Originally printed in Vol. 7, Issue 2
Photos provided by University Archives, Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young crafted these lyrics to their ballad “Ohio” after the Kent State massacres, an event that left the whole nation in a state of shock. Members of the Ohio National Guard fired upon student activists on May 4, 1970, leaving four demonstrators dead and several more injured. This may well be the most infamous protest in Ohio during the spring of 1970. However, it was definitely not the only one. Rallies spread across every corner of the state, with many college campuses taking part, including Miami University, Ohio State University and Ohio University.
Activism was at an all-time high at OU during this time period. Students gathered onto College Green, not to relax and sunbathe as they do today, but rather to speak out against issues they believed were morally wrong. Topics ranged from civil rights to women’s rights to local issues and everywhere in between. These College Green gatherings culminated in the climactic spring riots of the 1970s.
As these displays grew larger, they also grew more restless. Eventually, the protests metamorphosed into intense rallies and riots. Demonstrations in Athens, despite the best efforts of students and faculty, grew too violent and led to the closing of the campus. This turbulent time illustrates an epoch of both determination and turmoil at OU and has profoundly affected the people who experienced it.
During the week of May 11, 1970, OU faced its bleakest days. Demonstrations occurred in Athens every night that week and each night was followed by larger and more unruly gatherings.
Sparks were ignited, explains the May 11, 1970 edition of The Post, after the two orators set to speak, Skip Taube and Benson Woolman, were banned from the university.
Many protesters felt this was a clear use of censorship by the administration. On that same day, nearly 100 students broke into Chubb Hall, which was undergoing renovations at the time, and declared the abandoned building a “free university.”
Following this, a firebomb went off near Nelson Cafeteria, which was also undergoing construction. Protests turned ugly on Wednesday night. After students gathered outside Cutler Hall, they proceeded to march toward Court Street. During the night, marchers confronted police officers dressed in riot gear.
“The crowds from the campus started throwing bricks from the walkways on College Green over into the windows of what was at that time called Logan’s Bookstore. It’s where Follett’s Bookstore is now,” Jan Hodson, former Assistant Dean of the Honors Tutorial College and a freshman at the time, recalls. “At that point, the police started throwing tear gas canisters onto the green.”
That night, an orange glow lit up the town, while herds of students ran from across the Richland Avenue Bridge to Court Street toward West Green.
“We all were absolutely devastated by tear gas,” WOUB Director Tom Hodson, husband of Jan, who was also associate editor of The Post at the time, explains. “Tear gas was everywhere.”
Police officials began shutting down the bars on Court Street, which only angered the protesters more. Some of the rioters, already in a drunken state, became enraged once the bars were forced to close. In their anger and lack of self-control brought about by their intoxicated state, they turned to violence.
“Those people had been drinking and the potential for violence increased,” says Ohio University archives curator Douglas McCabe, who was also a member of the class of 1970. “You had inebriated people that were pretty upset and were willing to pull bricks out of sidewalks and throw them at the cops.”
An anonymous letter found in the 1970 Athena Yearbook explained that many students felt forced to react violently when their peaceful protest attempts failed. It reads: “When one is forced into a corner and frustrated at every turn, he uses any weapon available to him, whether it be a speech on the green or a brick on the street. When the former fails, the latter becomes a necessity.”
Protests reached their apex on Thursday, May 14, 1970. On that night, the dissenters marched toward Court Street late into the evening and clashed with police officials. A police report read, “Students are going to upset cars tonite [sic],” while security reports from the university hauntingly noted that “Chubb is getting pounded. Group is 250 strong.”
It is often stated that these protests were in response to what happened at Kent State days earlier, but the turmoil was not caused by a single catalyst. Rather, it was a combination of troubles that steered OU toward conflict.
At the time, students across the country were speaking against the American presence in Vietnam. The Athena Yearbook for the 1969–1970 school year showcases a moratorium march that took place at the university on October 15, 1969. President Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia elicited protests not only from Kent State, but from OU as well.
Tensions in Athens were also on the rise due to local issues. In January of that year, tuition and room and board prices were set to increase. According to the January 30, 1970 edition of The Post, student tuition was set to increase $30 a year for in-state tuition, and $180 a year for out-of-state tuition. Room and board cost was set to increase $110 a year. It was not surprising when these tuition hikes led to demonstrations by the student body. When the condition grew vehement, Athens City Police and University Police were forced to call upon the Ohio State Highway Patrol men for help. In all, 46 students were arrested.
Students referred to another local issue at the time as “Athens Injustice.” According to McCabe, university students “believed students were treated differently than regular Athens area citizens.” They complained that harsher punishments were placed upon them than on the citizens of the town itself.
One of the main causes of the riots can still be found on campus today. At the time, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, was stirring up a good deal of controversy among the citizens of Athens. University Archivist and Records Manager William Kimok notes that students, staff and Athens residents argued amongst themselves over whether the military-based program had any reason to be at an instructional institution.
On April 22, 1970, bad blood between dissenters and the ROTC program came to a head. The August 1970 edition of the Ohio University Alumni Journal recounts how on that day, eight women and one man, later referred to as “The Athens Nine,” were arrested after disrupting an ROTC class in Carnegie Hall. McCabe stated that the spring 1970 demonstrations contained a female presence that would not have existed even five years prior, showcasing how great of an impact the women’s rights movement of the time had on campus. Members of the student body began to call for the freedom of these nine students, feeling they had been unjustly incarcerated.
“These women do get released from jail and then they’re immediately banned from campus and from town and that caused a lot of deep agitation,” McCabe recalls of the controversy surrounding their freedom.
This event was only the beginning of the program’s woes.
After news of the Kent State shooting reached Athens, the student body became more distressed. At 4 a.m. on May 7, two firebombs were set off in an ROTC supply room in Peden Stadium, causing significant damage. From here, protests on campus descended into chaos.
Claude R. Sowle, president of the university at the time, faced the darkest days at the campus during his first year in office. However, he vowed that OU would remain open.
This decision was not always a popular one, especially with Ohio’s governor at the time, James Rhodes. Governor Rhodes refused to supply the university with support from the National Guard or the Highway Patrol as long as it remained open.
Sowle was not the only one determined to keep the institution operating. Both the students and staff tried their best to keep the gates of OU open for all.
“There was a very strong feeling among the students that we wanted to keep Ohio University open. That was a goal. The professors supported everybody with that,” Jan recalls.
As student activism began to increase, day and night could not be more opposite in regards to their protests. Kimok specified that the rallies, which occurred during the day, were extremely peaceful. Teach-ins out on College Green began to take place in a sign of objection. In response to the Kent State shootings, class attendance decreased by around 30 percent. At the same time, an influx of students from other universities traversed to Athens after their own schools were shut down.
“When Kent State closed, many of those students came down to Ohio University,” Jan remembers. “Ohio State closed; those students came to Ohio University. Suddenly our campus was swollen with a lot of students from other college campuses because ours was one of the last colleges open.”
While other college campuses were forced to shut down, the determination of President Sowle, the faculty, and the students helped shape OU into a safe haven for university members across the state. This Avalon was not meant to last, however, and came crumbling down during those tumultuous days in May.
Realizing the situation was becoming too much for Athens and University police to handle and as only going to increase in the magnitude of ferocity, President Sowle made the decision to close the university. At 4:10 a.m. on Friday, May 15, OU’s closure was officially announced over WOUB radio.
“It was abrupt to say the least,” Tom says. “You didn’t get to see a lot of your friends. There was a lack of closure. It was very anticlimactic in the sense that school was closed and it was over.”
The morning after President Sowle shut down the university, The Post ran the somber headline “School closed.” The weather report stated, “The sky has fallen.” According to the student newspaper, 26 students were treated at Hudson Health Center for non-serious injuries. That night, a total of 54 people were arrested. In all, the Ohio University Alumni Journal lists that more than $154,000 in damages were caused collectively by the riots. Adjusted for inflation today, that amount is more than $928,274.69, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even though they took place 43 years ago, the riots still have an abundant effect on OU and Athens. Walking around campus today, it is difficult to find any physical scars left by these disturbances. The scars do exist though, and they exist in the hearts and minds of those who had attended here during the riots.
For many students, getting home was a trial all on its own. Technology at the time was limited to pay phones, and they did not have the ease of communication provided by the Internet and cell phones today.
“You had to find a phone in the dorms. You had to find a phone in a phone booth. Call your parents in the middle of the night, tell them that they had to get you as soon as possible,” Jan says.
National Guard troops and Highway Patrolmen descended upon Athens shortly after OU was finally closed. As students were picked up by their parents or made the exodus home by bus, the Guard was ever present.
“I think it was a stark thing to wake up and see armed troops at every parking meter,” Tom adds about the condition of Athens.
The class of 1970, which includes current university President Roderick McDavis, was forced to leave Athens without a true graduation commencement ceremony. In many ways, the newly graduated alumni felt cheated out of a true goodbye to their home of four years.
“You didn’t have that final culmination whether it was a graduation ceremony, or a graduation party, or the ability to say goodbye to your friends,” Tom says. “That was all taken away.”
OU itself also suffered. Shortly after the 1970 university shutdown, enrollment at the university began to decrease. According the University Enrollment History on OU’s website, the student enrollment by the mid-’70s was down to 12,814 from 18,482 in the year of 1970. Reputations of the riots at OU may have been a contributing factor to this decrease.
Closing the university was hard on everyone, especially President Sowle. Afterwards, Sowle had this heart-wrenching statement to make: “It is sad indeed that this inspiring period in the history of OU must end in such an unfortunate way. The result, however, in no way detracts from the magnificent efforts of the great majority of our faculty, students, and staff to keep the university open. We tried, but we failed.”
Forty years later, the class of 1970 was finally awarded a commencement ceremony in 2010. This celebration brought back many members of the class of 1970 to receive what had been robbed from them so many years ago.
Looking back upon the events that unfolded during their time as Bobcats, many alumni are proud of their valiant displays of defiance in the face of injustice and oppression. Others, however, are not as certain that the violent riots were able to accomplish anything besides the school’s closure.
“Rioting here was not going to solve much of anything either here or on a national scale,” McCabe says.
Some even felt that the message of the movement, one of peace and freedom, was lost amongst the loud shouts of wrath coming from the rioters.
“I believe once the violence starts, you lose your message. You lose listeners,” Jan says.
Global and national issues facing American citizens are never hard to find in this current day and age, from the government shutdown to the situation in Syria.
“There was a very strong feeling among the students that we wanted to keep Ohio University open. That was a goal.”
Jan Hodson Former Assistant Dean of the Honors Tutorial College
With such concerns facing them, there is the possibility of students once again demonstrating their opposition to issues through protest.
“I certainly would like to think that today’s students would not hesitate to gather and to speak out,” says Jan about the possibility of future activism on campus. Until then, the events of spring 1970 still serve to represent both the grim reality of mob violence and the heroic determination of students and staff at OU.