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50 years later: Kent State shootings have left impressions, misconceptions

‘A hard lesson’ on 50th anniversary of Kent State shootings

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Impressions and misconceptions

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels by the body of student Jeffrey G. Miller, 20, on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio. This photo by John Paul Filo won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Fifty years ago, Thomas M. Grace received a lesson, a reality check, on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio.

“It was a hard lesson, but it was a lesson that had already been taught to other people before it was taught to me and it’s been taught to people since me,” he said.

It was a lesson on dissent.

“There’s a price that you pay when you go up against authority and you are making yourself effective. The system that we live under will tolerate dissent up to a point. And then they’re going to try to stop it,” he said.

Four students were killed and nine wounded on Monday, May 4, 1970 when National Guardsmen at Kent State shot into a crowd of students protesting the Vietnam War on campus. Mr. Grace, a native of Syracuse, whose father, Thomas V. Grace, once served as a medic in the Korean War based out of Camp Drum, was one of the students wounded when the shots zinged through the campus grounds that day. Two students who died had not participated in the protests.

Impressions and misconceptions

Thomas M. Grace, wounded at Kent State University and now a sought-after scholar on the 1960s, speaks at the college. Christian Bobak photo

These days, Mr. Grace, an adjunct professor at Erie Community College, is providing his own lessons and reality checks for others about the Kent State tragedy. A 1972 graduate of Kent State, he later earned a Ph.D in history from SUNY Buffalo after many years as a social worker and union representative.

In 2016, his book, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties,” was published by University of Massachusetts Press. Mr. Grace is a sought-after lecturer at conferences that focus on the Vietnam War and Kent State. For example, last summer, he was a keynote speaker for a conference of Ohio educators. He focused on how middle and high school textbooks have treated the Kent State shootings. In October, he presented a paper at Kent State for a peace histories studies conference that focused on Vietnam veterans against the war. In January, he was on a panel in New York City hosted by the American Historical Association.

On Monday, The Nation is scheduled to publish, online, an essay by Mr. Grace about Kent State.

Impressions and misconceptions

Syracuse native Thomas M. Grace authored, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.” University of Massachusetts Press photo

But his most recent presentation occurred just before the COVID-19 crisis hit full stride and it clarifies a major misconception about the Kent State tragedy. On Feb. 29, Mr. Grace returned to the Ohio campus and presented a paper and keynote talk on the Ohio National Guard and the Kent State killings.

“It’s probably one of the most misunderstood parts of the Kent State story,” Mr. Grace said in a phone interview from his home in Amherst, Erie County.

A ‘false narrative’

The common misconception, Mr. Grace said, is that the 77 National Guardsmen involved were a bunch of rookies and their inexperience was a factor that led to the tragedy. That tone was picked up by officials ranging from Vice President Spiro Agnew to President Richard Nixon’s speech writer, Ray Price. In his Feb. 29 presentation, Mr. Grace recalled that the speech writer called the guardsmen “a bunch of scared kids with guns.”

Mr. Grace said that Mr. Agnew was the first to talk about the “youthful immaturity of the guard,” but not having any sense of who they were.

“That kind of set the cascade in motion, where this false narrative was created where it was a case of kids shooting kids,” he said.

When the age of the company officers were taken into account, the average age of the soldiers was in the mid-20s.

“The brigadier general, whose faulty military decisions probably did more than anything else to create the situation where the shootings occurred, Robert Canterbury, was 55,” Mr. Grace said.

Overall, Mr. Grace came out with a “mean age of about 27.” Six of the guardsmen were full-or part-time police officers.

The Ohio National Guard, Mr. Grace said, had been mobilized more than any other Guard unit or state militia unit in the country in the 1960s.

“The guard units that were brought into Kent were brought in after policing a wildcat Teamsters strike,” Mr. Grace said. “But before that, they had done or had seen service in Akron and Cleveland in terms of suppressing uprisings in the African-American sections in those two cities.’

There are also misconceptions about the makeup of the crowd that day.

Impressions and misconceptions

Tear gas is launched at demonstrators May 4, 1970 on the Kent State campus. Kent State University Libraries, special collections

“On May 4, I’ve been able to identify about two dozen ex-soldiers that were either present and/or who were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard,” Mr. Grace said. “Here, you had a case where probably at least half of the guardsmen who had sought to enroll in the guard were doing so to avoid going to Vietnam, shooting into a crowd of people trying to stop the war that included people who had already fought in it, came back, and were now protesting it.”

That crowd makeup, he said, is key in the historic narrative of what happened May 4, 1970.

“The reason it’s important is because, once again, there was this popular narrative at the time that every person who was in college was some type of pampered snot who didn’t know how good he or she had it and that the real heroes of the country were over there fighting the war,” Mr. Grace said. “So when somebody digs into the story of Kent State, it all of a sudden becomes more complicated.”

The community of Kent, Ohio, Mr. Grace noted, is surrounded by industrial cities such as Cleveland, Warren, Youngstown and Akron.

“The kids who were going to school at Kent State were very often the first in their families to go to school, and often the sons and daughters of the working class,” Mr. Grace said. “It was the same demographic that fought in Vietnam.”

Protests continued

Mr. Grace also disputes the notion that the shootings “were the end of the 1960s” and its related protests. The popular narrative, he said, is that “people concluded that the price of dissent was too high and they didn’t want to take those risks any longer.”

“The reality at Kent State is that once students recovered their sea legs and had to respond to 25 indictments against 24 protesters and one professor, that the students began to reorganize, not only against the indictments leveled at them by a county grand jury, but also against the Vietnam War.”

Protests continued on campus and around the nation. On April 19, 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War began a five-day demonstration in Washington, D.C.

“I think that was one of the turning points against the war,” Mr. Grace said.

The 1971 May Day Protests in Washington, D.C., by thousands of protesters shut down traffic.

“Somehow, people who wrote some of the early histories of this period managed to overlook all of this, even though the evidence was right in front of them,” Mr. Grace said.

At Kent State, there were protests in the early 1970s when college officials wanted to build a gymnasium on ground where the National Guard had maneuvered on May 4, 1970. Parents of students killed and wounded were among those arrested, including the parents of slain Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, of Youngstown, Ohio.

“Sandy was in the ambulance with me on route to the hospital,” Mr. Grace said. “She took an M-1 round through the neck. She was probably dead by the time they put her in the ambulance.”

Mr. Grace was shot through an ankle. He has grown tired of recalling that day when asked about it.

“I don’t want someone to feel sorry for me,” he said. “It could have been so much worse. In the main, I’ve led a pretty normal life.”

Impressions and misconceptions

Lauren Evans of Redwood was on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970 when a shooting took place, killing and wounding students. “I was in the student union and was ready to go down to see what was going on, when kaboom, it all blew up and we knew that we shouldn’t advance toward the activity but to just go away from it,” she said. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

‘It all blew up’

Lauren Evans, Redwood, wasn’t involved in political protests when she began as a student at Kent State in the fall of 1969 as a sophomore.

The Rochester native had bounced around other colleges — Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross in Washington, D.C., the University of Rochester and Mohawk Valley Community College — before enrolling at Kent State.

“I was an art student, and like many, I just wanted to get out of state and be on my own,” Ms. Evans said.

She lived off campus, in Ravenna, about 10 miles north of Kent State

“I didn’t spend a lot of time on campus, other than my courses,” Ms. Evans said. “It was a friendly campus. I wasn’t real political at the time, so I didn’t mix in with a lot of protests or talk about the war. I wasn’t living on campus so I didn’t see that much of it — that part of student life.’

Ms. Evans now says she’s “kind of embarrassed” to admit her lack of interest in her world at the time.

“I wish I would have taken more interest,” she said. “I just think it’s so important, especially in today’s climate. Be politically active — aware.”

Ms. Evans was on campus on May 4, 1970 when the students were killed and wounded.

“I was in the student union and was ready to go down to see what was going on, when kaboom, it all blew up and we knew that we shouldn’t advance toward the activity but to just go away from it,” she said. “I was aware there was a lot of stuff going on as I went outside, but I didn’t really know of the seriousness as it was transpiring.”

Impressions and misconceptions

Students duck and take cover when gunshots are heard at Kent State University, May 4, 1970. Kent State University Libraries, special collections

She had a brush with an iconic, Pulitzer-prize winning photo that came out of that day that shows student Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling and crying out over the body of slain Jeffrey G. Miller, of Plainview, Long Island.

“She ran right by me when I was on my way to my car,” Ms. Evans said. “She just tore by me in a panic. At that time, we knew the shootings had happened and it was just time to get away from campus.”

The campus atmosphere was shock and disbelief, she said. Classes didn’t resume on campus until six weeks had passed.

Ms. Evans, after earning a teaching certificate from St. Lawrence University, Canton, would eventually get a job as an art teacher at Indian River Central School District, from where she retired in 2007. She takes part in seasonal craft shows and still pursues her interest in art, mainly ceramics.

“I know I was influenced by what happened at Kent State,” she said. “To be present at such an important event, even though I wasn’t personally involved, informed who I am today.”

Impressions and misconceptions

Lauren Evans, of Redwood, was on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970 where four students were killed and nine others wounded by National Guardsmen. “I was in the student union and was ready to go down to see what was going on, when kaboom, it all blew up and we knew that we shouldn’t advance toward the activity, but to just go away from it,” she said. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

As she matured, Ms. Evans said she became more aware of the importance of listening to and reading the news and caring about it.

“I hope today’s younger generations are doing the same,” she said. “The notion that there is ‘fake news’ is dangerous. I think it’s a fabrication that will be with us for a long time, thanks to Trump. I encourage everyone to check their facts, care enough to find the truth and vote.”

Exhibits: A volatile mix

Renowned Rochester photographer Richard Margolis is a summer resident of Thousand Island Park who graduated from Kent State in 1969. While a student, he worked for the college’s sports department and news service, shooting photos. He lived in Kent, working as a photographer, until 1972. In 1978, he received a master’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and later taught at SUNY Brockport.

His work has been in more than 100 solo exhibitions, many more group shows, has appeared in several publications, and his work can be found in more than 500 private and public collections.

Last year, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 12, Mr. Margolis had an exhibit featured at the Cleveland Photo Fest with subjects that combined Kent State protests with rallies of a different nature.

The exhibit “Upheaval: Anti-War Events at Kent State & Ohio Ku Klux Klan Rallies” featured Mr. Margolis’s work from rallies that were four years and 45 miles apart.

Impressions and misconceptions

Margolis / RIT

“I think Ohio politicians were tolerant of the KKK, but they thought of anti-war protesters as criminals,” Mr. Margolis said. “The Klansmen were local guys, good ole’ guys. The anti-war students, a lot of them came from New York, out of state, attracted by low tuition in Ohio. A college town is almost always more liberal than the surrounding farmland. That happened at Kent.”

His KKK shots were taken in 1965 and 1966. He described himself as a “tourist” at the rallies, “attracted by what sounded at the time like a gathering of mythological creatures, perhaps akin to Civil War re-enactors, or Martians, or modern day cave dwellers.”

“I think the tolerance that allowed KKK rallies could — obviously did — lead to an attitude toward anti-war protesters that permitted killing students, some of them on their way to class,” he said.

Mr. Margolis’s photos in “Upheaval” at Kent were taken at rallies in 1970 before the May 4 tragedy. He said he was in his darkroom, located downtown in Kent, when he heard sirens going by in response to the shootings.

“I got up to the campus about an hour-and-a-half after the shootings,” he said. “There was still blood in the parking lot.”

He recalls photographing a Volkswagen with its windows “blown out.”

“I haven’t found my negatives from that day,” he said.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment


A couple of days after I read this article, a friend of mine sent me an email with a link to it. He said, "This is probably the best piece that guy has ever written."

Thank you for your wonderful work on this, Chris. Outstanding.

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