When Roseann "Chic" Canfora arrived at Ohio's Kent State University in 1968, she says she was constantly being given leaflets by anti-war activists on campus — and throwing them away.

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was dragging on and deeply unpopular with a growing number of Americans. Over time, Canfora became one of them.

"It wasn't until I was personally touched, losing friends in that war and seeing the draft that would now take my brothers to that war, that I stopped throwing the anti-war leaflets away and I paid attention," she recalls in an interview with NPR.

She says she sees similarities with the students who are protesting at college campuses across the country today, calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and university divestment from companies linked to Israel.

"They at least know that they don't want any famine and suffering and death done in their name," she says. "And so it's inspiring to see them having similar conversations that we had, saying 'We don't like what we're seeing and we need to speak out against it.' "

Colleges across the country are grappling with how to respond to the demonstrations, with many administrations calling in local and state police to disperse them. More than 2,000 people have been arrested at protests nationwide in the span of two weeks, with some injured in the process.

House Speaker Mike Johnson even called on President Biden to send the National Guard to Columbia University last week, days before New York City police cleared out and arrested some 300 protesters there.

Canfora is all too familiar with what can happen when the National Guard cracks down on campus demonstrations.

As a sophomore, she was among the protesters rallying on May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of students, killing four and injuring nine — including her brother, Alan, who was one year her senior.

"My brother's roommate pulled me behind a parked car, and it was at that moment that I realized this was live ammunition because the car was riddled with bullets," she recalls. "The glass of the car windows was shattering above us, and we could hear the M1 bullets zipping past our heads and bumping into the ground in the pavement around us. And it was a horrifying 13 seconds."

Canfora emerged from the car to find Alan and came across several classmates injured, including two who later died.

"I ran to where I last saw him and saw the body of Jeff Miller at the foot of the hill, lying in a pool of blood," she remembers. "I first thought it was my brother until I saw the clothing that he was wearing ... One of our friends came up behind me and said, 'Alan and Tom both got hit.' "

Canfora was one of 25 people indicted in connection with the demonstration, and among the vast majority who were later exonerated.

"Those trials were eventually thrown out for lack of evidence that we had participated in a riot," she explains. "Even though we were grateful that those indictments were thrown out ... we had lost our opportunity to tell the world what happened that day."

Canfora has spent the intervening decades working to correct the record and preserve the legacy of May 4 — and now works as a professional-in-residence at Kent State, teaching journalism and helping plan its annual commemorative events.

The events at Kent State more than five decades ago, she says, hold some especially timely takeaways today.

"It's hard to believe that this will be our 54th year of returning to the Kent State campus to talk about what we witnessed and survived here, and to tell the truth that we know so that ... people learn the right lessons from what happened here so that students on college campuses can exercise their freedom of speech without the fear of being silenced or harmed," Canfora says.

The words and actions that led to May 4th

Anti-war protests on college campuses intensified after April 30, 1970, when President Richard Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia — a marked escalation of a war that many hoped was winding down.

Students nationwide held protests on May 1, a Friday. The situation in Kent intensified over the weekend, as demonstrators — including college students — clashed with police downtown, prompting Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom to ask the governor to dispatch the Ohio National Guard to the city.

They arrived on Saturday night to find Kent State's wooden ROTC building on fire, burning to the ground. On Sunday, Canfora says students held a peaceful sit-on on campus, calling on the university president to get the National Guard off campus, to no avail.

"On Sunday night, three students were stabbed in the backs, in the legs by guardsmen and bayonets," she remembers. "And that was all a foreshadowing of what was to come the next day, on Monday."

Canfora says she can't talk about the use of excessive force — then and now — without "tying it to the inflammatory rhetoric that inspired that force."

Nixon referred to student protesters as "bums," while then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan said "if it takes bloodbath" to deal with campus demonstrators "let's get it over with." On May 3, Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes described campus demonstrators as "the worst type of people that we harbor in America."

"We were too young and naïve at 18 and 19 years old to know the danger of those inflammatory words," Canfora says. "But we saw the repercussions of that when American soldiers turned their guns on American people — in fact, on American college students — because they were conditioned to see us as dangerous and an enemy. And we should all learn the lessons from that."

She points out that the commission on campus unrest that Nixon formed in June 1970 would issue a report calling the shootings "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable," while an FBI report released later that year found reason to believe the Guard's claims of acting in self-defense were "fabricated subsequent to the event."

After an almost decade-long legal battle, the Guardsmen settled out of court with more than two dozen defendants, though the state paid the families of injured students. The Ohio National Guard signed a statement that began, "In retrospect, the tragedy of May 4, 1970 should not have occurred."

Canfora also draws parallels between the misinformation that ran rampant then and today, noting that "excuses" for the use of excessive force on campus began immediately after the shooting.

Students had two hours to leave campus, and she remembers watching the theories take off on television from her family's house.

"I had an aunt that came into our home while my brother was still bandaged from his wound saying, 'You know, there was a sniper [threatening the Guardsmen],'" she says. "It was very difficult for middle America to believe that American soldiers would turn their guns on American people without some provocation."

The shooting's legacy on Kent State campus activism

Canfora and other students who survived the shooting returned to campus every year to tell their story and try to counter the rhetoric of the National Guard.

But the university said in 1975 that "five years was long enough to remember" — prompting students to work with survivors to form the May 4th Task Force, which still organizes annual commemorations to this day. This year's includes the traditional candlelit walk around campus, a memorial service and special lectures.

Canfora says many years of activism led to wins like markers where the injured students fell on campus, so cars can no longer park there, a May 4th walking tour and visitor center with archives.

"And most importantly, we have a university administration that doesn't ... distance themselves from the tragedy," she says. "But they embrace their history and they feel a responsibility as Kent State University to teach others what we learned from that, to make sure it never happens again on a college campus in this country."

Kent State University President Todd Diacon told NPR that the importance of kindness, respect, free speech and civic dialogue are "baked into our DNA now," including in its statement of core values and the work of its School for Peace and Conflict Studies, founded in 1971.

Students at Kent State University have been gathering on campus for vigils, signing statements of solidarity and advocating for things like divestment from weapons manufacturers, he says, but without breaking school rules on things like encampments.

"I would say literally all of them have really honored who we are as an institution and our aspirations for civic dialogue," he says.

Diacon acknowledged that the situation is very different at other campuses around the country, and stressed that public universities like Kent State have much less leeway than private universities when it comes to restricting speech, and that even for public schools policies vary according to state law.

"I think there's no one size fits all when it comes to observing, or opining or evaluating how universities are addressing their situation," he says.

Lessons for schools and protesters today

Even so, Diacon says, there are certain lessons from the shooting that are broadly applicable today.

One is the danger of armed action on a college campus, he says, particularly when it comes to the National Guard, who are not controlled by the university administration.

"I think a primary lesson from Kent State is you need to have local law enforcement in the lead if you're going to do something," he says.

He also echoes Canfora's point that the shootings did not happen in a vacuum — both in that they were not the only campus protests, and they followed an "dehumanization and demonization of opponents" due to increasingly polarizing rhetoric over the Vietnam War.

Canfora says she's inspired by what she's seeing from college students today, noting that they have much less free time for activism than her generation did — in part because so many have to work to afford tuition.

Her college tuition was $197 a quarter, and room and board came out to $450 a year, which she was able to pay for with her minimum-wage job and spending money from her mom. In contrast, she sees many of her own students balancing full course loads with 40-hour work weeks.

"These students today don't have that time," she says. "And they are finding that time to act, to make their voices heard."

And that's important, she says, because — then and now — college students are "the conscience of America."

"If not a college campus, where else in our society, in this democracy, can we count on large groups of people to do exactly what these college students are doing: paying attention to the world, looking at what is being done in the world ... and coming up with strategies for opposing it if they don't agree with it?" she asks. "That's healthy. That shouldn't be something that is feared."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.