It might be tough to imagine a spring day on the Oval as anything but picturesque.
But 40 years ago today, Ohio State’s Oval wasn’t a place for sunbathers, morning joggers or students taking their dogs for a walk.
Instead, two armies occupied it: The Ohio National Guard armed with loaded rifles and students armed with angry words and a few stones.
Forty years ago at Kent State University, four students were killed and nine others were wounded in a clash between protesters and the Ohio National Guard.
Here at OSU, similar conditions resulted in violence, but no deaths.
In the spring of 1970, women were demanding equal rights, blacks were pressing for equal representation, and young people were calling for an end to the Vietnam War. Put these issues on a college campus and combine them with an overwhelmed OSU administration, confused by the wants of a younger generation, and you’ve got yourself a riot.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the riots and rallies that occurred on campus, The Lantern is telling the story of that spring.
The following information comes from a combination of eyewitness accounts, the June 1970 edition of The Ohio State University Monthly and April and May editions of The Lantern.
Tension on campus
OSU was much different in 1970 than it is today. Women who lived in the dorms had to be in by 10:30 p.m. and needed parental permission to stay overnight somewhere. There was also no student representation on university committees.
Late Winter quarter that year, two black students were charged with violating the school’s Group Disruption Rule after a March 13 demonstration at the Administration Building (now Bricker Hall).
Once Spring quarter began, many black students began campaigning for the charges to be dropped and new tensions arose on campus.
On April 20, about 100 students from the School of Social Work walked out of their classes, protesting their lack of representation in school decisions.
The next day, a rally was held on the Oval to protest on-campus military recruiters and research with companies involved with the war. The protesters eventually moved to the Ohio Union and marched through a career fair. When university officials asked the protesters to leave, some became unruly. Officials called OSU Police, and six students were arrested for trespassing.
A few days later, student leaders from different organizations gathered to establish one large group to speak for all of them.
Former student Mary Webster was a reporter for the Lantern then. She participated in the formation of the Ad-Hoc Committee for Student Rights.
“We (the student groups) all talked and shared what we were doing and what our concerns were,” Webster told The Lantern in a phone interview, “and decided that we had enough going on to do more than what had ever been done, and we could get the attention of the administration to get them to actually listen.”
The Ad-Hoc Committee then presented the administration with a list of demands.
On April 24, they staged a rally and announced a campus-wide boycott of classes to begin on the 29th.
Novice Fawcett, then president of the university, issued a statement on April 27: “From my own point of view, (the demands) appear to be drafted in such a manner as to elicit negative responses … These statements strike at the very heart of the university and attack institutional policies cooperatively developed over the years.”
The night of April 28, the Student Assembly passed a resolution supporting the Committee’s proposal for a student strike until the administration communicated with students about their demands.
The administration refused to negotiate, and the students began to set in motion the school’s first-ever student strike.
“And then they tear gassed us.”
To prepare for the rally and strike, University officials asked the State Highway Patrol to remain on standby off campus.
John Mount, vice president for Student Affairs, released a statement that morning addressing the strike and the Committee demands — he said the university will issue a formal response to the demands in a week to 10 days, but he asked the students to understand that it’s difficult to communicate in “highly emotional settings.”
“My position was to listen,” Mount said, standing by his resolution today. “The problem was, the emotional protesters at that time would not listen to anybody.”
He said at that time, OSU had actually already taken “constructive action” toward more rights for blacks and women, but the students weren’t listening, they wanted their demands met right away.
The morning started out peacefully. Some students picketed outside classroom buildings. Others gathered on the Oval to hear speeches. The crowd was estimated to be at about 2,000 people.
In the afternoon the rally died down, and some restless students decided to take action.
Some students went to the wrought-iron gates which were then-present at 11th and Neil Avenues to block the entrance and protest the presence of Columbus Police, who were parked outside the gates.
What happened next is unclear. Some reports say students closed the gates; others say plain-clothed officers posing as students closed the gates so that police would have justification to come on campus. Either way, cops and students began to brawl. The Highway Patrol was called to impose order.
When they got to the scene, the crowd had grown to an estimated 3,000 people. The Patrol asked the students three times to unblock the entrance. They refused, and some began throwing rocks, bricks and bottles. Webster, who ran to the scene from the Oval after she heard of the commotion, described what happened next.
The police “started charging in, in full riot gear,” she said. “And then they tear gassed us.”
The students ran. On the Oval, angry students surrounded the Administration Building and threw rocks and bricks through the windows. About 500 students gathered at the gates at 15th Avenue and High Street. Authorities used tear gas to halt the students.
Students broke into smaller groups, some roamed High Street and damaged local business’ windows.
The chaos continued on into the night. By the day’s end, more than 300 people had been arrested, and more than 70 people were taken to area hospitals, with at least seven reporting gunshot wounds.
When students arrived on campus the next day, they weren’t greeted by an administration willing to talk, as they had originally hoped.
They were greeted by the presence of the Ohio National Guard.
For the next several days, campus continued to be a place of unrest and students continued to boycott classes and hold rallies on the Oval, with some now harassing the National Guard.
President Fawcett said in a statement that he regretted the incident had occurred, and that he would have “no hesitancy in summoning and retaining sufficient security forces to preserve order,” proven by the Ohio National Guard now patrolling campus.
An editorial in April 30’s The Lantern said the high numbers of police and the aggressive students were both to blame for the violence that escalated from the originally peaceful protests.
Some protests continued to become violent. On the 30th, The National Guard used tear gas to disperse a crowd of 4,000 on the Oval, claiming the crowd size was too much to handle without tear gas.
But amid the violence, stu
dent leaders attempted to restart conversation with the administration through numerous meetings.
Not until May 4 did the administrators acknowledge they were listening.
That day, Vice President Mount announced the hiring of Professor Howard C. Williams, a black faculty member from the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, to help the university in recruitment efforts toward economically and educationally
That same day, James Robinson, vice president for Academic Affairs, announced that $170,000 had been approved for the 1970-71 school year to establish a Black Studies program, which had actually been approved in October 1969.
But the violence continued.
By 11 a.m. on May 4, the university had received 28 calls of reported fires, 16 of which ended up being false alarms.
About 1,500 people gathered on the Oval for a rally. The students faced the Ohio National Guard, who were standing in front of the Administration Building.
Forrest Brandt, a Lantern photographer and student at the time, noticed the crowd on his way to his 8 a.m. class. He decided to ditch class to photograph the rally.
He said students began to react when the Guard eventually received orders to advance their position and drive students off the Oval.
As the Guard moved forward, with rifles out and bayonets pointed, students shouted insults and threw rocks and clumps of dirt. The Guard responded with tear gas, but because of the Oval’s openness and the breeze that day, Brandt said the gas had little effect on the students.
Brandt moved in between the students and the Guard to take pictures and noticed the Guard was armed, which he said the students most likely did not realize.
“I don’t think they had any idea of just how dangerous the situation was,” Brandt told The Lantern in a recent interview.
Overwhelmed by the danger, Brandt left campus. At home, he said to his wife, “I can’t believe this is really going on … somebody is going to get upset, and they’re going to pull a trigger.”
Two hours later, Brandt heard the news from Kent State. But the tragedy at Kent State seemed to do nothing to dampen the protests.
On May 6, students protested in front of President Fawcett’s house, and the Guard dispersed the students with tear gas. Then the students then ran to the Administration Building and threw rocks.
An hour later, President Fawcett, with the urging of the Ohio governor, closed OSU. The university didn’t resume classes until nearly two weeks later, on May 19.
So why is this relevant today? Because these protests ushered in a new era for the university.
In the months after the protests, student representatives joined the Board of Trustees and the Faculty Council and self-defense classes for women and an Office of Minority Affairs were established.
Through the violence and chaos, the voice of the students was heard.
Looking back, Mount said he hopes by retelling this story, people will remember the importance of dialogue if a situation like this were to arise on campus again.