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Bob Pickett and Bill Arthrell: Remembering two Kent State civil rights, anti-war activists

Bob Pickett and Bill Arthrell
Kent State University News Service
Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives
Bob Pickett, founding member of BUS and Vice-President of the student body at a sit-in demonstration occupying the Student Activities Center. And Bill Arthrell in the Daily Kent Stater newspaper.

Two long-time political activists in Northeast Ohio died earlier this year, within two weeks of each other.

Bob Pickett and Bill Arthrell came from different backgrounds but their paths crossed during the political upheavals of the 1960s. Their activism began when they were students at Kent State University, and they remained socially active for the rest of their lives.

Kent State was a politically active place in the late 1960s when Bob Pickett and Bill Arthrell showed up.

Arthrell, from Oberlin, was a history major who was interested in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Bob Pickett was from New Jersey and got involved in the brand new Black United Students group on campus, sometimes called BUS.

Pickett was short, wore wire-rimmed glasses, and looked too young to even be in college, but he became a leader in BUS and vice president of the student body.

“He was a very confident guy, self-assured. He was mature beyond his years. I would describe him as being polished and urbane,” fellow student and author of the book “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties,” Tom Grace recalled. “He was in the Honors College, he was a political science major. And that was without being in a family of educators. He was the first in his family to go to college.”

On May 3, 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey gave a speech on campus and Pickett was invited to sit on a panel on stage.

Hubert Humphrey visit to Kent State University
Kent State University News Service
Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives
Vice President Hubert Humphrey speaking at Kent State University on May 3, 1968.

But he challenged the presidential candidate saying the American Dream had become an American Nightmare for Black people. Then Black United Students, SDS and other students walked out. It made national news.

Black United Students walkout Kent State University
Lafayette Tolliver
Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives
Student walkout at the front gates of Kent State University in 1968.

BUS President Larry Simpson says they were angrily booed by their fellow students.

“We had absolutely nothing against Hubert Humphrey,” Simpson said. “He was a good guy, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a statement.”

In fact, Pickett was asked to join the Humphrey campaign and he did, as he explained in the documentary, “Fire in the Heartland.”

“I got to know him real well and got to really understand and appreciate his sensitivity,” Pickett said in the documentary “Fire in the Heartland. “He was a good man, he would have made a great president, and I think he would have been a champion for Black America as well.”

Pickett recalled an effort in November of that year to block the Oakland California Police Department from holding a recruitment session on the Kent campus.

“Representatives from Black United Students and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) met secretly and determined that we would in fact take the next step which was aggressively take over the building,” Pickett said in the film.

Bob Pickett Oakland Police Protest Kent State University
Kent State University News Service
Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives
Led by members of Kent State Black United Students (BUS) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), demonstrators stage a sit-in, occupying the Student Activities Center, to protest against campus recruitment by the Oakland Police Department. Speaking into a portable public announcement unit is Robert T. Pickett, founding member of BUS and Vice-President of the student body with BUS members Carl Gregory (behind Pickett) and William Tolliver (center).

University officials were angered and threatened to punish or expel the 300 or more students involved. In response Pickett and Simpson convinced virtually all of the African American students on campus to pack up and quit school. Larry Simpson notes they made national news.

“We made the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite by our walkout,” Simpson noted. “I mean, that’s not why we did it.”

Grace says the walkout worked.

“It taught a lot of students, myself included, about the power of numbers and solidarity,” Grace said.

The administration did not punish the protesters but agreed to hire more Black faculty and start what became Pan-African Studies. By the time Pickett graduated, the number of Black students had doubled.

The next year when the SDS tried to occupy a campus building, four of its members were permanently expelled and others were jailed. The university canceled the Kent State SDS by withdrawing its charter.

By 1970 student opposition against the war in Vietnam had only grown.

Two students, Robbie Stamps and Bill Arthrell cooked up a way to call attention to the horrors of war by announcing they would use napalm on a dog.

Kent Stater front page 1970 of crowds opposed to a stunt to napalm a dog to make an anti-war statement.
The Daily Kent Stater
Bill Arthrell on the front page of the Daily Kent Stater newspaper on his anti-war stunt to napalm a dog - April 23, 1970.

In a recording with the Kent State oral history project in 1995, Arthrell recalled that hundreds of students and at least one sheriff’s deputy showed up to stop him.

“I said, ‘Good for you. You’ve done the right thing. You’ve come to stop me from doing a very immoral act. However, your government isn’t doing it to one dog, it's doing it to thousands of people,’” Arthrell said.

Just weeks later, Arthrell and Stamps would be watching Ohio National Guardsmen take over the Kent State campus.

On May 3, 1970, two years to the day that Bob Pickett had taken the stage with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Pickett was stopped by several guardsman. One put his 45 caliber pistol to Pickett’s head.

He later told the Commission on Kent State University Violence that the guardsmen had called him obscenities.

“As I saw the guardsmen, I approached them with my arms up in the air having experienced and having seen what guardsmen do to Black people,” Pickett told the commission in 1970. “And I approached them with a great deal of caution and my arms in the air indicating that I had nothing, you know, I was coming in peace.”

Pickett said the officer told him to run but he walked slowly backwards away.

Later, Pickett and Simpson would warn Black students to stay away from the guardsmen deployed on campus.

“The majority of white students never believed that the National Guard would fire on them,” Simpson recalled. “And we said the National Guard fired on the Black community all the time. So we told Black students, ‘Do not engage in any way.’”

Yet Bob Pickett, as a former vice president of the student body, felt he had some duty to represent all the students by showing up and observing the guard and the student rallies.

On May 4, he witnessed the guard shoot and kill four students. Nine students, including Robbie Stamps and Tom Grace, were shot and wounded.

Kent State 4 May 1970 students running
Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives
Bill Arthrell in glasses (far left) on May 4 before the shootings occurred.

A state grand jury indicted 25 people after the shootings. The Kent 25 included two wounded students and Arthrell. He said he was terrified at the time but later called the indictment his “red badge of courage.” The charges were later dropped.

Arthrell continued at Kent, earning a history degree and then teaching history in Cleveland public schools.

Pickett became a lawyer and judge serving three New Jersey governors, Democrat and Republican. He also became a talk show host addressing African American issues on WBLS in New York City.

In 2003 Pickett served on a panel about so-called radical third-party politics. He showed the pragmatic stance that he was known for in Kent.

“I think we really have to be careful what labels we put on ourselves,” he said. “Because it is really about winning. Because if you don’t win you can never get your program across to the American public.”

The writer and director of “Fire in the Heartland,” Daniel Miller, was a former SDS member at Kent who worked with Pickett. He says the late activist inspired him to become the professor he is at the University of Oregon, teaching classes on civil rights.

“His life was, in many ways to me, a thoughtful protest that we all should be engage in in a participatory democracy,” Miller told Ideastream. “Bob’s one of my heroes, in the best sense.”

In addition to teaching, Bill Arthrell continued to push for civil rights and democracy his whole life. Tom Grace described him as a deeply moral man.

In 2014, Arthrell was so inspired by the Maidan Square protests in Ukraine that he traveled there to join the demonstrators. He published a book of poems called “Ukrainian Heart” in November 2019.

Bill Arthrell Saint-Sophia Cathedral Kyiv Ukraine
Bill Arthrell
Bill Arthrell at Saint-Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, in November 2017

Grace says Arthrell would have been heartbroken had he lived to see the Russian invasion.

“I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Bill just got on a plane, flew to Poland, and then crossed the border,” Grace said. “He would have found some way of responding on a deeply personal level.”

Bill Arthrell died in a car accident in Oklahoma driving back to his home in Cleveland Heights. He was 72. Bob Pickett died of natural causes in New Jersey. He was 73.

Corrected: March 16, 2022 at 7:42 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story misstated that Robbie Stamps was one of the 25 Kent students who were indicted by a grand jury after the May 4, 1970, shooting.
Mark grew up in Akron and attended the University of Akron and Kent State University. He's worked in radio news since 1982 at WNYN Canton, WKSU, and Ideastream Public Media. He’s been an anchor, reporter, news director, and program director. His reports through the years for NPR, PRI, and the BBC were aimed at letting the rest of the world know that Ohio is more than just a flyover state.