by Victoria Jones
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.”
Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were their names. These students are the “four dead in Ohio” to which the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio” pays tribute. Ultimately becoming an anthem for the anti-war movement and even banned by some radio stations, the song was recorded just weeks after the incident it was composed in response to: the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970.
The Vietnam War was well underway by then. The United States had steadily increased its role in the conflict since November 1955, when Eisenhower first sent military advisors to the region. March 1965 marked the first deployment of US combat troops, while the anti-war movement at home continued to sweep across the country. In December 1969, the draft lottery was held, which only served to strengthen discontent already felt by American youth when it came to the war.
On April 30 of the following year, President Nixon announced the US invasion of Cambodia. This was a breaking point; as he made this decision to escalate the war, not only had Nixon failed to listen to what millions of citizens had been demanding, but he had done so without congressional approval. The development triggered an even greater surge in anti-war demonstrations, including those at Kent State University.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that what took place on that Monday, May 4 has become a haunting tale, deeply embedded in the psyche of the local community—and one that forever altered the collective conscience of the nation.
I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Chic Canfora, a professor of journalism at Kent State and one of the student activists who participated in the protests on that fateful day exactly 50 years ago.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
VJ: Could you talk a bit about how you got involved in the anti-war movement?
CC: Well, I didn’t arrive at Kent State in 1968 as an anti-war protester. I didn’t arrive with any political motivation at all. I arrived, as many young women did at the time, largely unaware [of the events], except for the fact that many of our classmates were either going off to college or to war. Having grown up in a military household where both my mother and father were World War II veterans, I grew up going through my mother’s army scrapbooks and seeing war and service in the military as just part of life in America.
That said, I didn't really pay much attention to the war in Vietnam until my friends started coming back from there, telling me that what we were seeing on television from our government leaders was not really what was happening there. Many of them said, “I’m not over there fighting for what I believe in,” and many of them seemed emotionally scarred by their experience. And some didn’t come home at all, except in a body bag or a box.
Those were jarring experiences that made me go from a student who walked by the anti-war protesters to a student who paused to listen, a student who started to read and to learn more. And the more I learned about the war, the more it didn’t make sense to me. The more I felt that America, who I always saw as being the good guys, might be the bad guys in this case. And that was disturbing for me at the age of 18, to ponder, for the first time, the reality that my government wasn’t honest, or my government wasn’t fair and wasn’t going around the world propping up democracies, dabbling in civil wars for their own political and economic interests. And that disturbed me greatly.
I think the real turning point for me was the draft. I had two brothers of draft age who didn’t believe in the war, who would be put in a kill-or-be-killed position and have to go off to Southeast Asia. It was then that I became more actively involved in anti-war protests near the end of my freshman year and throughout my sophomore year—the shootings happened at the end of my sophomore year.
VJ: When you started hearing these stories from your friends, did it make you feel like you couldn’t trust the media reporting on the war? How did you feel about where you were getting information?
CC: Well, it was the year of Walter Cronkite and the era of the fairness doctrine, where, if there was an issue of war, you would have one point of view and a credible source on one side of the issue and a credible source on the other side of the issue. Under the fairness doctrine, you had to include both. Of course, we lost that in the Reagan era, which paved the way for media conglomeration now and the corporate controlled press we have today. But back then, Walter Cronkite played a very significant role in showing the realities of war. Images became far more alarming, disturbing, and motivating for the anti-war movement, particularly during the Tet Offensive. And the horrible images that came back from the My Lai massacre made it not just college students and hippies that seemed to be anti-war protesters, but Middle America started to change their opinions on the war, seeing those horrible images.
But I was more motivated, not just because of all the evidence I was seeing that what we were doing there was wrong, but I was so impressed by this very vibrant, active, and determined group of young activists on my campus. They were always distributing literature, always on a bullhorn, marching on the campus, educating people about what was happening in the world. And while I didn’t pay attention to them when I first arrived, I grew to admire them greatly because they had played a real part in my slow recognition that something important was happening. My first political action happened at the end of my sophomore year, when those leaders that I admired so much were being expelled from campus for their political action. It was the first time that I faced arrest—and I mean that’s a whole other story—but it was the first time I recognized that I truly had arrived in a place that I felt comfortable being, and I was willing to take risks to stand up for what I believed in.
VJ: It seems that there were several groups that came together under the anti-war banner; what allowed for all these different activists to unite under one cause?
CC: It’s interesting that you pose it that way, because I happened to hear a group of high school activists in Baltimore on a panel—one of them said, “Well you guys really had it made in the 60s because you had the war to rally around. And we don’t have that.” And I was just shocked that young people today were not all collectively rallying around student loan debt. [They] have been robbed of their opportunity to be young, alive, and dreaming of a future that they envision for themselves. So I don’t understand why that war on youthful idealism isn’t enough for them to rally around like the war in Southeast Asia was for us.
What brought us together as women, as African-Americans, as laborers, and others who had our individual causes in the 60s was the fact that we didn’t have the right to vote. We were all young people, but we couldn’t vote for the people that were making decisions about our bodies, our lives, about war and peace. And so it was easy to coalesce around those common themes. The wage and wealth disparity that awaits [young people today], if they are lucky enough to find jobs, is a reality for all of them, every bit as much as the war was a reality for all of us in 1970. So, I don’t think it’s any different, I just think the war that needs to be waged or brought to its knees, as it was in our case, is more at home right now.
Young people don’t have much of a chance if they don’t recognize the power they have—that we secured for them, that the Constitution guarantees them—the right to assemble and act on their conscience and make a better world. Because what we found in 1970 at Kent State, which is what May 4, 1970 was all about, [was that] although we had a lot of militant actions that happened over the weekend on Friday night with breaking windows and spray painting buildings, and Saturday, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) building came down...Our real power lied in the most peaceful thing we did all weekend—and that was to gather on Monday to call for a national student strike. To join with students at Rutgers and Columbia and Berkeley and Ann Arbor, Ohio State, and elsewhere, to say, “No more. We will not go back to class. We will not graduate from this university or our universities. We will not enter your corporate offices or become your doctors, until you stop this war.”
VJ: I was wondering if we could go back and talk a bit about the actual events of May 4 and the days leading up to it. Can you share what was going through your head during those moments?
CC: Well, of course it was the invasion of Cambodia that sparked protests all over the country. And that was true at Kent State. Nixon had promised to wind down the war. We were already tired from marching and petitioning the government to wind that war down and bring our friends home. Just less than two weeks before May 4, my brother’s closest friend from childhood, Bill Caldwell, who was in my class and close to me because our names were side by side—Caldwell and Canfora—had died in Vietnam. His brother was living with my brother at the time. And it was one of the saddest moments that I can recall during my sophomore year, when we attended his funeral and watched the grief on his mother’s face when they handed her the flag, which was all she had left of him. He was such a talented and bright and likable young person who was killed, and, like so many of our friends who came home, was destroyed by that war.
War changes you. For us, we were watching young men who, a year before, had basketball uniforms on in high school that were now describing horrible things they did to human beings as if they were, you know, trophies. It’s a jarring thing to see the many ways that war destroys the lives of young people. Bill was run over by an American tank—his brother had talked him into going into tanks because he felt it was a safer place for him to be—but one of his own men ran over him, which was a horrible way to die. With that memory so fresh in our minds at the time that Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia, it was not surprising that our group of friends was among the most vocal and most active in opposition to the invasion of Cambodia that started in [downtown Kent] on the evening of Friday, May 1.
During that protest, a small bonfire was started in a trash can in the middle of the street, where we were just trying to take to the streets, chanting anti-war slogans and hoping people would join us. The police came and did the stupidest thing I ever saw, which was empty the bars into the streets. They closed the bars and essentially had just brought more people out into the streets.
While there were political activists on Friday who were willing to go to jail for malicious destruction of property because they felt strong enough to spray paint “US out of Cambodia” on a wall or, in my case, throw a rock through the window of the army recruitment office, there were also some opportunists or just naive people from the bars who were drunk or careless and started to damage property of the local shop owners. [That] was upsetting to a lot of us. The next day, we went down and helped them to board up their windows and take up collections to help them, because in political action you will always see that kind of provocateur activity, or you will see opportunists who are not engaging in any kind of political action but instead are just troublemakers and make damage for damage’s sake.
But there were political targets that night. I was willing to go to jail for malicious destruction of property if it drew attention to the destruction of human life in Southeast Asia. I just remember spray painting “US out of Cambodia” on a wall and wanting whoever sandblasted that off the next day to think about our message. I wanted the army recruiters to know how angry I was that they were trying to send my brothers off to war when they had to clean up the glass the next day. Again, I was willing to go to jail for that action but not willing to be shot to death by a firing squad at Kent State three days later.
And that’s why I try, when I talk to student activists today, to put my militant actions and my peaceful actions into context. I don’t advocate that kind of militant action, because in hindsight it was ineffective. Who did I convince? Did Nixon hear me? No. Did the army recruitment office hear me? Yes. Did they change? No. Same thing with the building damage. Same thing with the ROTC building, which was burned the next night (which I still to this day don’t believe was burned by students because students were nowhere around it when it went down). But what I teach today when I talk to young activists is that the real power we had was not with those more reckless and risky militant actions over the weekend on Friday and Saturday, but with the peaceful protest we had on Sunday night and Monday morning.
On Sunday night, a lot of students who were away for the weekend had come back, and they were disturbed by the presence of the Ohio National Guard on campus. They had been called in after the ROTC building had burned down. So, those students, many of whom were anti-war protesters, were willing to [participate] in a sit-in on Front Campus to protest their presence. Those students felt that we had the right to talk to our university president and engage him in a decision to ask the Guard to leave. And, unfortunately, that peaceful gathering was broken up by the National Guard when they tricked us and told us if we moved onto the Front Campus, the president would come out and talk with us. As soon as we moved onto the front lawn, they advanced on us with tear gas and fixed bayonets. Several students were stabbed that night. We all had our first tear gassing experience with them. And they dispersed our crowd. So that was also fresh in our minds during that peaceful gathering on Monday morning, which had been planned [since] Thursday, when Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia.
So [on May 4] at noon, the plan was to call for a national student strike. And if you think about it, that was the most powerful of all the actions. We weren’t just Kent State students anymore. We were students all over the country, at the same time, saying, “No more.” And not only was that the most peaceful gathering of the weekend, the least threatening one, it was the most powerful, and the only one where gunmen opened fire on us. No one shot at anybody during the damage in downtown Kent or during the burning of the ROTC building. But during a peaceful protest on Monday, where we had an opportunity, with a concerted voice across this country, to jolt America into awareness of the power of the student anti-war movement—that’s when we were gunned down. And if the intent of those triggermen or their leaders or our government leaders who made the decision to shoot down peaceful anti-war protesters on a college campus on Monday—if their intent was to send a clear message to us, that it won’t be tolerated and that there are consequences to our civil disobedience, that backfired on them, because the next day, three million were in the streets, protesting the war.
And Nixon’s memoirs will show that; there’s a quote [by Nixon] that the days after Kent State were the darkest of his presidency. [His own Chief of Staff], H.R. Haldeman, later called it “the beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate.” It was that moment at Kent State University that was the turning point in the war because they tried to silence the student anti-war movement with weapons—but failed.
VJ: What was going through your head when you heard the shots fired; did you at first think it was something else?
CC: Well, on Friday, earlier in the day, we had heard that [there were] some pretty volatile actions at Ohio State after the announcement of the invasion of Cambodia. And so a group of us went to Ohio State to support [students there], and, once we got there, [we learned] that many of the leaders of their protest had been jailed. [There were] some accounts that students had been shot with buckshot or birdshot and then when we went back, the protest was in full swing in downtown Kent by the time we got back on Friday night.
So on Monday, May 4, after [the National Guard] dispersed our peaceful rally, I ran up over the hill and into the Prentice Hall parking lot. It never occurred to me that they might shoot at us, until one group, Troop G, knelt on their knees in the center of that football field. There’s a photo of my brother that’s pretty well-known where he walks toward them with the black flag. It’s truly the protester standing up against the weapons, with only his voice and his flag.
I saw them kneel, lift their weapons, and aim at my brother. I walked up to him and said, “This is getting really shaky. They’re aiming right at you.” And I begged him to come back to the parking lot with me. As I was talking with him, that same Troop G had gotten up from their knees and had huddled briefly on the practice football field and then started to leave the field and begin their ascent up the hill. So after, I said to Alan, “Please come back to the lot with me.” He said, “Wait, I wanna see where they’re going.”
So I proceeded to walk behind him, to the parking lot, and left him there at the foot of the hill, as the Guard were ascending the hill. It was an air of triumph; students thought they were leaving the area. We figured they were out of gas, and they were going back to regroup, or they had just given up—they knew we were resilient and we were going to hold our rally and go on strike despite their efforts to stop us. And when they reached the crest of the hill, while some guardsmen continued over the hill, where we thought they were all going, only Troop G, who had knelt on the field and had huddled briefly, lagged back, turned at the top of the hill, and began firing.
When I saw what seemed to be puffs of smoke or dust as soon as they started firing, my first thought was it was the kind of ammunition used at Ohio State, like birdshot, and I just turned and started to run. Fortunately, I was with my brother’s roommate, Jimmy Riggs, who grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a parked car in the parking lot.
As soon as we got behind the car, we knew it was live ammunition. We could see the bullets shattering the glass of the windows above us, hitting the pavement, and thumping into the grass to our left. When I describe that moment, I always ask students and others to take out a watch and time 13 seconds. And imagine being 18 or 19, lying on the ground in the open or waiting behind a parked car or tree for that gunfire to stop, with high-powered military weapons unloading in your direction. It doesn’t get more shocking or more wrong than that. And when the gunfire stopped, that’s when it hit us, that what had just happened was unthinkable in a democracy. That American soldiers had just turned their guns on American people who were exercising their constitutional right to petition the government for a redress of our grievance with their war.
VJ: What are the most important misconceptions of the events of that day that you would like to correct?
CC: Well, photographs and films over the years should have dispelled any myths that there were rocks being thrown at the Guard at the time they shot. Because there are photographs, down to the second, when they were turning that show students walking freely between them and the protesters and nothing in the air, nothing hitting them, and no injuries to report. But that said, there was one stone-throwing incident that happened earlier when the guardsmen had first moved us over the hill. There was a gravel lot to the right of Dunbar Hall which was adjacent to the Prentice parking lot...some students picked up stones from that gravel lot and started throwing them in the direction of the Guard. It was more of a symbolic folly because they were tear gassed back and forth, and guardsmen picked up those stones and threw them back towards the students. First of all, the distances between us were too great for stones to reach, but if the stones had reached us, it would have been more of a threat to us than to the guardsmen, who had on steel helmets and gas masks.
The stone-throwing incident stopped. So my question to people who try to use that to justify a shooting that happened long after is: if you look at the minutes that ensued, why didn’t they shoot when the stones were being thrown? Because that stone-throwing incident was momentary, it was insignificant, and never posed a threat to them.
Right after the shootings, there was this rumor that there was a sniper. My brother was sitting in the kitchen, bandaged from his gunshot wound, when my aunt Marion came running in, saying, “You know there was a sniper, you know there was a sniper.” We were saying, “No there wasn’t, there was no sniper.” Nobody was doing anything to them when they shot. Middle America, including the Ohio Grand Jury that indicted 25 of us, needed to latch onto something to justify what these men did. It was unimaginable that they would open fire on us without some good reason to do so.
And we have been looking for that good reason or bad reason for 50 years. Not one of them has ever told us, in truth, why they made that decision to lift their weapons, look through scopes of those riles, and not only start firing at us, but even as we were running in the opposite direction, diving for cover, waiting in the open, on the ground, continue to fire for 13 seconds. We need that truth. I just told you, I’m not proud that I threw a rock through that window. I’m ready to own it and say I don’t advocate that today, and I think it was ineffective, and I think it was stupid. But I’ll tell you, I didn’t do anything on Monday, May 4 that warranted their gunfire in my direction. And I can say the same for every student that was there that day. An insignificant stone-throwing incident more than 10 minutes before cannot continue to be used for 50 years to justify such a tragic result. Four students were killed and nine were wounded.
VJ: People—including the president—were questioning your loyalty, your patriotism. What did you feel when faced with those kinds of accusations?
CC: Today, I feel that is largely responsible for May 4, 1970. And that, more than anything, is what I want to know from guardsmen: was it the hateful rhetoric of the president of the United States who called campus protesters “bums?” Idealistic American youth who, using their constitutional rights to stand up for what they believe in, in America, in a democracy, were called bums by the president of the United States, were likened to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan by Vice President Spiro Agnew. Governor Reagan at the time said, “If these students want a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” And then [Ohio] Governor [Jim] Rhodes, in the most inflammatory rhetoric of the weekend, said we were “the worst type of people we harbor in America. It’s over with in Ohio, we’re not gonna treat the symptoms, we’re gonna eradicate the problem.” And then sent armed gunmen onto a college campus to see us as an enemy, putting targets on our backs.
So it wasn’t rocks; it was the kind of hateful rhetoric that we see today in America, that continues to pit Americans against each other for reasons that are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and, during the pandemic, unconscionably pitting people against each other, just over how we disagree on how to keep each other safe. [The rhetoric today]...is even worse than what we saw in 1970, which caused such division in this country over the war. And if we don’t recognize the danger of that, there will continue to be more Kent States. And more Trayvon Martins dying in the streets of our cities.
VJ: So, 50 years later, how do you hope the events that occurred at Kent State on May 4, 1970 can be used in a productive way, and what do you want people to remember the most?
CC: Well, we’ll never be able to get back what we lost. I have three wonderful children, I’ve lived a full life, and I have a career that Sandy, Allison, Jeff, and Bill never had an opportunity to enjoy. The most profound realization I ever saw of the cost of that sacrifice was the Vietnam memorial, a large black slab with names of all the Vietnam veterans on it. As you get to 1970, the wall gets larger and larger and larger with names, and then after 1970, it gets continuously smaller and smaller, until the last name of the soldiers that died in Vietnam.
For me, that was the most powerful visual representation of the power of the student voice in America. It was a visual reminder for me of the impact of our voices that brought those names down and essentially brought those young men home. One of the reasons why we have come back every year, in addition to make sure people never forget, [is to ensure the lesson is not], as Nixon said, “When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” There was nothing violent happening on May 4, except the violence against students whose only weapon was their voices. And Kent State’s legacy has to be one of—like this year’s commemoration—a theme of unity and reconciliation. We have, over the years, reconciled our own actions.
I am very proud of the stand I took on Monday, May 4. I want a guardsman, who might not be so proud of his decisions on that day, to go through the same arc of awareness that the university has gone through. The university over the years tried to shun May 4, tried to change its name at one point, to disassociate itself from its history and its legacy, tried to stop our commemoration, even buried the scene of the shooting beneath a gymnasium. But over the course of time, [they] came to understand its importance. We need to remember this. We need to learn the right lessons from it. The only holdout in this is the Ohio National Guard. While some of them are still alive, I’m holding out hope that one of them will come forward and say, “Yes, it was the rhetoric. People told us you were outsiders, people told us you were some demons that needed to be eradicated, we didn’t know who you were.” Was it the rhetoric? Maybe it was that they were told to shoot, and they just did not want to defy the order. Until that full truth is known, we can never teach the right lessons from it, which I believe will turn out to be a combination of both. Number 1, the hateful rhetoric, and number 2, an order to shoot, to make an example of one group so that other groups will be too afraid to engage in peaceful legal protest in a democracy.
VJ: Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
CC: I think the last thing that I want to say is, when we come back—and we have come back for 50 years—we need to teach the truth that we know, not just to make sure that people never forget our friends who fell and the experience we had and learn lessons about student activism, but I also think it’s very, very important for people to know and understand the value of an affordable liberal arts education, a college education. I can’t stress enough the value of funding for higher education so that it is a right and not a privilege to go to school.
We need those young open minds to take the time—[something] that most Americans will never do—to pay attention to what’s going on, to learn about science and politics and history and rhetoric and see the world through new and fresh eyes, like I did when I came and turned out to be very, very different from the person that arrived on my campus as an 18-year-old. You know, to spend 4 years taking a good look at the world, figuring out what’s right and wrong with it, and then choosing a career path where you can make a difference in making it a better world. We have cheated the futures of our entire nation by cutting that short. We have just made a college education unattainable for far too many people, that we should be counting on to change the world.
For more information on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, visit https://www.kent.edu/may4kentstate50.