Nathan Acuna WEB MANAGER
When National Guard troops opened fire at Kent State University on Ohio students protesting the Vietnam war on May 4, 1970, mainstream media outlets such as New York Times, LIFE, and Newsweek rushed to cover the story. Here at Whittier College, the Quaker Campus (QC) was on hiatus for finals and summer break.
The QC was given a second chance at recounting the infamous Kent State shootings when one of the wounded protesters, now-Assistant Professor of History at Erie Community College, Thomas Grace, spoke at the Poets Corner in Wardman Library last Wednesday. In front of an audience of approximately 60 students, faculty, and community members, Grace provided a historically-informed, revisionist perspective that intertwined with his first-hand retelling of the shooting, detailed in his book, Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.
Associate Professor of History Laura McEnaney brought in Grace with the collaboration of Whittier Scholars major and junior Kelcey Negus. Before Grace arrived at the library, McEnaney introduced the author to more than a dozen of her “Revolutions: America in the 60s” students. McEnaney’s course provides a historical overview and analysis of the themes connecting the many social revolutions of America’s famous 1960s, one of which is the national student and activist protests against the Vietnam War. The group met at Hartley House, where they were able to ask Grace questions about Portage county (the county Kent State is in), its demographics, and details of his activist-organizing methodology.
Interestingly enough, Grace began his talk by citing a critical Vietnam Magazine review. He recounted that the critic — a colonel, North-Point-er, and Vietnam vet —found it irritating that Grace did not address the Kent State shooting until two-thirds into the book, which Grace confirmed as true. “Honesty compels me to state that that portion of the criticism is accurate; although he missed the point of the book,” he said, “Which was to chronicle the foundational sources and growth of student activism on the Kent State campus.”
Grace then went on to read a short passage from his book, from the subsection titled “It looked like a Firing Squad,” in reference to the moment National Guard troop shot at students from the campus’s upper pagoda. The short passage “describes the climatic moment at Kent State,” said Grace. “One that describes why and when the previously unknown Ohio campus became a symbol of depending on one’s point of view, either rampant lawlessness, or unpunished state terror.”
As Grace spoke, those listening followed a projection of Kent State’s campus map on the wall behind him, which Grace used to detail movement of the National Guard and students as if retelling a military combat mission.
Although the violence at Kent State was a fair distance from students here at Whittier, it’s important to remember, as Kent State alumnus and who Grace called one of the (“survivors of the carnage on May 4th,”) Mike Jacobs told the crowd, the anti-war movement was here as well. “I grew up here in Orange County, and when I was at Kent, I don’t know if people today realize ...there was a lot of this in Orange County,” said Jacobs, who had not seen Grace since 1972.
Jacobs references Cal State Fullerton’s 1970 history of protests, sit-ins and draft card burnings, which mirrored anti-war protests around the country. The Chicano Moratorium, a protest which was influenced in reaction to racially-discriminatory drafting practices, marched down the street on Whittier Blvd. Anti-war sit-ins, of course, took place in 1969 and so on at Whittier College. “These things, they were around the country, and they were here,” said Jacobs.
Negus, who facilitated the post-talk Q&A session, focuses studying life in countries during the moments after a war, which she calls “post-conflict reconciliation.” Although she is not a current student in McEnaney’s course, she left the talk with the Vietnam war stuck on her mind. “Honestly, I struggle with the fact that the U.S. government was a part of the series of events that led to the Cambodian genocide, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the bombing in Cambodia that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge,” said Negus. “I think that the fact that the U.S. government does not take responsibility or hold themselves accountable for atrocities that they have helped perpetrate is frustrating to me.”
Negus hopes that students left the talk thinking about this as well. “I want to ask those questions I want the government to take responsibility, and I want those stories to be shared,” Negus said. “Learning about an event they weren’t taught in their classes, encouraging them to explore more about events in history, and hearing a first-hand account from someone who was a part of history and experienced history is really important to show students they can be a part of history too.”