On the night of May 4, 1970 at approximately 10:30 p.m., fifteen hundred students at the University of Virginia converged on the historic Rotunda to register their outrage at the brutal murder of four coeds at Kent State University in northwest Ohio. Earlier that day, campus activists at Kent State had embarked on their fourth round of demonstrations against President Richard Nixon’s deployment of U.S. troops to Cambodia. Their protest turned deadly when the Ohio National Guard fired into the large crowd of demonstrators, wounding ten students and killing four others. Outrage gripped white and black students across the nation as more than 400 campuses erupted in protests. If administrators at the University of Virginia expected only an episodic outburst of dissent from their students, they were in for a major disappointment. Over the next ten days, the university many regarded as a bastion of political and cultural conservatism transformed into a hotbed of radical protest against the ongoing war in Southeast Asia. Students refused to attend classes, occupied buildings, and pushed the University’s president, Edgar Shannon, into a heated confrontation with state legislators in Richmond. Combined with challenging the war in Southeast Asia, student activists addressed larger issues facing the University, including its role in the militarization of U.S. society, its integration of African Americans and women into the student body and key administrative positions, and its commitment to improving the economic conditions and protecting the labor rights of low-wage workers on grounds.
Four days into the protest, student leaders and school adminstrators faced their greatest challenge when local police and the National Guard harassed and arrested dozens of students, invaded several fraternity houses on Rugby Road, and all but turned the University’s storied “academical village” into a war zone. To restore order, as well as regain the confidence of his students, President Edgar Shannon fiercely condemned the state for its excessive use of force. Shannon also reiterated his frustration with “the continued alienation of our young men and women owing largely to our nation’s military involvement in Southeast Asia.” Ever the diplomat, the former Navy Seal arranged meetings between student activists and key Virginia lawmakers to discuss the critical issues facing the nation: “It is my firm conviction,” Shannon explained in a letter to Senators William Spong and Harry Byrd, “that student views and questions on this matter need to be heard by those in a position to influence and shape national policy. Likewise, I feel it is important that our students have an opportunity to learn more about this complex matter directly from those in positions of national leadership.”