The Oberlin Sanctuary Project

Anti-War Protest and the Kent State Shootings

Oberlin students rose to witness concern and dissent as they had done on previous occasions in her impressive history. Never, in my opinion, has Oberlin had a finer hour.
--Richard Miller, Professor of Singing, “Mozart Requiem: A New Kind of Pride,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, August 1970

Oberlin and the Vietnam War: Protest and Reflection

The 1960s were filled with demonstrations and unrest on college campuses as students questioned authority and protested America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. At Oberlin College, students protested against the presence of military recruiters on campus in October of 1967 and February of 1969. Some students joined the Oberlin chapters of the Students for a Democratic Society and the National Student Association, two student organizations that provided forums for student activism and dissent. Campus administrators, including President Robert Carr and Dean of Students George Langeler, were challenged in their efforts to respond to the students’ concerns while maintaining the educational mission of the College. 

Following President Nixon's announcement that the escalation of American military offensives in Cambodia would require drafting 150,000 more soldiers, student protests on college campuses intensified. The killing of four Kent State University students by Ohio National guardsmen on May 4,1970, shocked the Oberlin community.  Students, faculty, and community members joined forces to invite Kent State students and faculty to come to Oberlin to seek refuge from the aftermath of May 4, and to have a space where they could contemplate how to respond to the tragedy. About 200 students and 25 faculty members came to Oberlin in what became known as “Kent in Exile.”

I did spend a few days, maybe a week at Oberlin after the shootings. There was a curfew in Kent and we felt constrained and in a vague way threatened by staying in Kent so when I heard that Oberlin was providing refuge for people from Kent we decided to go there. ... Oberlin was generous in letting us stay there but eventually we decided to leave and ... there was something like a caravan that went to various campuses in Ohio to talk about what happened. 
--Recollection by Richard Felber, Former Kent State University student, February 3, 2020

Stewart I. Edelstein, '70, in an article for the Oberlin Alumni Magazine ("Oberlin's Reaction to Kent and Cambodia," August, 1970), included this description of the Kent State University student and faculty objectives during their time at Oberlin: "The main objectives of Kent students in Oberlin were to discuss and influence further actions of the university, and to organize means to improve relations with the town of Kent. They ended their stay by passing several resolutions, including the formation of a new governing body for Kent, termination of all Kent ties with the military, disarming campus police, and greater student voice on academic communities. The activities of Kent students were largely autonomous of those of Oberlin students."

Realizing that Oberlin students needed answers and solace following the Kent State shootings, faculty members such as Paul Arnold and Conservatory Dean Robert Fountain found ways to help students cope with the tragedy.  Professor Arnold helped students create posters to voice their opinions about the war and the Kent State shootings. Dean Fountain organized a group of over 250 students and faculty from the Oberlin Conservatory and College to perform Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, May 10. The previous day they took part in a mass demonstration with roughly 100,000 people to protest the killings at Kent State and U.S. incursion into Cambodia. (See the link below to a documentary film produced by Richard Haass and other Oberlin students).

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, National Director of the Department of Operation Breadbasket, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, served as the commencement speaker at Oberlin College on May 25. He encouraged the graduating class to dedicate their lives to healing, education, and love. Oberlin conferred upon Jackson an honorary doctorate. A symposium on “Oberlin Reacts to Kent and Cambodia” took place during the commencement weekend. The graduating seniors chose not to rent academic regal but instead to donate funds to local community services and schools.

When you bomb a building, you don't stop the system. You just give those not in the building more rationale to crack down and shoot rifles.
--Jesse Jackson, Oberlin College Commencement Address, May 25, 1970 

The College and the War, a compilation of essays and articles written by Oberlin faculty, staff and students, contains a variety of opinions about the Vietnam War. This work and other documents in the Oberlin College Archives provide a way for reflection about the Vietnam War and Kent State, and how individuals, who lived through these events, sought answers, comfort, and help to guide them through a difficult time in our history. 

Top: Oberlin students protesting the presence of U.S. Navy recruiters on campus, October 26, 1967.

Additional Resources

May 4 Collection, Kent State University Special Collections and Archives

Oberlin and Activism Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives


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