Kent State: Review of a New History by a Participant in the Struggle

by Paul Garver

grace on kent state

Thomas Grace.  Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.  Univ. of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston, 2016, 384pp.

Tom Grace was one of the nine Kent State University students seriously wounded by a fusillade of gunshots from the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, when he joined a student rally after leaving his university classroom.

Four other students were killed, two of whom were not even attending the protest rally.

In the aftermath of the shooting, numerous student leaders were prosecuted and imprisoned.  None of the officers who had issued order for the guardsmen to fire and even themselves joined in the shooting were ever prosecuted for their arguably criminal actions.

More than forty years later Tom Grace authored this temperate, well considered, and thoroughly researched history of the Kent State struggle.  It is  much more than a personal memoir.   A succinct account of how he came to be shot on that day is included in a prologue and in sidebars to the description of the day of the shootings, but this is not why he wrote this history.

Grace writes with commitment or passion, but with remarkable equanimity.  Neither he nor his fellow student activists appear as victims, but rather as combatants in a desperate struggle.  Their adversaries are not portrayed as villains, but as combatants on the other side with their own views and goals.

Tom Grace conducted interviews with some 47 Ohio student activists, meticulously scoured the campus and local newspapers, and placed their stories in the context of the national student antiwar movement.   He also compiled portraits of dozens of individual national guardsmen and officers involved in the shooting, drawing on records of their testimony before various investigative panels and tribunals.

Eighty pages of endnotes show how thoroughly Grace pored over the decades of local activist struggle and repression, while firmly situating it in the history of the national antiwar movement and its organizational structures.

The result of Grace’s study is a systematic deconstruction of many media-generated myths that were immediately projected onto the Kent State shootings and persist as a battle over the memory and meaning of May 4 that continues to the present day.  The events were not a tragic anomaly but were grounded in a tradition of student political activism that extended back to Ohio’s labor battles of the 1950s and to a decade of antiwar and black liberation struggles in the nation and on the campus itself.

As a public university in the American heartland, far from the coastal epicenters often associated with the 1960s movement,  Kent State proves in Grace’s account to be a microcosm of the national student antiwar movement of the “long sixties.”

The expansion of the university after World War II brought in growing numbers of working-class students from the industrial centers of northeast Ohio. Most of the Kent State activists  retained many of the core labor and New Deal values of their parents, despite disagreements about the Vietnam War.  They came from the same generational cohort as the American combat forces in Vietnam and the Ohio national guardsmen.

As the war’s rising costs came to be felt acutely in the home communities of Kent’s students, the growing antiwar movement on campus faced repression from the university administration and the political conservatives who dominated Portage County and the Ohio state government.

The deadly effort to suppress antiwar activism by gunfire on the campus was a logical stage of the cycle of radicalization and repression that began earlier in the 1960s and continued  well into the 1970s at Kent State. In the years that followed the shootings, contrary to myth, the antiwar movement continued to strengthen on campus, bolstered by an influx of returning Vietnam veterans.

One of the most original and useful features of this history  Grace provides us are updates on the life histories of the Kent State activists he studied. The vast majority of Kent State New Left activists remained actively committed to the social causes of their movement and incorporated these into their future life paths and careers.

Being somewhat older member of the same New Left generation as Thomas Grace, I appreciate how his detailed history focused on Kent State brings alive our shared history while demolishing many of the distortions perpetrated upon it.  It is no accident that many from our activist generation are helping to organize the Sanders democratic socialist candidacy that is proving attractive to  young people today.

Thomas M. Grace is adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College. A 1972 graduate of Kent State University, he earned a PhD in history from SUNY Buffalo after many years as a social worker and union representative.

 

 

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