • April 1963 – Easter/Passover “Peace Walk” held at Kent State to support end of arms race
  • April 1963 – Students petition state representative Chalmers Wylie for his measure in the Ohio House of Representatives that banned a variety of lecturers from speaking at universities.
  • Jan. 22, 1964 – Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter formed at Kent State.
  • May 1, 1964 – Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) picketed against war in Southeast Asia in front of campus administration building.
  • 1965 – Movements for women’s rights, allowing female students to wear slacks to class.
  • May 1968 – 150 members of Students for Democratic Society, or SDS, and Black United Students, or BUS, walked out on Hubert Humphrey’s speech.
  • Spring 1969 – Leaders of SDS were suspended from campus.
  • April 1969 – Student Mobilization Committee protested for immediate withdrawal of U.S. from Southeast Asia.
  • May 2, 1970 – Reserve Officer Training Corps Building was set on fire.
  • May 3, 1970 – Students held a sit-in on East Main and Lincoln Streets against the Ohio National Guardsmen on campus.
  • May 4, 1970 – About 2,000-3,000 protestors gathered on the Commons. The Ohio National Guardsmen shot at people on Taylor Hall Hill and near the Prentice Hall parking lot, killing four and wounding nine.

A different generation

After holding his own demonstration at Kent State, Marhofer said he realizes the university is often labeled as a “protest school.”

But from his perspective, today’s students are not as involved as those mentioned in Grace’s work.

“I wish there was more of that spirit on campus,” Marhofer said. “Unlike our parents’ generation, we simply don’t have time to be active.”

To spark social movements without using as much time or money, Marhofer said more students are going online to get their views across.

“We might just be taking a different form when it comes to activism and protesting,” he said.

Contact Rachel Jones at [email protected].