- “Kent State”: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties by Thomas M. Grace
Thomas M. Grace was a sophomore and student activist at Kent State University who was shot by a member of the National Guard on May 4, 1970. After decades of reflection and years of focused archival and oral history, Grace has written the most comprehensive account of activism at KSU to date. Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties traces the development and evolution of student protest at KSU from its origins in the 1950s through the mid-1970s. Focusing on events in northeast Ohio, the book is an informative and at times troubling narrative of the conflicts that arose when the people of Portage County and the city of Kent experienced challenges to their conservative small-town way of life as KSU grew in size, diversity, and political/social activism.
The book begins with Grace’s personal recollections of being shot before transitioning into a more traditional monograph consisting of fourteen chronological chapters that seamlessly locate the developments at KSU within the various historical milieus of Kent, Porter County, Ohio, and the nation at large (Grace includes his personal observations in notes and sidebars). The first two chapters trace the origins of activism at KSU by exploring the personal relationships, influences, and events that shaped its future leaders. Grace demonstrates through contextualized biographical accounts of numerous individuals how the urban blue-collar struggle to suppress right-to-work legislation in the 1950s, the civil rights demonstrations in Kent and northeast Ohio in the early 1960s, and the early efforts of the free speech movement at KSU formed the “lasting bonds that served as a foundation for years of activism still ahead” (24).
The next five chapters detail the founding and development of the numerous New Left and civil rights organizations at or near KSU through the mid-1960s. Chapter 8 describes the temporary cooperation between and philosophical differences of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black [End Page 94] United Students at KSU. The next two chapters cover the unsuccessful 1969 “spring offensive” by the SDS and the organization’s subsequent collapse and loss of influence at KSU. Chapters 11 and 12 provide a detailed and gripping account of the events leading up to and including the May 4 shootings. The final two chapters examine the continuous activism at KSU through the mid-1970s. Finally, the book concludes with an epilogue and an appendix that explore the memory of the shootings as well as the future careers of the KSU activists.
In this work, Grace makes several important scholarly contributions. First, he corrects an assumption made by many historians that KSU was “an activist backwater” and the least likely place for a student movement to arise (8). According to Grace, it was KSU’s proximity to Cleveland’s “labor, civil rights, peace, and antiwar struggles” in combination with an influx of out-of-state students that led to the emergence of student activism at KSU at the beginning of the 1960s (7–8).
Secondly, Grace argues that when viewed “through the prism of economic class, Kent’s activist students can be understood as political cultural agents, rather than as victims or lawbreakers” (7). While this class-centric analysis is not new, Grace’s detailed case study is an insightful examination of how different social and economic backgrounds influenced the choices of individual activists.
Finally, Grace makes the case for expanding the scope of research concerning student activism. In addition to extending the traditional narrative back in time, he also demonstrates that, contrary to most histories, the Kent State shootings did not mark the end of student activism at KSU. Grace traces KSU’s student activism through the mid-1970s, an area that has received little scholarly attention.
Grace supports his arguments with archival materials, newspapers, and interviews that he conducted from 1989 to 2015. While a degree of skepticism regarding Grace’s insider status is to be expected...