KENT — Nearly half a century after Ohio National Guardsmen shot him on his college campus, Thomas Grace took the stage Wednesday at Kent State University to discuss the decade leading up to May 4, 1970, as the first speaker of the university’s yearlong 50th anniversary commemoration.

Grace’s address at the Kiva in the university's Student Center kicked off the “May 4, 1970 Then and Now: Voices for Change” educators summit aimed at empowering teachers to help their students find their voices. The two-day summit is the first of over 100 university events at the main and regional campuses planned for the 2019-2020 school year, Kent State President Todd Diacon said.

“Seven years ago, the president declared a remembrance of the Vietnam War that will last until 2025. Now, halfway through the long observance of war, those here tonight are helping to herald a yearlong commemoration of the day when four students lost their lives in a protest over the expansion of that war,” said Grace, who has a Ph.D. in history. His talk touched on the socioeconomic background of student protesters and the reframing of unanswered questions surrounding May 4.

“It is said that history is a dialogue between the past and present. Those charged with planning programs making this past relevant are aware of the challenge of making this as memorable as possible to the students now attending the university or the incoming freshmen.”

Grace was one of nine students wounded by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. Guardsmen also shot and killed four students — Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder.

“These observances give us the powerful opportunity to remember the students whose lives were taken that day and reflect on the impact of the shooting on their family and survivors," Diacon said. "This year of programming will give us the opportunity to probe for additional clarity of the events themselves and to draw on lessons of the past to better understand and address the issues of today, and of course the passage of these 50 years gives us the opportunity to examine our own lives, our own choices and ponder the impact of the decisions we’ve made on our lives today.”

Another wounded student, John Cleary, sat in the audience during Grace’s speech, as did a former administrator, Richard Bredemeier. A photograph of Cleary, lying unconscious from a shot to the chest, was featured on the cover of Life magazine the week after the shooting, and Bredemeier was just beginning his career in student affairs at Kent State when the shooting occurred.

Grace described May 4 through a historical perspective rather than a firsthand account, and discussed his analysis of 5,000 students to determine their backgrounds for his book, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.”

Many of the student protesters, he found, were from industrialized cities in Ohio and out-of-state, rather than rural Ohio. They also often came from blue-collar families — and an increasing number of male students at Kent State were Vietnam veterans, some of whom protested the war they had just fought.

“Kent State is a place where the children of blue-collar workers challenged racial discrimination, struggled for free speech, organization and assembly, and rose against the war that claimed the lives of thousands of Ohioans, most of them working class," Grace said. "The killings did not silence the voices of change; instead, repression provoked more dissent.

“Those who survived have labored for half a century to ensure that the dead were remembered as they are today" with permanent memorials and gatherings for remembrance, he said.

He urged educators to go beyond “stale” questions like “Who is to blame?” and instead focus on new inquiries that make the events of 1970 relevant for today’s students and today’s similarly polarized political conversations.

The educators summit continues through Friday. Thursday's keynote speech by Syrian refugee and poet Sara Abou Rashed at 6:30 p.m. is open to the public. Registration is required at www.kent.edu/voicesforchange. For a complete and up-to-date list of commemoration events, visit www.kent.edu/may4kentstate50.

 

Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@recordpub.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.