Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On the 50th anniversary, America’s still not fully recovered from the wounds of Kent State | Will Bunch

The May 4, 1970, killing of 4 students in Ohio, ended the '60s and our idealism about college, and -- arguably -- America itself.

A group of youths cluster around a wounded person as Ohio National Guardsmen, wearing gas masks, hold their weapons in background on Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio, Monday, May 4, 1970.  Members of the Guards killed four students and injured nine during a campus protest against the Vietnam War.  This picture was made by Kent State student photographer Douglas Moore.
A group of youths cluster around a wounded person as Ohio National Guardsmen, wearing gas masks, hold their weapons in background on Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio, Monday, May 4, 1970. Members of the Guards killed four students and injured nine during a campus protest against the Vietnam War. This picture was made by Kent State student photographer Douglas Moore.Read moreAP

On May 4, 1970 — 50 years ago this Monday — a tree trunk may have been the only thing that prevented Alan Canfora from becoming the fifth fatality in a violent episode that both rattled America and reshaped its history, the shooting barrage by Ohio National Guardsmen into a crowd of student protesters at Kent State University.

» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter

Canfora was a 20-year-old undergrad at the Ohio public university, just east of Akron, and a campus leader in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Still emotional and angry after attending the funeral days earlier of a childhood friend who’d been killed in the Southeast Asia, nothing was going to deter Canfora from waving a black flag of protest at the noon rally. Not even the tear gas that pushed the protesters back, nor the row of armed Guardsman just a couple hundred feet from Canfora and his waving flag.

Then came 13 seconds that changed everything.

“It seemed like a lot longer,” the 70-year-old Canfora told me by phone this week.

A loud fusillade of gunfire echoed down the hillside and the parking lot where the demonstrators had been pushed back. Instantly, a bullet tore right through Canfora’s right wrist and he quickly ducked behind the nearby tree, which was hit by several rounds. When the shooting finally stopped, eight others were wounded and four students — Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder — lay dead or dying in the parking lot.

Everything that had happened in the years leading to up this — the escalating youth protests over civil rights and Vietnam, the growing radical calls for revolution — pivoted in those 13 seconds, as the acrid smell of gunpowder drifted across the campus green. There would be days of rage — millions of students went on strike, hard-hat-wearing construction workers pummeled long-haired protesters, and two black students would be murdered in Mississippi — but in the long run Kent State became seen not as the beginning of something but an ending. The conventional wisdom on the true meaning of Kent State was summed up in the title of a 2015 documentary: The Day the ’60s Died.

Shock and cynicism

But in many ways, the gunshots still echo in 2020. It’s no accident that in the months immediately after Kent State, business leaders and other conservatives began looking for ways to quash liberal thinking on campus and counteract it with the conservative web of noise that became talk radio and Fox News. Right-wing pols cut funding for public universities like Kent State, helping to send tuition skyrocketing and making college more about careerism and less about such dangerous ideas. And a dog-eat-dog economy forced young America to comply with that.

But the greatest impact was largely psychic — the shock and cynicism that the government was capable of gunning down its own youth. And that no one — not the Guardsman or their higher-ups — would ever be held to account for the massacre.

“The effect was mostly a sense of disappointment that the government of our country would cover up such an obvious injustice,” Canfora said. “Such a barbaric crime against American citizens — to be shot down, in broad daylight, unarmed, at great distances — and have the governor come in and cover it up. That…really affected so many of us for so many years afterward, even to the present day. That sense of frustration and anger …”

For many of us — especially the millions like me who came of age later in the 1970s, in the hazy aftermath — Kent State has lived on in the popular memory with the help of the song that Neil Young wrote that spring and that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young raced into the studio to record. Ohio was supposed to be a nationwide call to arms. Instead, the song left America with a question that would haunt its conscience for the next five decades.

How can you run when you know?

‘No one ever thought those guns would fire’

Kent State University wasn’t supposed to be the place where something like this happened. The popular image of 1960s’ campus protest involved children of the elite, at Ivy League schools like Columbia or the bigger-ticket state universities like Berkeley or Wisconsin. Kent State, downwind from the stench of Akron’s then-booming tire-and-rubber factories, was instead an outgrowth of the idealism of the post-World War II Baby Boom years, a pathway for children of the Industrial Revolution to do a little better than their parents. Tuition was counted in the hundreds, not thousands.

But many Kent State kids in the late ’60s and early ’70s were the offspring of a different kind of activism, the workers’ movements of the New Deal era. Canfora’s dad worked in the Goodyear tire factor and was a local leader in the United Auto Workers (UAW). Thomas Grace, who was wounded alongside Canfora in the May 4 shooter and later became a professor, wrote an acclaimed history of Kent State and said that most kids in the protests “were from blue-collar families influenced by a unionized New Deal Democratic culture,” with liberal attitudes on issues like civil rights. By the end of the 1960s, these working-class kids had seen friends or family come home from Vietnam wounded or in body bags, and also a growing number of returning vets, many disenchanted, were enrolling in colleges like Kent State.

There was also frustration that early protest tactics — teach-ins, peaceful marches — had failed to end the war. Some of the most radical groups were starting to call for more violent measures. Into this atmosphere, President Richard Nixon tossed a match. Having taken office the year before with vague promises to end combat in Vietnam, Nixon’s April 30, 1970, announcement that he was expanding the war by sending troops on a mission into neighboring Cambodia felt not only like an escalation but a betrayal.

Kent State was just one of scores of campuses to erupt in protest, but things there took an ugly turn. On Friday night, May 1, windows were broken in a melee on the main drag in Kent, and later rioters (the three convicted were not students) burned down the campus ROTC military-training center. In an accident of history, Ohio’s politically ambitious GOP governor, James Rhodes — who on May 3 blamed the violence, without evidence, on outside agitators and angrily vowed “we are going to eradicate the problem” — had already activated the National Guard to deal with a Teamsters strike. Now these armed troops were diverted to Kent State.

Officially, the protest and vigil slated for midday on May 4 was banned by the university. That didn’t stop a middling crowd estimated at anywhere from 500 to 2,000 students — some protesters, some onlookers — from turning out. No one expected drama, and many were surprised when the Guardsman fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. A few kids tossed the canisters back or threw rocks, but investigators would find no evidence of snipers or firearms use by protesters. Instead, the Guardsmen simply fired rounds at scattered students across the parking lot. To this date, no one knows exactly why.

“No one ever thought those guns would fire,” James O’Connor, a graduate counselor at the time, recently wrote in the Akron Beacon-Journal. “No one ever even thought they might be loaded.” The four students fatally gunned down were mostly bystanders. Scheuer, 20, was walking to her speech-therapy class when a bullet struck her in the neck. Krause, 19, whose family had moved outside of Pittsburgh, reported told a Guardsman that “flowers are better than bullets,” one day before she was struck down.

What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground? ...

A bloody aftermath

In the days and weeks immediately afterward, America erupted in chaos and more violence. The largest student strike in American history shut down most campuses for what was left of the 1969-70 school year. As critics have noted, government repression was heaviest not at the most elite schools but against working-class and nonwhite students; at Jackson State University, an HBCU in Mississippi, white police officers fired more than 460 rounds into a crowd of black demonstrators on May 15, 1970, killing two of them and wounding 12.

But the violent backlash wasn’t confined to the police. On May 8, 1970, an antiwar protest in lower Manhattan was broken up with the fists and clubs of blue-collar construction workers, many (in one of those great historical ironies) building the rising World Trade Center. A few Wall Streeters joined in the hippie punching. A few weeks later Nixon — who’d called student protesters “bums” right before the Kent State shooting — welcomed the leaders of their unions to the White House.

» READ MORE: "My 285th post on Kent State." Why the 1960s still matter

Nixon wasn’t the only politician who looked to gain from tapping what he called “the silent majority;" many “Middle Americans” did vehemently oppose the student protests, and some people even openly celebrated the killings. In fact, Canfora and another shooting victim were among 24 students and one professor who were actually indicted for rioting, although none were convicted and most charges were tossed. Eight National Guardsmen were also indicted but a federal judge dismissed those charges before there was even a trial. That hasn’t stopped a 50-year, unsuccessful quest for justice by survivors and family members.

In 1971, alarm over college unrest was a chief driver of the pro-business community “Powell Memo” drafted by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell which declared that “the American economic system is under broad attack” and proposed fighting back with conservative think tanks and media. It was the idea that eventually animated talk radio, the Fox News Channel, and what would become daily attacks against “those liberal snowflakes” on campus.

Another prominent far-right thinker — the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan — argued that low or sometimes free university tuition encouraged protest. Increasingly conservative governors and lawmakers — under budget pressure during the stagflationary 1970s anyway — took this to heart, slashing taxpayer money for public universities and sending tuition to unheard-of levels. Ronald Reagan — who became California’s governor in 1966 by ridiculing long-haired campus protesters — ended that state’s free tuition on his way to the White House and a new American conservative hegemony.

If we didn’t know then, we know now

Protest never fully died in America, of course. Indeed, the most active survivors from Kent State like Canfora and Grace never stopped fighting for justice, both for what happened on May 4 and more broadly. “Most of channeled our anger in more positive ways,” said Canfora, who not only became director of the Kent May 4 Center but leader of the Democratic Party in nearby Barberton, Ohio. The flicker of subsequent movements like South Africa divestiture in the 1970s or the 1980s nuclear freeze eventually rekindled the 2010s’ Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street or The Women’s March.

Yet it seems to me — a late-term Baby Boomer who arrived at college in the fall of 1977 — that these were candles in a wind of right-wing repression. Over time, the fear that you might get shot for protesting faded but most young people these days are working two or three jobs to pay tuition, accumulating massive student debt, or shut out of college and thus the good-job market all together — too beaten down to protest the system even as that system gets worse.

Today, the coronavirus crisis has exposed what America has given away since the echoes of 1970 and Kent State faded — a nation of millions living paycheck-to-paycheck, one pandemic away from losing their health insurance while waiting for hours at a food bank, the social safety net all but destroyed by Reagan-inspired conservatism. “The American economic system” was saved without those pesky kids protesting — but at what cost to American democracy?

One big and unfortunate irony of the coronavirus — there are so many — is that a remarkable weekend of speeches and concerts by the likes of David Crosby and Joe Walsh has been either canceled or gone virtual. This week I spoke with one of a handful of current Kent State undergraduates — Rachel Berchak, a sophomore from the Cleveland suburbs — who leads a student May 4 Task Force that both worked on the commemoration but also seeks to keep the flame of activism alive.

Berchak agreed that some kids are apathetic and many are too busy just trying to pay tuition. "We would see a lot more activism from students if they had more time,” she said. But she was encouraged by the turnout earlier this year for an event that linked what happened in 1970 (Canfora spoke) to causes today like gun safety and women’s reproductive rights. Young people like Berchak, her coleader Ethan Lower, and other activists keeping alive the spirit of 1970 give me hope.

We live in a moment of terrible crisis and economic want, but also a time when real change feels possible. And we’ve seen now what kind of havoc is wreaked 50 years of working to stifle dissent and turn our campuses away from idealism and into machines geared toward churning out cubicle farmers. If we didn’t know then, we know now. How can we run?