Comparing the Boston Massacre and Kent State Shootings
Shannon Kristine Croft
2005 Nov 17
Does history repeat itself? It certainly seems that way when looking at the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the shootings at Kent State University in 1970. There are quite a few similarities in each case. In both cases there are protests strong enough that authorities are brought in to try to maintain order. These groups are not well received and are harassed continually which leads to the tragic shootings. However, not all the circumstances are the same, but both are well remembered in American history.
The Boston Massacre was a result of tension between the American colonists and British soldiers stationed in Boston. The British Parliament had passed the Sugar Act in 1764 which enforced that the colonists pay duties on goods like coffee, molasses and sugar. The Stamp Act passed in 1765. This law required many documents to carry an official stamp which the colonists had to purchase, and funds of the sale went to the British treasury. Of course many colonists opposed these taxes and a group was formed called the "Sons of Liberty" to take action. Their protests often turned violent. The "Sons of Liberty" attacked and mobbed stamp sellers until the law was repealed in 1766. Parliament then passed the Townshend Acts, which required duties paid on many other imported items, and hired royal officials to enforce the laws. Violent protests continued and crowds often attacked officials. British leaders decided it was time to send in British troops to restore order.
The British soldiers were not welcomed by the Bostonians. The soldiers looked for lodging under "Quartering Act", which required the colonies to provide barracks, but they were turned away. Massachusetts lawmakers passed a law that they would not provide for the soldiers. There were thousands of soldiers stationed all throughout Boston. Some of them looked for part time work in Boston, increasing tension between citizens and soldiers. The red-coated soldiers were often mocked in the street and called "lobsters" by local boys. Harsh words eventually turned to blows. On March 2, 1770 a brawl broke out between workmen and soldiers after the workmen insulted a soldier.
Both sides sensed that the fighting was not over. On the evening of March 5, 1770, Private Hugh White was harassed by a crowd after defending a British officer. The crowd had White backed against a building and began throwing snowballs and ice at him as well as threatening his life. White called for help, and Captain Thomas Preston arrived with seven other soldiers. Soon there was a crowd of 300-400 colonists around these men, continuing to jeer them and throw things. Someone from the crowd threw a club which struck one of the British soldiers, knocking him down. When he got to his feet, he fired into the crowd. The other soldiers fired as well. Four men were killed instantly, one more died a few weeks later from his injuries, six more were injured. Everyone was stunned at what had happened.
After the shooting, the soldiers were immediately arrested and given a trial in America. Captain Preston was found not guilty in the deaths of the five men. In a separate trial, six of the soldiers were also found not guilty and two were found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. This event is said to be the foundation of American Independence.
The shootings at Kent State University were a result of tensions between students and the Ohio National Guard. During this time in 1970, many people protested the war in Vietnam and the draft system that selected young men to serve in the army. By 1970 over one million soldiers had been sent to Vietnam and more than 50,000 had died. The nation was divided in their views about the war. On Thursday, April 1, 1970, President Nixon announced on TV that troops would be sent to Cambodia. This announcement meant more men would be drafted and caused many to protest. On Friday, May 1 students at Kent State began protesting. They painted anti-war slogans on buildings and buried the U.S. Constitution to symbolize it's "murder". That evening, many students went to downtown Kent where the protest continued. A bonfire was built in the street and about 400 people danced around it and twice as many watched on the sidewalk The atmosphere turned violent though; cars were attacked, store windows broken, and looting occurred. Kent's Mayor declared a state of civil emergency and Ohio's governor responded by alerting the National Guard.
Tensions were still high the next day. A curfew had been placed on the city of Kent from 8pm to dawn, but despite this there was another protest on campus that evening. By 8pm on May 2nd, 1000 students reached the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) building and set an American flag on fire. A few students set the building on fire. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they were attacked and their hoses cut with pocket knives. Shortly afterward, 900 National Guard members arrived and warned the students to disperse. Some students refused and threw rocks at the guards. Tear gas was used to bring the situation under control. On Sunday, May 3rd the students were warned not to protest, but at 9pm a peaceful rally began. Students were ordered by the guardsmen to disperse, but they became hostile, shouting taunts and throwing rocks. The guardsmen had to chase some of the students back to the dorms as well as use tear gas again. There were injuries on both sides and tensions began to mount.
On Monday, May 4 many students who lived off campus were unaware of what happened over the weekend, and of the curfew and ban on protests. By noon about 2000 students were on the commons, an open area in the middle of campus. Worried about a protest, the National Guard ordered the crowd to break up. Many students left, but the ones that remained responded once again by throwing rocks and cursing at them. At this time 77 guards formed a line and started walking toward the students. The students retreated behind a building and the guardsmen followed, entering an empty athletic field. When the guardsmen realized they were blocked by fences, they began to retreat. This time, the students followed, continuing to harass them and throw rocks and insults. About 28 guardsmen turned around and opened fire, some into the air, but a few directly into the crowd. Four students were killed instantly, nine others were injured.
After the shooting, the National Guard members were found innocent of any crime by a state grand jury. The jury charged 24 students and one faculty member with rioting, arson, and interfering with firemen. One year later, these charges were dropped. For the next eight years the case against the guardsmen was in and out of court. Finally in 1978 the victims settled out of court with the state of Ohio. Part of the settlement had 28 guardsmen sign a statement of regret. The events at Kent State were the single factor causing the only nationwide student strike in history. Four million students protested in the days following the shootings and 900 American colleges and universities closed.
In both of these cases, help was needed to bring protesters under control. The citizens of Boston were protesting treatment given to them by another country. The students at Kent were protesting treatment by their own country. In both cases the authorities that are brought in to restore order are not welcomed. Both groups are taunted and provoked, which led to violence. It is clear that the British soldiers in Boston had their lives in danger, but it's not so clear if the same is true for the guardsmen at Kent State. Of the students that were shot, none was closer than 71 feet.
These shootings happened 200 years apart. Both had dramatic results and are widely remembered parts of American history.
Kent State. New York: Grolier, 1998.
The Boston Massacre. New York: Scholastic, 2004.
Wikipedia. 05 Nov. 2005. Wikipedia. 14 Nov. 2005
© 2005 Shannon Kristine Croft
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