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Forty-five years ago today, an event in Ohio indirectly changed Rockford politics

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On this date in 1970, four students at Kent State University in Ohio were shot and killed by members of the National Guard at an antiwar demonstration — setting in motion a chain of events that influenced politics in the Rockford area.

A little background: President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30 to announce an American military “incursion” into Cambodia. This move was condemned in many quarters as a widening of the Vietnam War. In Congress, lawmakers raised cries of protest. And on college campuses — big and small, coast to coast — there was great unrest.

By noon on Friday, May 1, scores of colleges already were shut down by student strikes. By Saturday, ROTC facilities on dozens of campuses were under siege. The ROTC building  at Kent State was burned to the ground, which prompted the governor of Ohio to call out the National Guard. At midday on Monday, the guardsmen responded to verbal taunts and rock-throwing by firing 61 rounds from M-1 rifles, killing four students and wounding nine others.

In reaction to this bloodshed, the nation’s campuses exploded. More than 500 colleges cancelled classes; 51 schools remained closed the rest of the semester. National Guard units were sent to 21 campuses in 16 states. More than 2 million students marched, sat in, boycotted or otherwise registered outrage.

At Rockford College, students lowered an American flag to half-staff. When campus police raised it back to full-staff, students again lowered it. Finally, college President John Howard ordered the flag kept at half-staff until the four dead students at Kent State were buried.

At Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, 10,000 students marched in a candlelight vigil, and President Rhoten Smith cancelled classes for a week.

When the school reopened, a Rockford-based organizer for Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson’s campaign for the U.S. Senate visited NIU to meet with student leaders of the antiwar movement. He told them that the way to stop the Vietnam War was to elect politicians who opposed it — Stevenson, for example.

Four times during the next fall, busloads of students from NIU made weekend trips to Rockford where they campaigned door to door for Stevenson (and indirectly for the local Democratic ticket). They slept in church basements or on couches and floors in the homes of campaign volunteers — and the fruits of their efforts were remarkable.

The Republican Party had held political sway in Rockford and Winnebago County in those days. But Stevenson carried the county by a landslide margin, and his coattails carried three local Democrats to upset victories in county races. Over the next five years, Democrats consolidated their local gains, and for the rest of the 20th century, the politics of Winnebago County would be more of a two-party affair then ever before.

The outrage of NIU students over the Kent State matter was a big factor in that turn-around.

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1 Comment

  1. Robert

    Is your point that those youth who were protesting were part of a social justice movement trying right a wrong and somehow comparable to the current protestors in the Black communities of Ferguson and Baltimore fame? If yes, I don’t see anything comparable.

    The college kids were rebelling against an unjustified war that many of their brothers and friends were being drafted to fight in and killed in action. A war that many didn’t believe in and we would later find out was all based on lies as told in a documentary called Fog of War, narrated by the Defense Secretary (Macnamara) who provided the cover to escalate the American war response in Viet Nam.

    Those youth at Kent State who were killed and injured weren’t criminals with long list of priors and gang members/affiliates who are killing each other by the 1000s each year in Black on Black neighborhood turf wars, thus causing the perspective by the police that caused what some want to believe is an overly aggressive response to police calls within the gang/crime ridden Black neighborhoods.

    Big difference.

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