Looking back 40 years later
By Richard Becker
Editor’s note: This will be the first of a four-part story that looks back at the unfolding events of May 1970 at the University of Kentucky, when students and faculty voiced opposition to the destructive actions of their national and campus leaders. When all was said and done in Lexington, the National Guard had set up base on the university campus while, at the same time, students were banned from going on it; an aging former governor was made into a state folk hero for punching an unsuspecting student; and an unoccupied ROTC building was mysteriously burned to the ground.
This May will mark the fortieth anniversary of the killing by members of the U.S. National Guard of four students at Kent State University. On a local note, it will be the fortieth anniversary of the University of Kentucky’s response to the events at Kent State. For several days in the spring of 1970, UK, a bastion of political conservatism and, at times, simple apathy, was effectively shut down by students and community members who were moved to demonstrate against the United State’s illegal escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and, later, the violent response of the State to university demonstrators in Ohio who protested the escalation.
Most Lexingtonians know little about the events that took place at UK forty years ago, and yet anyone associated with UK—whether they are a faculty member, a student, an alum, or a local resident—must learn more about these events if we as a community are to take the appropriate lessons from this chapter in our history. In the span of a week in early May at the University of Kentucky, the Air Force ROTC building had been burned to the ground, faculty and students had been arrested, and many more demonstrators and passers-by were temporarily debilitated by the authorities’ indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray on campus. Eventually, UK President Otis Singletary, in concert with Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn, established a curfew on campus, enforced by armed National Guard troops and state police, and called off final exams and commencement events.
To understand the events at UK in May of 1970, it is important to first establish the basic context—the Vietnam War—in which these events took place.
While it is impossible in this space to fully provide a background on the Vietnam War and the various responses to it, a basic history is necessary. In the early 1960’s President Kennedy continued the policy of the Eisenhower Administration by sending military advisors to Indochina. Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson took power and escalated the war to a level previously unseen. While his efforts were initially met with support from the American people, within a few short years, the war had intensified to such a degree that public opinion began to shift against both the president and the war effort.
Students begin to activate nationally
On April 17, 1965, thousands of demonstrators converged on Washington, DC to voice their opposition to the war. The demonstration was the first event of its kind on a national scale. Among the organizers of the rally were the Students for a Democratic Society, an organization of student activists that had begun to spring up in chapters all across America. Founded in the early 1960’s in Michigan, the SDS later came to play a role in the demonstrations on UK’s campus in 1970.
Later in the year, the SDS called for a second rally—a March on Washington—to follow their well-attended first rally in April. In a leaflet distributed nationally that fall, the SDS wrote that “in the name of freedom, America is mutilating Vietnam,” and that “America is burying its own dreams and suffocating its own potential.” It was not long before the SDS became an influential organization on the American left, organizing anti-war activities across the country during the 1960’s.
With many thousands of young men being drafted into the armed forces—many of whom returned dead, maimed or mentally scarred by the war—and with vocal critiques to the war starting to percolate through different types of underground and establishment media, Americans began to question their government’s involvement in Indochina.
Anti-war demonstrations picked up speed and the movement grew. In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, demonstrations turned violent when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley granted security and police forces the authority to essentially take whatever measures necessary to quell the protests. Taking to the streets during the convention, demonstrators were confronted with one of the largest masses of police and National Guardsmen ever assembled for the purpose of domestic policing. Outnumbered more than two-to-one, the demonstrators were met with violence from security forces almost immediately upon their arrival in the streets outside the convention center.
Television cameras alternated throughout the night of August 28 between shots of the raucous celebrations of Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey’s nomination inside the convention hall and the escalating violence in the streets just outside. Out in the streets, teargas and mace were sprayed indiscriminately at demonstrators as well as bystanders, to such a degree that guests at the Hilton Hotel, where many of the convention delegates were staying, complained of irritation due to teargas that had wafted through the air and into the hotel.
In the end, however, opinion polls showed that Americans by and large supported Daley’s harsh, indiscriminate tactics against dissenting citizens. Later that year, Humphrey lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon, and the stage was set for both the war in Vietnam and the movement against it to escalate to a new level.
Four dead in Ohio
“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drummin’
Four dead in Ohio”
-Neil Young, “Ohio”
In the spring of 1970, President Nixon illegally and secretly expanded the war in Vietnam into the nations of Cambodia and Laos. No American reasonably educated on Richard Nixon’s views on Communism could have considered this to be a particularly outrageous move, yet when uncovered it was met with some of the most vociferous opposition to the war yet seen in America. According to an official U.S. Air Force report declassified by President Clinton in 2000, over 100,000 sites in Cambodia were hit, with 3,580 of those sites being “unknown” targets, suggesting that civilians were killed at many of them.
College campuses nationwide erupted in protests—most of them peaceful—against what they saw as the escalation of the Vietnam war into the new territories of Cambodia and Laos. One such campus, Kent State University in Ohio, became the site of one of the more searing, violent acts of repression by the State against peaceful demonstrators in recent U.S. history.
On May 4, 1970, at a demonstration against the war, National Guard troops called in to quell the protesters fired sixty-seven rounds in a matter of seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others. Several of those killed and wounded were not even participating in the demonstration but were merely passing by or watching the protest from afar.
Within hours, outrage over the killing of the four Kent State students began to blaze on college campuses across America—most of which had already mobilized their own protests against Nixon’s escalation into Cambodia. In the week following the shooting in Ohio, some four million students at over 450 institutions throughout the U.S. participated in student strikes, resulting in the closure of most of these schools and, for some, the canceling of final exams and commencement activities. Taken together, it was the largest student strike ever seen in this country.
A week after the Kent State shooting, an estimated 100,000 protestors converged on Washington, DC to protest both the shooting and the American incursion into Cambodia. The demonstrators were met with typical indifference and chilliness from the Nixon administration. Nixon agreed to meet with several anti-war leaders, but essentially rebuffed their demands. The protest continued unabated, and was the largest demonstration in nearly two years.
My Old Kentucky Home
At the University of Kentucky, unrest had already been brewing for some time by the time of the shooting at Kent State. With the election in 1967 of Republican Louie Nunn as governor of Kentucky, state schools like UK underwent a period of rapid overhaul. Already serving as university president at the time of Nunn’s election, John W. Oswald had implemented a number of academic reforms at UK during his time in office, including a refocus on academics rather than athletic programs, the construction of Patterson Office Tower and Whitehall Classroom Building, and an expansion of the school’s budget.
But perhaps the most important facet of the Oswald administration was Oswald’s vigorous support for campus free speech and the creation of a student code. In spite of these reforms (or perhaps because of them), Oswald left the university shortly after Nunn’s election as governor. Oswald was replaced as university president by Albert Kirwan, who served a short tenure as interim president. (Kirwan’s term in office was later described by student body president Steve Bright as an “unmitigated disaster,” as professors and administrators began to leave the university in alarming numbers.)
In 1968, Otis Singletary replaced the interim Kirwan and became university president, in part because his views on student free speech and activism were more in line with Nunn’s thinking than Oswald’s. With Singletary’s ascent to the top of UK’s administration, UK became a breeding ground for anti-free speech activities and anti-administration activities in response. Perhaps more than any other institutional event, Singletary’s rise to the presidency engendered the traumatic events at UK that immediately followed.
The news of the Kent State shooting did not take long to spread to UK. On May 5th, just one day after the shootings, the UK Board of Trustees met for their regularly scheduled meeting. This particular meeting, however, was auspicious for two reasons: it was the first board meeting in the newly-minted Patterson Office Tower and it saw the swearing-in to the board of new student government president Steve Bright. Bright eventually became a vocal defender of UK students during the coming crisis, and even put himself on the line, as he was arrested for his participation in the demonstrations that followed his swearing-in.
A four-part harmony
As students at UK began to express disgust with President Nixon, the incursion of US military forces into Laos and Cambodia, and the shooting at Kent State, the stage was set for confrontation.
This four-part series will explore in more depth the events that took place at the University of Kentucky in May of 1970. It will look into the burning of the old Air Force ROTC building and the arrest of a young female student for that burning. It will revisit the deployment of the National Guard and state police to campus to quell the protests, and it will examine some important actors in these events.
I hope to discuss Pat White, initially a politically moderate UK English professor whose arrest amidst the turmoil on campus is believed to have later led to the university denying his tenure. White, who became radicalized as a result of the heavy-handed government response to the UK demonstrations, stayed in Lexington and continued to teach frequently in the decades following the 1970 protests. He passed away last year.
I will talk with student government president Steve Bright, who was thrust into the spotlight after he was sworn in as a Board of Trustees member at the May 5th meeting. In addition to Bright, I plan to cover several other student leaders whose voices may have been lost to the symphony of history.
The events at UK in 1970 have had dramatic repercussions for UK, ranging from a re-landscaping of campus to more stringent rules governing campus speech. We would do well to be reminded of the unjust treatment of students by the authorities at the time. Furthermore, it is important not to forget the courageous individuals who fought against the administration and the governor as they sought to quash dissent at the University of Kentucky. The events of 1970 have implications for today, and student activists in 2010 can learn from the lessons of this turbulent time in UK history.