May 4, 1970—and 34 miles from Kent State: Hear about how CWRU students joined the protests

Students stop Euclid Avenue traffic during 1970 protest
Around 50 students stopped traffic on Euclid Avenue upon hearing news of the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

On the afternoon of May 4, 1970, a large number of Case Western Reserve University students were in the campus quad protesting the Vietnam War’s expansion into Cambodia, when word spread of Ohio National Guard soldiers shooting—and killing four—unarmed students at Kent State University, just 34 miles away.

The news provoked the student activists to migrate their protest to the middle of Euclid Avenue by Severance Hall, blocking traffic and calling for a student strike.

John Grabowski, then a junior in the Class of 1971 and a contributor of anti-establishment, pro-labor poetry to the Free Press of CWRU, an alternative campus newspaper, stood on the sidewalk as a “silent supporter and protestor.”

On Friday, April 8, Grabowski, now the Krieger-Mueller Joint Professor in History, will describe this and other acts of campus civil disobedience during the 1960s and ’70s at the Baker-Nord Distinguished Faculty Lecture “Thirty-Four Miles from Kent State: CWRU and the Vietnam War” as part of the first-ever Cleveland Humanities Festival, continuing through April 10.

Registration for the free event—in the Wolstein Building Auditorium, at 2103 Cornell Rd., from 4:30-5:30 p.m.—is not required but encouraged.

A full list of festival events is available online.

Beyond Blocking Traffic

The immediate attention that came with blocking Euclid Avenue, and its prominence in campus lore, partly overshadow a rich legacy of anti-war activism on campus during the era.

Even before blocking the street, tension had been building on campus: The day before the Kent State shootings, on May 3, about 70 students occupied Yost Hall, demanding the university move its ROTC program off campus, a request that was eventually granted. Police eventually dispersed students and administrators.

That night, students held a memorial to those killed and wounded at Kent State. Administrators offered students the option of ending their semesters early in good standing, effectively facilitating the student strike demanded by protestors.

Free Press of CWRU
The alternative newspaper Free Press of CWRU was active on campus during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“For a campus and student body seen as conservative, the activism of the period was unexpected and—especially in hindsight—reveal deep roots of liberal activism,” said Grabowski, historian and senior vice president for research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Several faculty and students were also active on the national stage, including Sid Peck—a sociology professor at Case Western Reserve and an organizer of teach-ins and marches in Washington, D.C.; and pediatrician Benjamin Spock, an internationally known advocate of pacifism and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, who taught at the university from 1955-67.

In the 1960s, a chapter of the left-leaning Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) thrived on campus, thanks in part to visits by well-known anti-war figures, such as Mark Rudd, who led an influential sit-in at Columbia University as an SDS leader in 1968.

In May 1969, Haydn Hall was occupied by students in support of Fred Ahmed Evans, a Black Nationalist leader who had just been sentenced to death for his role in the Glenville shootout in the summer of 1968 less than a mile from campus.

Grabowski gives credit to Robert Morse, the first president of a federated Case Western Reserve, for keeping the peace of campus and for his sympathetic views toward student and faculty concerns—a notion given even more strength by Grabowski’s recent study of university archives.

“Over the years, you could see, for the first time, many students and faculty address racial inequality, poverty, poor labor wages and other concerns,” said Grabowski. “But what portion of us would have been willing to sit in the middle of Euclid in traffic?”

“What I like about this story is its complexity.”