The Kent State Story

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

Rick Feinberg

Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties:
A History of What Happened at Kent State and Why, Written by One Who was There
By Thomas M. Grace
University of Massachusetts Press, 2016, 384 pages. Photographs, appendix, acknowledgements, notes, index, $29.95 paperback.

MUCH HAS BEEN written about student protests of the 1960s and the fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University by Ohio’s National Guard on May 4, 1970. Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties fills an important niche by contextualizing antiwar activities and the Kent State killings in relation to other movements for political and social change. In doing so, it recounts key events dating to the 1950s and brings them forward into the present century.

Author Tom Grace is a historian, and his book is a thoroughly documented historical treatise; but it is equally an ethnographic and ethnohistorical monograph. Anthropologists, since the early 20th century, have relied on “participant observation” for data collection. They live in the communities they wish to study, take part in local activities, and learn to see the world from the perspective of their interlocutors. Grace was a Kent State activist in the late 1960s and early ’70s. For a time he roomed with protest leader Alan Canfora, and the roommates were among the nine students wounded on May 4th.

Also in good anthropological fashion, Grace’s research includes interviews with scores of fellow movement participants, eliciting their recollections and assessments of assorted organizations, key actors, and critical occurrences. He explores diverse perspectives on how to build an effective movement and the sometimes-rancorous debates as well as points of unity and cooperation.

An activist who knew many of the principals and has maintained social contact with some of them, he was well positioned to follow up with detailed conversations. His extensive network is evident in a four-page “Acknowledgements” section and a nine-page appendix summarizing what eventually became of dozens of the story’s protagonists.

One might expect a writer with Grace’s background to produce an angry diatribe against the power brokers, law enforcement officers and National Guard. Instead, he adopts an academic voice, examining events coolly and analytically. He tries, with some success, to understand the perspectives of actors on all sides. Not only does he explore the biographical background, experience, and political and intellectual orientation of movement participants; he inquires into the mindset of Guardsmen, university administrators, and political leaders. He examines their internal conflicts and ambivalences, how their ways of thinking evolved, and the actions they produced.

Involvement in Events

It is atypical for a historian to write about events in which he was an active participant, and it is equally unusual to review a book about events in which the reviewer was involved, directly or indirectly. From 1965 through 1969 I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. I was active in the movement to end the Vietnam War and represented Berkeley’s Vietnam Day Committee at a 1966 national conference, held at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, which led to creation of the Spring Mobilization Committee and the massive antiwar demonstrations of April 1967. I took part in a sit-in to preserve an experimental class taught by Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, was suspended for my support of the Third World Liberation Front student strike in spring of 1969, and covered the events of “People’s Park” for The Militant newspaper.

In spring of 1970, I was completing my first year of graduate school at the University of Chicago when news arrived of the Kent State shootings. At a mass meeting that evening, U of C students resolved to strike in solidarity with the Kent activists. One consequence was that a midterm scheduled for May 5th was changed from in-class to a take-home, and I’m certain my performance benefitted from that change. In that way, Kent State played a role in my graduate career and its successful outcome. Still, I never imagined that Kent would be my academic home for 44 years, from 1974 through my retirement in 2018.

While working there I came to know many leaders of the local antiwar movement, several of whom Grace discusses in his book, and in 1977 I was actively involved in the effort to keep the university from constructing a gymnasium annex on the site of the shooting. In short, I have first-hand knowledge of the people and events that fill the pages of Grace’s book. Thus I’m fairly well positioned to assess the accuracy of many of his observations, but I am not an unbiased observer.

Death and Dissent begins with a discussion of Grace’s personal experiences at Kent State as a student and participant in SDS and the antiwar movement. He reviews Ohio’s labor movement of the 1950s, focusing on successful resistance to imposition of a “right to work” law. He considers the history of Kent State University as it evolved from a teachers’ college in a small Ohio city during the early 20th century to a full-scale university by midcentury and ultimately a significant research institution.

He looks at the sometimes fraught relationship between the university and other local residents as well as the complex relations among state and local political leaders, the business community, area newspapers, the Board of Trustees (led for many years by the publisher of the local paper, the Ravenna-Kent Record Courier), and how those pressures affected actions of the university administration.

In that context Grace considers the civil rights movement, which developed in the 1950s and blossomed in the 1960s. Locally, African Americans and their supporters organized to oppose discrimination in housing and to integrate a popular downtown bar. The middle to late ‘60s saw the formation of Black United Students, which pushed to increase minority admissions to the university, hire more Black faculty and staff, and establish a Black Studies program (which eventually became Kent’s Department of Pan African Studies).

Antiwar Momentum

By the mid-’60s opposition to the Vietnam War was gaining national momentum. Early on at Kent, as in many other places, hecklers and counter-protesters severely outnumbered the antiwar activists, but within a few years the dynamics were reversed.

Grace examines the complex relationship between Kent’s Black Power and (mostly white) antiwar movements. Each was generally sympathetic to the other’s objectives, and they sometimes supported one another’s demonstrations. Their immediate goals differed, however, and the administration was occasionally able to exploit those differences to drive a wedge between the two.

At the outset Kent’s antiwar movement was spearheaded by members of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), youth arm of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Later, a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was organized on campus and played a major role in the runup to the events of 1970.

As the war in Southeast Asia dragged on, opposition grew increasingly widespread. The draft, which disproportionately targeted young working-class — especially African American — men, accounted in part for the decline in support for the war effort. KSU predominantly served students from working class families, leading to a connection between antiwar and pro-union sympathies.

As antiwar sentiment grew, power brokers on and off campus sought to discourage activism. SDS was banned from the Kent campus, and the chapter disbanded. When the war continued despite massive protests, activists became frustrated and angry, and many engaged in increasingly militant actions.

In that light Grace examines the sometimes violent protests at the 1968 Democratic Party convention, and SDS’s 1969 split into a Progressive Labor Party-backed faction called the Worker-Student Alliance and the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM). A little later, RYM split into the adventurist Weathermen and Maoist RYM II.

The book’s greatest strength is its careful assessment of the strategies and tactics advocated by different branches of the student movement while maintaining empathy with all sides and avoiding moral judgment.

For the most part, I agree with Grace’s assessments. For example, he observes in several places that attempts by political leaders and university administrators to suppress dissent had the effect of building support for movement activities. That corresponds with my observations at Berkeley and elsewhere.

One area of mild disagreement is Grace’s characterization of the YSA/SWP’s “cautious” approach vis-à-vis the “more militant” approach of SDS. I understand the logic behind that contrast: The YSA/SWP never advocated acts of arson, smashing bank windows, or building bombs, while at least a few SDS members or former members did pursue such actions. The SWP’s goal, however, to build a democratic workers’ state based on collective ownership of the means of production, was not less radical than that of SDS. The difference was that SWP members believed a fundamental reconfiguration of society could only be accomplished by convincing ordinary working people that such reorganization would substantially improve their lives. Detonating bombs and burning buildings, in their view, would only alienate those whose backing was critical.

The SWP’s strategic outlook, in turn, led it to advocate creation of single-issue antiwar coalitions. The logic, which Grace does not spell out, was that it would be self-defeating to exclude opponents of the war unless they also accepted a full-scale critique of capitalism. Rather than reject the support of individuals who failed to agree with them on everything, the approach was to welcome all comers, introduce them individually to a revolutionary socialist perspective, demonstrate responsible, effective leadership, and ultimately to recruit new members to the party. That approach made sense to me at the time, and it still does.

Counterculture and Politics

Another minor disagreement is Grace’s characterization of 1960s counterculture and the antiwar movement as separate undertakings. In my experience, hippies generally shared activists’ critique of the war as well as many other aspects of the extant social system. They spoke against imperialism, militarism and domestic injustice and, when the offending practices continued, they became frustrated. Then, instead of dedicating themselves to a long-term strategy of building support for their goals, they opted, in Timothy Leary’s words, to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” They did not need to be convinced to oppose U.S. involvement in Vietnam; rather, when they saw large numbers of their fellow citizens engaged in public protest, they gladly joined the action.

Death and Dissent is thoroughly re­searched and detailed. If anything, it may contain too much detail; it is easy even for a reader familiar with many of the people and events to get lost in all the names, dates, organizations, and acronyms. Still, for a historical document, it is better to err on the side of too much detail than too little.

I did find a few errors but most of them are slight. For example, Grace reports that emeritus history professor Ken Calkins “continues to reside in Kent.” (276) In fact, he moved to the nearby town of Garrettsville shortly after retirement. The volume could have benefitted from more careful copy editing. Happily, however, the small miscues rarely interfere with the reader’s ability to follow the text.

Death and Dissent is an important contribution to our knowledge of the 1960s student movement and, particularly, the antiwar movement at Kent State. It is well written and in places truly engaging. I learned a great deal from reading it — even with respect to people I have known for years and events I witnessed. This book should be high on the reading list of anyone who seeks to understand the politics of “the long sixties.”

May-June 2019, ATC 200