This book grew out of the 2009 meeting of the annual “Symposium on Democracy” at Kent State University. Established in 2000, the symposium is both “a living memorial” to those who died in the May 4, 1970 shootings, and an opportunity to promote “scholarship that seeks to prevent violence and to promote democratic values and civil discourse” (viii). The 2009 symposium’s title was “Re-membering: Framing, [End Page 117] Embracing, Revising History,” and the volume’s three sections deal, accordingly, with (I) balancing historical events and “eternal concerns,” (II) “shaping public memory and raising public consciousness” via media culture, and (III) examining “acts of remembrance and reconciliation within local communities” (viii–ix).
The editors, Carole Barbato and Laura Davis, argue that the historical meanings discussed in this volume hold “relevance for a particular community but also [speak] indelibly to the human community,” making “meaning of past history in order to serve the future” (ix). Using the Kent State tragedy as its starting point, the collection dives into timeless topics such as dissent, war, peace, race, globalization, and state power. All of this is handled both provocatively and, at times, awkwardly.
The first section eases the reader into historical events, covering early anniversaries and international reverberations of the 1970 shootings. That said, the fact-based “This We Know” chronicle, composed by the editors plus Mark Seeman and provided as an appendix, ought to be read by the uninitiated before tackling the first essays. Closing the section is Jay Winter’s provocative, philosophical piece on the virtues and vices of socially constructed silence. The next section’s media culture essays are a positive—as much about the meaning of journalism as about Kent State. Edward Morgan’s piece stands out as an excellent introduction to sixties-era media coverage and biases. In the final section, Renee Romano’s contribution is impressive, exploring the benefits of “turning to models popular outside the United States” in order to “grapple with . . . contested history”: a truth and reconciliation commission (160–61). He discusses this in relation to the 1979 shooting of anti-Klan activists in Greensboro, NC, but argues it should be applied to violent historical events where history and memory are contested (161–62).
The most disappointing aspect of this volume, in relation to the topics advertised in its title, is its relative silence on the headlining adjective “democratic.” It is present explicitly in the Devan Bissonette essay (section two), and implicitly in Cathy J. Collins’s recounting of the struggle to commemorate school desegregation in Little Rock (section three). Even Winter’s piece would have been stronger in relation to the volume if it had addressed the topic of silence in a democracy—i.e., Can democracy stand silence, no matter the latter’s usefulness? Instead, the excellence of Winter’s essay merely fits into a constellation of essays only loosely related to the book’s title. Given the unevenness with which the primary essays address the “democratic” adjective, one might expect the section introductions—which attempt to tie together the contributions—to do that heavy lifting. Sadly, those pieces generally neglect both descriptive and normative discussions of democratic narrative, history, and memory.
Despite its deficiencies in making “democratic” theory and applications explicit, this is an informative, thoughtful volume that will educate the reader on the Kent State tragedy, as well as the problems of memory, contested narratives, commemoration, and social justice. The book could be fruitfully utilized in undergraduate and graduate courses on public history, the Sixties, historical theory/methods, and postwar America, as well as by professional public historians. [End Page 118]