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  • Between Two WorldsA Look at the Impact of the Black Campus Movement on the Antiwar Era of 1968–1970 at Kent State University
  • Lae’l Hughes-Watkins (bio)

The Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, which resulted in the death of four students and the wounding of nine others at the hands of the Ohio National Guard, changed the antiwar movement in an immeasurable way. A number of historians, scholars, writers, and documentarians remain captivated by the series of events and its reverberating effect, which influenced the trajectory of the Vietnam War. For many, the grassy hillside where the shootings took place at Kent State remains hallowed ground and has become a place of pilgrimage for individuals who were greatly affected by those events. A wide cross section of individuals visits the grounds, including family members of victims, eyewitnesses, Vietnam veterans, and social activists. They all come annually during the commemoration and throughout the year to Kent State. Many aspects of the shootings have been studied, ranging from the actions of the Guardsmen, the response of the state and federal government, to the role of the demonstrators, even some of the various conspiracy theories. However, one facet that has received little attention is the role of race.

This article reframes the antiwar movement and the Kent State shootings through the lens of race and relies heavily on the narratives of African American alumni who were on the front lines of the black campus movement. It reviews how the movement impacted the level of African American students’ participation at Kent State University during the antiwar movement. Some African American alumni believe that the black campus movement prevented violence being directed at students of color during the Kent State shootings. [End Page 41] Tensions in race relations were quite high in the United States in response to the rise of the black power movement, a radical social movement that filled the void left by the unfulfilled promises of the civil rights movement. Scholars who have studied the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, have yet to dedicate a significant amount of attention to the impact of race on the antiwar effort, particularly the influence of the black student movement. This article serves as a springboard into that area of inquisition, detailing this period of Kent State history primarily from previously unexplored viewpoints of black students.

brief overview

In the mid-1960s, college campuses and universities from coast to coast were caught in a sea of demonstrations and protests. As people under the age of twenty-five outnumbered individuals over twenty-five years old, this rising constituency of the American population became a force academic institutions could not ignore; students began to “see their campuses as tools to foster societal change as many of them participated in the civil rights movement.”1 This demographic greatly changed the landscape of higher education and generated a new narrative for campuses around the country. Student activists showed an increasing awareness of global affairs, specifically the Vietnam War. A majority of black student activists and their supporters engaged in a push for racial parity within higher education, known as the black campus movement. The black student activists of the 1960s and 1970s would, unfortunately, fall victim to a national trend, where “gun-wielding National Guardsmen were called in to suppress ghetto rebellions, wounding and killing innocent African Americans in the name of law and order.” These rash acts of violence swept across city streets and college campuses.2

Kent State University was just one of the thousands of colleges and universities that had to respond to dual challenges: the demands of a black demographic who felt their civil rights were under siege and the frustrations of a predominantly white antiwar movement. On May 4, 1970, Kent State gained international attention for the killing of four white students and the wounding [End Page 42] of nine others at the hands of the Ohio National Guard during a rally against the United States’ invasion of Cambodia. However, this type of militarized violence at historically black colleges and universities in southern states did not gain such widespread attention, such as the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968, where three...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6042
Print ISSN
0030-0934
Pages
pp. 41-64
Launched on MUSE
2017-02-02
Open Access
No
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