May 4th Movement (M4M)

The May 4th Movement (M4M) was a Toronto-based radical group formed after the Kent State shootings of unarmed university students on May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard. This was one of the most important events of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S. and Canada.

U.S. President Richard Nixon had been elected in 1968 partly because of his pledge to end the Vietnam War. On April 20, 1970 Nixon went on national TV and announced that 115,500 U.S. troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam and that another 150,000 troops were scheduled to leave by the end of 1971. But only 10 days later, on April 30, Nixon announced that U.S. troops were mounting a major invasion of Cambodia – a significant widening of the American war effort. Widespread anger swept across college campuses the next day.

Kent State University, 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the campuses where student outrage was manifested. With some 20,000 students, Kent State had several organizations involved in antiwar and civil rights activism. The day after Nixon’s announcement regarding the invasion of Cambodia, 500 Kent State students gathered as a group symbolically buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution, which they said had been killed by Nixon. They also called for another antiwar rally on May 4th.

That evening, some enraged students caused trouble in downtown Kent, first by setting a small fire in a garbage can. After police responded, students began breaking store windows. Police in riot gear then made some arrests and students retreated back to campus. The next morning (May 2), Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a civil emergency and Ohio’s Governor James A. Rhodes dispatched the Ohio National Guard. This response further angered the students, and some of them set fire to a campus building. The National Guard arrived to clear the area, while firefighters fought the blaze.

On May 3, nearly 1,200 National Guardsmen occupied the Kent State campus, while the Ohio governor surveyed the scene by helicopter and then presented himself as the champion of law and order at a press conference. This prompted an even greater turnout for the students’ planned antiwar rally set for May 4.

The Kent State antiwar demonstration of May 4 was peaceful, but some of the National Guardsmen over-reacted to the size and taunts of the crowd and ended up chasing the students, and then firing at them with lethal weapons. Twenty-eight National Guard soldiers fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds – killing four students and wounding nine others. Some of the students who were shot were not even in attendance at the antiwar rally, but had instead been walking nearby.

The Kent State killings were followed eleven days later by police shootings at Jackson State College, a historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi. In that incident, police opened fire on students on campus, killing two and wounding twelve. A report on the incident found that 40 state highway patrolmen armed with shotguns fired more than 460 shots at the building. Afterwards, police claimed that they had opened fire because they had seen a sniper. A subsequent investigation found no evidence of a sniper.

The Kent State and Jackson State killings prompted a student strike of some 4 million students across the U.S. and further galvanized the antiwar movement.

In Toronto, the May 4th Movement was created the day after the killings. Its immediate focus was on the increased American aggression in Southeast Asia, but it also denounced the brutal repression of antiwar protesters. M4M organized a major demonstration in front of the American Consulate, with some 5,000 people in attendance. It turned into a melee, with a variety of projectiles (eggs, bottles) thrown at police, windows smashed, and numerous arrests.

Throughout its activities and its leafleting, M4M maintained a snarky sense of humour, a love of direct action, and a disdain for endless discussions that went nowhere. That may be why M4M put out a newspaper that may only have had one issue (May 1970). It devoted several pages to women’s liberation issues, including women’s right to choose abortion and the need to repeal all abortion laws in Canada. The newspaper also highlighted the high unemployment rates across Canada, combined with high rents and living expenses that were making Toronto an “impossible” city to live in. M4M also gave away cheap or free food to anyone in need.

The M4M movement also despised the commodification of the Counterculture. One of its most memorable events was the disruption of the Festival Express at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) in June 1970. Organized by the sons (Ken Walker, George and Thor Eaton) of rich and prominent Toronto families, the Festival Express was charging $16 per ticket to hear Janice Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Band. M4M encouraged people to crash the two-day event, and when they did, the organizers were forced to make it a free event at a neighboring public park, with some 6,000 people in attendance.

Later that year, the May 4th Movement changed its name to Rising Up Angry, and then to Red Morning. The group faded out of existence around the end of 1971.

Related Reading:
Red Morning
How they shot those campus bums
Jackson State killings

Related Topics:
Activism/RadicalismCounter-CultureToronto/HistoricalWomen's Liberation Movement