May, 1970: Tragedy at Kent and Jackson State

May, 1970: Tragedy at Kent and Jackson State
Pat Nixon: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Four to five class periods


One of the most tragic events stemming from the social unrest of the entire Vietnam War period were the deaths of two college students at Jackson State University (Mississippi) and four students at Kent State University (Ohio).  Occurring as a result of protests over President Nixon's announcement on April 30th, that the United States had sent troops into Cambodia, the student shootings by military and law enforcement personel shocked the nation, and created even deeper divisions among the citizenry.  It was one of the darkest times in the nation's history.


Students who participate in this activity will become familiar with the issues and events leading up to the Jackson State and Kent State shootings, as well as gain experience in sifting large amounts of complex and sometimes conflicting information, synthesizing information, and creating arguments for presentation. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials on the period; history textbooks; access to PowerPoint or some other presentation program.


1.  The scenario for this lesson is a "Symposium on Lessons Learned" based on the student killings at Jackson State College and Kent State University in 1970.

2.  Using the websites listed below, as well as any other sources available, students should research what happened in 1970.  Separate topic areas might include:

  • background on the unrest of the 1960s
  • events of May 1-3 at Kent State
  • events of May 4 at Kent State
  • the National Guard's experience in Cleveland before May 2-3
  • events at Kent from the point of view of the National Guard
  • background on racism at Jackson State
  • events of May 14-15 at Jackson State
  • outcome of events at Jackson State

3.  When the research is complete, teachers should lead students in a discussion of the events to be sure that common misinformation has not surfaced.  Then, students should prepare reports (or PowerPoints, posters, or other media) telling the story of these two incidents.

4.  Students should organize a classroom (or school-wide) symposium in which their research is presented.  The point of the symposium is to decide what might be learned from this part of American experience that might be useful today.  Possible questions to guide the symposium might be:

  • What should be the role of students in speaking out about American affairs?
  • What rights does the First Amendment give to students and others?
  • How is it possible to call the government to account for actions taken without public or Congressional approval?
  • Where should the line be drawn between appropriate governmental action in time of war and action that oversteps the bounds of American beliefs and values?

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by using the conclusions reached about the events of May, 1970 to look at current events such as the debate over detainees, the Patriot Act, and other steps taken by the government in time of war.

Sources & Resources:



This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.