Tuesday, May 5, 2020

50 Years Later: CMU Activism in the Wake of the Kent State Shootings

by Bryan Whitledge

After Richard Nixon’s April 30, 1970 announcement that military action would intensify in Cambodia, protests erupted across the country. Colleges and universities were a hotbed of activism, including Central Michigan University and Kent State University in Ohio. In Kent, Ohio, things became tragic on Monday, May 4, 1970: four students died and nine were injured after National Guardsmen opened fire on the assembled students.

"Freedom Hall," Click to enlarge
The events at Kent State did not happen in a vacuum and the reverberations were felt far and wide. That evening, in Mt. Pleasant, activist students went inside Central Hall on the CMU campus with the goal of occupying the building. Central Hall was the first gymnasium building at CMU and was the headquarters of the ROTC for many years. After taking over the building, students bestowed the name “Freedom Hall” on the building. Those occupying Central Hall effectively locked out the regular occupants of the building for the next five days. Reports of the number of occupying students in “Freedom Hall” range from 50 to 200. In addition to those in the building, hundreds established a “People’s Park” on the grounds around the building on the Warriner Mall.

On Saturday, May 9, the activist students and the University administration, led by President William Boyd, negotiated an end to the occupation of “Freedom Hall.” They also agreed that the tents in the “People’s Park” would come down each morning and could be reinstalled at dusk. By Monday, May 18, there were no more reports in the CM Life about tents on Warriner Mall.

All in all, the peaceful nature of the reaction of Central’s students and administration to the Kent State shootings was remarkable. Very little property damage was caused (CM Life reports $650 of damage), there were no arrests, and no confrontations between protesters and authorities.

To mark the 50th anniversary of these events, we are sharing some of the memories of those who were at Central during the time. These quotes are from two oral history interviews conducted by the staff of the Clarke Historical Library: one with former CMU President William Boyd (2014) and one with several activist students on campus during the occupation of “Freedom Hall” (2016).

"People's Park" viewed from above, click to enlarge

Central Hall was chosen as the object of the takeover because it was the headquarters of CMU ROTC. Former student Jon Childs remarked,
“They [Ohio National Guardsmen] shot these kids at Kent State, and the next day or that night, maybe, myself and a few other people decided to take over the ROTC building. There was a big -- one of the big movements here at that time was to get ROTC off campus. There was a group called SCAR, Student Committee to Abolish ROTC.”
Several former students remembered the environment in the building. While talking about the ROTC student staff who was in charge of the armory, where the weapons were stored, Dan Manville remembered,
“He [the student in charge of the armory] was not coming out […]. He was scared we were going to take over the weapons […]. He was in there, we had to feed him, he had to use the bathroom, so we gave him a bucket to use and whenever he wanted food, we would go and get food for him. […] He started trusting us, so we ended up taking care of him. So, it's like [the others in the interview] said, we weren't there to do anything [destructive]. It was a protest against the War.”
Ron Barrons said of his time in "Freedom Hall," “I can still hear the rattle of the chains [that padlocked the front doors of the building], and feel the rock hard floor under my sleeping bag.”

Paul Puma also remembered life in the occupied building:
“When you're in a building and the mere fact that you're in the building and you're controlling it, that is your statement, life goes on. So, within that building, relationships were formed, people met boyfriends, girlfriends. […] It was a little society within the society.”
Freedom rally on Warriner Mall, click to enlarge

Jon Childs noted that not everyone had the same strategies for change – some were into peace and love, some were political, some were hot-headed:
“[W]ithin the ROTC building, it wasn't all one big happy family. There were factions in there, too. […] At one point, someone came in to burn it down, brought in gasoline […]. We had a big fight about [strategy]. Where do we go from there? What does that mean, now we're destroyers?”
Rally in front of "Freedom Hall," click to enlarge

As the protest wore on, questions about when and how it would end began to bubble up. Cathy Courtney mentioned a time when she talked with President Boyd about how it would all end and his successful dialog with the students:
“I said, […] ‘it's not going to be much longer, you [President Boyd] don't need to bring in the cops. You're doing really good, you're negotiating just great, but it's going to be coming up because finals is coming up. People aren't going to miss their finals, they're not going to take incompletes. It will be over, and we're going to do freedom school instead.”
In a solo interview with Clarke staff, President Boyd offered a similar take on the events of May 1970, albeit from the administration's point of view. When asked, “In comparison to Berkeley, how did you view these events?,” Boyd answered:
“Well, I was surprised and pleased by the good nature of the Central student body. For example, when they occupied what became Freedom Hall, the ROTC building, they permitted an inspection every day by the administration to be sure that sanitation was OK, etc. I couldn't have imagined that happening at Berkeley.
"When Sproul Hall [at UC-Berkeley] was occupied, for example, it took police to get the kids out. There weren't any daily visits by an administration member.
“So, I was surprised by the good nature of the students who occupied Central Hall -- I mean Freedom Hall. And the same was true for the tent village. At Berkeley the People's Park episode, which occurred after I had left and gone to Central, was a violent episode in which Reagan had called out the National Guard. Our People's Park was really never anything but peaceable. I never felt threatened by it for example, though I did regret it very much because it was ugly. And because of the sanitation problem. And most students got tired of it and agreed to the university's request that they take down the tents.”
President Boyd, standing to the right of the tree, speaking to
students on the Warriner Mall, click to enlarge

President Boyd’s legacy in maintaining calm was a major part of discussion with former students. Almost 50 years after the events, the praise for President Boyd’s handling of the situation could not be overstated. Many former students expressed appreciation with statements like Paul Puma’s: “President Boyd, who… I really loved him, because he was very fair. He wasn't one of the people that would just say, ‘you radical bastards,’ you know? No, no, no. He had an open mind.”

During the 2016 interview, students had a chance to speak with President Boyd by phone and Judy Lewis expressed her appreciation directly to him:
“I was at CMU for two years and how you handled the situation, like they said, kept us out of trouble. We got our point across and it was an amazing two years under your watch, taking good care of us and making sure that we had our -- we could express ourselves but be safe at the same time. So, thank you for that.”
Jon Childs followed up, noting that it took 45 years to tell President Boyd this: “I don't know whether you know it, but I think you may have saved some people's lives during that situation, and mine may have been one of them. Some of us were a little hotheaded. Thank you so much for what you did, I really appreciate it.”

After a comment about the CMU president never losing his humanity while negotiating with the students, Janice Fialka remarked: “People can be skilled, but there's that superficiality, and I think that's why you hear, at this table, such love [for President Boyd].”

"Freedom Hall" and Warriner Mall, click to enlarge

The level-headed decisions of all of the parties involved kept the CMU campus rather peaceful during what could have been a very tense time. Cathy Courtney’s assessment of the events of May 1970 were echoed among the interview participants: “Ours was one of the only schools that had successful, and I mean occupied, educate, activated, tents, campus, occupy, with no violence, no personal injuries. That's considered success.” And Paul Puma followed up, “Yeah, totally, and a lot of the responsibility for that, I think goes back to President Boyd.”

After the occupation of Freedom Hall and the People’s Park, the building and grounds were left relatively undamaged. Things returned to business as usual and the students went mostly unpunished. Although some professors held students accountable for missing classes and President Boyd did not offer amnesty for those who missed class. Jon Childs noted, “My bowling instructor flunked me. I remember that (laughs).”

You can read more about the response to the Kent State Shooting at Central in the in the May 6, May 8, and May 11, 1970 issues of CM Life. And you can view the transcripts of these interviews at the Clarke Historical Library.