Wilmington College students’ non-violent response to Kent State

By Gary Huffenberger - Staff columnist

Monday was the 50th anniversary of the killing of four Kent State University students in Ohio during an on-campus demonstration against a U.S. government extension of the war in Southeast Asia. The event was tragic, and emotion-provoking for both Vietnam doves and hawks.

The anniversary is a fitting time to look back at the non-violent response of students at Wilmington College to the fatal shootings of other college students in the state.

An estimated third to a half of the WC student body was involved in non-violent actions in the wake of Kent State and in the aftermath of the prior announcement that U.S. forces had entered Cambodia. That’s according to the book “Step by Step, Rust in Peace: The Quiet Peacemakers of Wilmington College 1940-1976” published by the college’s Peace Resource Center.

The best known action taken by Wilmington College students probably was a three-day, 65-mile walk of 90-some WC students and faculty to Columbus. It was the only delegation of Ohio students to travel by feet along roadways to a major protest planned for May 8 in the state capital, as presented in this Tuesday’s News Journal article by Randy Sarvis.

Prior to the trek north to Columbus, some 150 Wilmington College students had walked as a group to the Wilmington Post Office, then located downtown, and mailed postcards or letters of protest to President Nixon, Ohio Governor Rhodes and congressional representatives on the day after the Kent State shootings.

In a May 7, 1970 News Journal letter to the editor, the writer explained why they went together in close array for the mail-in. “We hope that by publicly mailing our protests we have influenced the citizens of Wilmington to also express their views to those in authority. We believe that this peaceful responsible action is what is needed.”

In addition, an estimated 30 people on the WC campus were fasting. The fasters sat at a reserved table in the middle of the cafeteria at mealtime. Instead of eating, they wrote letters.

The fasts, the News Journal was told, were in response to the U.S. move into Cambodia, the tragedy at Kent State, and violence everywhere.

In another non-violent action, eight Wilmington College women students walked to the local Selective Service Board and attempted to register for the all-male draft, according to the aforementioned book.

As for the rally in Columbus, it drew students from some 19 Ohio colleges, a crowd of 4,000 or 5,000 people, and 150 armed and helmeted Ohio Highway Patrolmen guarding entrances to the Capitol. The Associated Press reported afterward, “There were no incidents.”

Sharon Drees, the author of Step by Step, Rust in Peace, conducted a 2008 interview with former Wilmington College history professor and peace activist Larry Gara. He told her he thought the presence of Wilmington College helped to keep the Columbus demonstration peaceful because not all of the thousands of attendees would have endorsed non-violence.

Gara, who died last November, may not have been alone in thinking that. On May 18, 1970, exactly two weeks after Kent State, a Wilmington College student who also was a member of the National Guard spoke to the Wilmington Rotary Club. During his presentation, he read a letter from Governor James A. Rhodes who commended the Wilmington students for their influence in the non-violent march to Columbus.

The recited letter, according to the News Journal article about the Rotary meeting, has the governor saying, “I respect and honor the students of Wilmington College ….”

Drees’ book, citing the May 8, 1970 edition of the WC newspaper Witness, contains a quotation from Sterling Olmsted, who was Wilmington College provost 50 springtimes ago. At an all-campus meeting in the midst of the Kent State crisis, Olmsted told the students, “We are probably living in some of the most crucial days in American history. I don’t profess to know any answers … I wish that, in my old age, I had some words of wisdom to give all of you. I don’t … You’re doing just fine.”

Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.


By Gary Huffenberger

Staff columnist