Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU's 125th anniversary.
Until May 1970, anti-war protests at NIU had remained relatively peaceful. The university was known, after all, as a generally conservative school. But then on May 4, at 12:24 p.m., National Guardsmen in Kent, Ohio, fired into a crowd of unarmed Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine others. News of the massacre triggered riots and marches on college campuses across the nation, including at NIU.
On Tuesday, May 5, protestors smashed windows in several campus buildings and someone attempted to firebomb the NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies. A growing crowd of students then converged on downtown DeKalb, where they smashed windows at more than a dozen local businesses. It took over 100 policemen to disperse the crowd. Thirty-four students were arrested.
President Rhoten Smith, a World War II veteran, cancelled classes for the week and urged students to use that time for “meditation, reflection, and self-examination.” Students seemed to heed those words, because on Wednesday, May 6, more than 8,000 protestors converged on campus and kept the march peaceful.
But in the tense days ahead, things did not remain peaceful.
On May 14, two students were shot and killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi. On May 18, NIU students started a peaceful march that attracted about 1,500 people. But as the night wore on, the mood changed and the group splintered. One group marched to the west side of campus where they built bonfire barricades to create a “liberated zone.” Several hundred students headed east to march on downtown DeKalb. At the Kishwaukee Bridge on Lincoln Highway, they were met by state police, so they decided to stop there and occupy the bridge.
At midnight, President Rhoten Smith attempted to reason with the students, saying that they were blocking a federal highway and this wouldn’t end well. When his words went unheeded, Smith joined the students on the bridge. He sat with them and listened to their grievances. His presence and concern for his students brought a strange but uneasy peace. By 3 a.m., however, the mood had changed. The crowd grew more tense, with some protesters throwing rocks and bricks at the police. Smith and several students left the bridge, and then the police moved in.
The ensuing riot spread to campus and the surrounding area and also downtown. Student protesters broke windows, burned university vehicles, and tried to firebomb Still Gym.
Sporadic protests continued until May 20. The final tally: 142 arrests, a dozen people injured, and $54,000 in property damage, mostly on campus. In the following days, students held fundraisers to bail out fellow student protestors.
After the riots, President Smith remarked that Kent State had showed the students “the length to which the ‘Establishment’ will go to cram this war down their throats.” Although criticized at the time for how he’d handled the situation, Smith was later hailed a hero for his moderate approach. He had maintained calm by showing compassion for his students. And if he hadn’t joined his students on the bridge that night, the outcome could have been far more destructive.