Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

The Conscience of America

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

The Conscience of America

Article excerpt

The '60s May Be History, But Student Activism Lives on

As Alan Canfora waved his black flag to protest the Vietnam War, he felt like many other college students around the nation during that time--angered by the war that his country was waging against the wishes of many, and yet strangely empowered by the movement of students that was sweeping him up.

It was May 4, 1970 and Canfora was a student at Kent State University in Ohio. The meaning of student activism was about to change for him--and for the rest of the nation--forever.

Around the nation, students gathered that night to protest the war. A small bomb went off in New Haven, Ct., near a student rally at Yale University. In Baltimore, students at the University of Maryland threw rocks at police. Firebombs were thrown at Reserve Officer Training Corps buildings at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Washington University in St. Louis, and Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y.

At Kent State, the ROTC building had been burned to the ground, setting off three days of violent student protests. When the governor called in the Ohio National Guard to stop them, Canfora joined 1,000 students in a parking lot to protest.

"We assumed we still could exercise our Constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to dissent," Canfora says now. The students held up their flags, shook their fists, and threw rocks, taunting the guardsmen, Canfora said.

The guardsmen stopped and took aim. Canfora could not believe his eyes. He thought they were shooting blanks. He realized he was wrong as he saw students around him falling where they had been shot.

"As I ran behind the tree during the first seconds of gunfire I felt a sharp pain in my right wrist," Canfora said. "An M-1 rifle bullet passed through my right wrist. The bullets were continuing to rain in my direction for another 11 or 12 seconds. That narrow young tree absorbed several bullets intended for me.

"Only a few feet away, my roommate, Tom Grace, was also wounded--shot through the foot. I heard him screaming in severe pain after a bullet passed through his left ankle. When the gunfire ceased, after a moment of eerie silence, all you could hear were the sounds of students screaming in pain and calling for ambulances."

Four students were killed that day: Allison Krause and Jeff Miller, both protesters, and Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder, who were bystanders. Eight other students were wounded; one of them is paralyzed in a wheelchair.

"To this day, we still don't know who gave the order to fire," Canfora said.

Thirty years later, the dynamic of student protest has changed dramatically. A group of students known as the May 4 Task Force had been asking Kent State for more than 20 years to block off the parking spots where the four students had been killed. After a candlelight vigil two years ago, a group of students marched to the president's office and demanded an audience.

"We wanted everyone to know they didn't die in vain," said Michelle Touve-Gregorino, a student at Kent and member of the May 4 Task Force.

President Carol Cartwright told them to return to meet with her, and they did. After several months of reflection, she granted their request. The four spots were marked off with concrete barriers and plaques celebrating the lives of the students.

This past May 4, at the 30th anniversary of the shootings, Kent State commemorated the memorials and instituted a yearly symposium on democracy.

"It's important for us to remember and important for us to look forward," Cartwright said. "We take the freedom of speech very seriously because 30 years later, democracy still poses challenges as well as privileges. And we here at Kent have a lot to teach about those challenges. It's the legacy of our history."

The New Activism

Much has changed since 1970. …

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