- Reviewed by
“Doing a history in which the author figures should give one some pause, as indeed it did for me,” cautions Thomas M. Grace in Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties (p. 11). An adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College, with a doctorate in history from SUNY Buffalo, Grace, to his own professed chagrin, is best known as one of the nine wounded survivors of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970. The “death” in his title refers to the murder of four of his classmates by members of the Ohio National Guard (ONG) on that same day. Yet it is “dissent”—and not just the immediate events leading up to the dead and wounded—that is the primary focus of Grace’s formidable research.
Trite notions of the conservative “Heartland,” and the May 1970 protest as occurring without precedent (and thus likely the design of nebulous “outside agitators”), have persisted in the popular imagination since James Michener’s Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971) became the first major publication on the topic. Grace eschews overheated narrative in favor of academic rigor by foregrounding the socioeconomic factors that led to an influx of working-class students at Kent State. Coined a “suitcase school” due to a disproportionate number of off-campus students, KSU saw its ranks swell dramatically in the 1960s, and not just from neighboring larger cities like Cleveland and Akron (whose oft-ignored cultural influence on the region are thoroughly documented here). There also were a growing number of out-of-state students, including the author, who arrived as an undergraduate in 1966.
Grace’s extensive use of primary-source materials (including original newspaper accounts, voluminous archival records, and more than forty interviews conducted by the author himself) refutes much of the conventional wisdom about the university, town, and region. Tracing the earliest official example of KSU student activism to May 11, [End Page 302] 1961, when forty members of the fledgling Kent Council on Human Affairs (CHA) picketed outside the Administrative Building to dispute discriminatory practices against African American students in off-campus housing, Grace depicts a Kent State student body attuned to the cultural upheavals of the decade. Organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Young Socialists Alliance (YSA), Black United Students (BUS), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the Kent Committee to End the War in Vietnam (KCEWV) paralleled similar movements on other national campuses, as did the almost uniformly hostile response by university administrators.
The haphazard rise and decline of Kent SDS in 1968–1969, from virtually no campus presence to its highly publicized disintegration and expulsion, serves as a crucial turning point in Grace’s account. Protests against the Vietnam War, starting with the relatively quaint six-member YSA demonstration in February 1965, had intensified in tenor and numbers by the time of President Richard Nixon’s incendiary Cambodia speech on April 30, 1970. It is here (after approximately two hundred pages) that Grace ventures into more familiar terrain, recounting the events from May 1–4 that led to the cataclysmic confrontation between KSU students and the ONG. The most compelling details in this section are revealed through insets describing the author’s own thoughts, actions, and whereabouts on the day of the shootings. So effective are these first-person ruminations that one wishes Grace had employed them in earlier chapters, perhaps charting the evolution of his own political consciousness during his years at Kent. (Given his expressed desire to “study history, not to be part of it” [p.10], he may have been reluctant to use them at all.)
Additionally, the provocative supposition that the shootings were not the death-knell of 1960s activism, as is widely assumed, but rather stoked a protest movement that “only grew larger and more diverse in the years following May 4,” warrants more explication than Grace’s concluding chapter has room to offer (p. 266). Another book, on the aftermath, would be a...