Kent State, Jackson State Survivors Talk Student Activism - Rolling Stone
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Kent State, Jackson State Survivors Talk Student Activism

Victims of deadly 1970 shootings discuss their experience of protesting – and how the Parkland students are getting it right

Kent State and Jackson State: How 1968 Massacres Are Still Seen in Student ActivismKent State and Jackson State: How 1968 Massacres Are Still Seen in Student Activism

John Cleary, a Kent State University student, survived a gunshot to the chest after Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a student protest in May 1970.

Howard Ruffner/Getty

On the morning of May 4th, 1970, Dean Kahler, a student at Kent State University, called the professors of his morning classes to let them know he wouldn’t be there that day. He wanted to check out the protest, he told them, that was scheduled for noon at central campus. The action, a continuation of weekend-long actions at Kent, was in response to President Nixon’s announcement on April 30th of the Cambodian Incursion, which had set off anti-war demonstrations across the country. He’d planned to attend his 1:10 class.

Kahler, then 20 – a pacifist and approved conscientious objector during the time of the draft and the Vietnam War – was among the protesters present when the Ohio National Guard began telling the crowd of thousands to disperse. That command was greeted with jeers and stone throwing. Then, Kahler says, the Guard put their bayonets on the end of their rifles, secured their gas masks, gloves and helmets, and began lobbing tear gas cannons into the crowd. Those canisters were defiantly tossed back. The Guardsmen began marching, forcing the protesters down a hill and into a practice football field, where the Guardsmen found themselves surrounded by fences on three sides and protesters on the other. The Guard moved back up the hill, and when they reached the top, an estimated 28 of them turned and began to shoot.

“There was no place to hide,” remembers Kahler. “So I dove on the ground and covered my head, and as I hit the ground, I could hear bullets hitting the ground around me. And I thought, ‘Why are they shooting at me?” Then he was hit, shot in the back – suffering a spinal cord injury, which left him paralyzed.

This month marks 48 years since Kent State University and Jackson State College were each upended by violence. At Kent State, the Ohio National Guard killed four and injured nine. At Jackson State, police shot into a group of students, killing two and injuring 12. The tragedies happened within eleven days of each other, during a time of immense anti-war and racial tensions and uprisings. And though Kent State, the predominantly white university, received lots of media coverage, most people remained unaware of what happened at Jackson State, the historically black college. Decades later, survivors see similar forces at play with media coverage and public perceptions around today’s young activists, struggling to curtail school shootings and police violence.

Like many survivors from Kent State and Jackson State, Kahler has vivid memories of the events that led to his paralysis. During the shooting, Kahler remembers lots of screaming and noise. “When the shooting stopped it was very eerie and quiet for a moment, then the wailing and the screaming resurfaced, but this time, it was a much higher pitch. People were getting up and seeing the damage that had been done – 13 students were now lying on ground,” says Kahler.

Eleven days later, at a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi, police were called in after Jackson State students reportedly retaliated to white motorist’s racist epithets by throwing rocks and bottles. There was also a false rumor that Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, had been killed, which increased tensions. Things escalated when a non-Jackson State student allegedly set a truck on fire. When police arrived, students continued to throw things at the officers. It was when a bottle smashed in the middle of the officers, that police reacted with gunshots.

Steve Vernon Weakly was hanging out with fraternity and sorority friends outside of the girls’ dorms on the campus of Jackson State College when highway patrol and city police in riot gear marched up to the campus from the other end of the street. Weakley remembers the lobbed bottle that precipitated the gunfire.

“So, the bottle is in the air; it’s as if it’s suspended in the air like forever. It floated down and came in from behind [the police] and hit right in the middle of them and it burst,” says Weakly. “It was as if they just went crazy from there… they started shooting the guns immediately – immediately – and it was like all hell broke loose,” says Weakley. He was shot in the leg.

At Kent State, the Ohio National Guard had been called into the campus following protests, where buildings in the city were vandalized and the ROTC center on campus was burned. Alan Canfora, founder of the May 4 Visitors Center at Kent State, was a radical anti-war student activist at the time. He remembers when the governor made a speech on May 3rd, denouncing the protests of the previous evenings. “He said that the Kent State students were worst type of people that we harbor in America – worse than the Communists, worse than the Brown Shirts. He pounded his fist, and he said ‘We are going to eradicate the problem.’ That set the stage then.”

Following the massacre – in which Canfora took a bullet to the wrist – there was a massive uprising at universities across the country. “It was the high point, the pinnacle in the history of student activism,” he says. “Almost 5 million students joined a national strike, which ultimately resulted in the closure for days or weeks of over 800 colleges and universities across the country.”

Weakly, who has written two memoirs about his experience at Jackson State, vividly remembers the bright flashes coming from the guns and the chaos of that evening. “The carnage on that side of the street was just incredible,” he says. “The kids trying to get in [the dorm], everybody was screaming, and all of a sudden everything got eerily quiet. Then it started back again. It was like 10 times louder than it was before. People were screaming, girls were fainting, blood was everywhere.”

“Visualize if you will,” says Weakley, “heavily armed policemen, primarily highway patrolmen and Jackson Police officers coming through our campus. Any campus in America that would have been a taboo. Of course kids are going to do what we did, which was scream and holler at them to get off the campus.”

James “Lap” Baker, who witnessed the shooting at Jackson State, says he’ll never forget how only months after the shooting at JSU, students at San Jose, where he attended grad school, didn’t even know what had happened at Jackson State. “I heard some of the white students said they’re having a rally on the second floor of the union, and I heard one say, ‘Is it about the shooting that occurred at the college?’ And I said, ‘Talking about Jackson State?’ And the response was, ‘We don’t know anything about Jackson State. We’re talking about Kent State.’ That’s when I realized, nobody knows anything.”

“There is always a different narrative to how the American media treats black activists and survivors versus how they treat white activists and survivors,” says C. Leigh McInnis, professor of creative writing at Jackson State (now called Jackson State University). As part of his curriculum, McInnis has students research the shootings and write about it. “It does not take much research before [students] are able to connect the 1970 State-sanctioned JSU shooting with what’s happening today with black youth being killed by law enforcement,” he says.

Rather than see this event as a “watershed” or “monumental” moment – as it was for the students at Kent State – “Black folks did what black folks always do; they simply kept living,” says McInnis, “Returning to JSU in the fall for classes even with the bullet holes still fresh in the buildings, because ‘success’ and ‘revenge’ for black folks has always been survival, especially survival through education and self-determinism.”

Kent State received a lot of media coverage, but because anti-war activists had already been labeled as dangerous extremists, the victims and injured students were vilified by the conservative-leaning population. “I certainly think there’s a bias against the youth,” says Joe Lewis, a Kent State survivor who was shot in the abdomen. He thinks a lot of people discount young people with the assumption that they don’t know as much as older generations. But, there’s also an accompanying fear about the power of what young people can accomplish. “They are the future of our world and it’s their conscience that’s going to dictate what’s ethically satisfactory and acceptable,” he says.

While the anonymity of the Internet is a breeding ground for harassment, decades ago, survivor Tom Grace says, the barbs felt even more personal. “Back then if somebody hated you, they would tell you right to your face,” he says. “People would make these irresponsible comments like, ‘well they should have shot 400 instead of four.’ That was kind of a common thing to say.” Grace, who was shot in the ankle while protesting at Kent State, is mystified by the level of hatred in the country, but he feels like it’s a longstanding tradition.

For Lewis, just as his generation spoke out against “the paternalistic, autocratic bullshit” of the Nixon administration, the activism sparked by the Parkland students is an important step to hold power accountable. “The same thing is happening with Trump, in that it’s ‘Follow me or be damned; believe in me or you’re not patriotic,'” he says. “And I’m really gratified that the Parkland students have spoken out, and I understand how they’re being vilified by the right because that’s a familiar experience to me.”

“There’s always going to be a portion of the American citizenry that are uneducated, they’re filled with hate, they’re filled with resentfulness, they’re filled with anger, they misplace their anger, and they demonize those who dare to raise their voice…. These young people are so admirable. They’re tough and they’re strong and they see the big picture and the need to just totally ignore the few haters,” says Canfora. He calls the movement the Parkland students are building, “A new chapter of the American History of Student Activism.”

The movement of Canfora’s youth rejected participating in the electoral process – something that he calls a mistake. Canfora points to today’s student activists’ push for voter registration, combined with their ability to hone in on their target – namely NRA-backed GOP politicians – as ways that today’s leaders are ahead of the 1960s radical student movement. “To me, I’m so impressed by that. That’s why I think their movement has tremendous potential to far surpass the movement of the Sixties.”

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Corrections: This article previously stated that a Jackson State student set a truck on fire. According to NPR, it was a student from a different university. A quote was previously misattributed to Tom Grace. It was said by Joe Lewis. 


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