- The Kent State Shootings, the Long 1960s, and the Contest Over Memory
On May 4, 1970, National Guard troops opened fire on the campus of Kent State University, discharging 67 shots in a 13-second barrage that killed four young people and injured nine others. Reactions in the aftermath reflected the deep polarization—both local and national—that had made the shootings possible. Students were stunned to discover that troops would open fire on unarmed young people on their own campus, and a few dreamed of vengeance. Most guardsmen, though, defended their actions, and opinion in the town of Kent strongly supported the Guard. The local newspaper received piles of letters critiquing the students and endorsing the actions of the soldiers. When Dean Kahler, paralyzed by a gunshot wound, opened the first card he received in the hospital, it began "Dear Communist Hippie Radical" and continued, "I hope by the time you get this you are dead. We don't need people like you" (Simpson and Wilson, p. 142). The passage of decades has cooled the heated rhetoric of 1970, but fundamental questions about the shootings at Kent State remain both important and contested. These three books seek to engage those issues and contribute to our understanding of this event.
Challenging several common myths about the shootings, Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties by Thomas M. Grace is the deeply researched, comprehensive, and critically insightful book that those who study and teach the history of the long 1960s have been waiting for. The child of Depression-era [End Page 518] parents and raised with a faith equal parts Catholicism and Democratic politics, Grace matriculated at Kent State in 1968. A campus activist who nevertheless attended both a history exam and a political science class prior to the noon protest on May 4, Grace was one of the students injured that day. Now a professional historian, Grace notes that "doing a history on an experience in which the author figures should give one some pause, as indeed it did for me" (p. 10). But he goes on to remind readers "there is no bias-free history. Good history, however, is fair-minded and faithful to the factual record" (p. 11). This is precisely the kind of history that Grace has produced. Written with honesty, care, and a keen critical eye, this book offers extraordinarily significant historical correctives and valuable new understandings.
Since 1970, popular narratives have expressed surprise that the shootings could have happened "at a place like Kent State," suggesting that this heartland campus was isolated from the political and cultural dynamics of the 1960s. Focusing his work on the broader history of the campus, state, region, and nation in the years 1958 through 1973, Grace challenges this assumption and situates the shootings in the history of political activism and dissent on the Kent State University campus amid a growing polarization between the campus and its community.
Kent State University in 1970, Grace tells us, was a campus dramatically different than it had been even three decades earlier. Like many U.S. institutions of higher learning, it had grown exponentially following World War Two due to veteran enrollments and the Cold War era's emphasis on higher education. With students drawn especially from the industrial cities of the region, political and cultural divides separated many of the students from the rural and conservative city and county in which they went to school. A racial divide also affected the lives of African American students, and Grace details the experiences of these students, making clear both the particular burdens they carried and the distinctive...