“Four dead in Ohio.” Those four words, from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s hastily recorded protest song “Ohio,” were haunting in their simplicity. Written by Neil Young and released just weeks after the Kent State University shootings, the song conveyed the angst felt across the country when on May 4, 1970, an estimated 29 Ohio National Guard members shot into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine others.
Young was inspired to write the song after seeing the disturbing photographs of dead and wounded students in the May 15 issue of Life magazine. The most famous photo, taken by a student journalist, shows a young woman screaming while kneeling over one of the victims, Kent State student Jeffrey Glenn Miller. For several generations of Americans, that iconic image is an indelible memory.
The tragedy became the catalyst for massive, nationwide demonstrations and student strikes at more than 130 college campuses, including Michigan State University, where Miller had been a student before transferring to Kent State. By midweek, more than 6,000 students had gathered around Beaumont Tower to protest, and on May 14, several thousands of students, faculty and community members trekked the four miles to the State Capitol to protest the shootings and the Cambodian incursion, which precipitated the shootings.
Last week, the Kent State shootings were once again in the news when Michigan Republican official Dan Adamini, the secretary of the Marquette County Republican Party, resigned after posting on Facebook and Twitter that it is time for “another Kent State” in response to student demonstrations. “One bullet stops a lot of thuggery,” he wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted.
One of the victims of the shootings, Thomas M. Grace, 66, has written a new book on the tragedy, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.” Grace was wounded in the foot and was riding in the ambulance with another victim, Sandra Lee Scheuer, when she died.
Grace is quick to point out that the book is not a memoir but rather a look back at the long and winding road that led up to the May 4 incident.
The author asserts in the book that Kent State’s activist history before 1970 “has largely been overlooked.” Grace examines that premise with the eye of a historian, which he became after working for years as a union leader and social worker. When he started the project as a doctoral thesis, he never expected it to become a book.
“I was there, but I did not know how it all started or the factors that made it happen here,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Buffalo, where he teaches history, mostly Civil War-era, at Erie Community College.
His 384-page book details the people and the events that lead up to the shooting. One of the factors that Grace points to for the level of activism on the Kent State campus is that a large number of students came from working class homes, many of them from homes with activist union members.
“Working class students gave character to the movement,” Grace said.
Grace points to his roommate, Alan Canfora, for example, who is often seen in photographs waving a black flag in front of a group of National Guard members who had dropped into firing position. Canfora was shot in the wrist.
“His father was a UAW vice president,” Grace said.
Close ties to the union movement also help explain some of the techniques students used, including picketing, sit-downs and strikes.
Along the way, Grace covers individuals like Carl Oglesby, a Kent State student in the early 1950s who would become the national president of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society. Grace also identifies how important civil rights activists like Kent State freedom rider Danny Thompson were in forging the movement at Kent State.
At one point, Grace said, he was afraid the shooting would “identify for me the rest of my life.” When people learned about him being at Kent State, conversations would inevitably turn to the shootings. He said that people ask if the shootings still haunt him.
“People always ask me that first,” he said. “The shootings never bothered me in the least. I’ve always been successful in compartmentalizing.”
Grace said there have been two failed attempts to make a movie about the Kent State shootings, which spurred him on to write his book.
“The book got written — the movie was never made,” he said.
Grace said that in researching the details for the book, he conducted more than 40 interviews and completed extensive archival research. He said it was important to tell the story without “recycling conventional myths,” such as the National Guard soldiers being young and inexperienced.
“In reality, 25 was the average age, and Governor Rhodes had mobilized the Guard 32 times,” Grace said.
Grace’s book seems likely to become one of the most reliable looks at an event that set off a firestorm of activism.
“The killings at Kent State, meant to contain the explosion of protest over the Cambodian invasion, instead spread embers of dissension to every corner of the country,” he writes.
Life and Death at Kent State: 1960’s Student Dissent as a Working Class Movement
With Thomas M. Grace
12:15-1:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23
MSU Museum Auditorium
409 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing
(517) 355-2370, museum.msu.edu