Kent State University wasn’t supposed to be the place where something like this happened. The popular image of 1960s’ campus protest involved children of the elite, at Ivy League schools like Columbia or the bigger-ticket state universities like Berkeley or Wisconsin. Kent State, downwind from the stench of Akron’s then-booming tire-and-rubber factories, was instead an outgrowth of the idealism of the post-World War II Baby Boom years, a pathway for children of the Industrial Revolution to do a little better than their parents. Tuition was counted in the hundreds, not thousands.
But many Kent State kids in the late ’60s and early ’70s were the offspring of a different kind of activism, the workers’ movements of the New Deal era. Canfora’s dad worked in the Goodyear tire factor and was a local leader in the United Auto Workers (UAW). Thomas Grace, who was wounded alongside Canfora in the May 4 shooter and later became a professor, wrote an acclaimed history of Kent State and said that most kids in the protests “were from blue-collar families influenced by a unionized New Deal Democratic culture,” with liberal attitudes on issues like civil rights. By the end of the 1960s, these working-class kids had seen friends or family come home from Vietnam wounded or in body bags, and also a growing number of returning vets, many disenchanted, were enrolling in colleges like Kent State.
There was also frustration that early protest tactics — teach-ins, peaceful marches — had failed to end the war. Some of the most radical groups were starting to call for more violent measures. Into this atmosphere, President Richard Nixon tossed a match. Having taken office the year before with vague promises to end combat in Vietnam, Nixon’s April 30, 1970, announcement that he was expanding the war by sending troops on a mission into neighboring Cambodia felt not only like an escalation but a betrayal.
Kent State was just one of scores of campuses to erupt in protest, but things there took an ugly turn. On Friday night, May 1, windows were broken in a melee on the main drag in Kent, and later rioters (the three convicted were not students) burned down the campus ROTC military-training center. In an accident of history, Ohio’s politically ambitious GOP governor, James Rhodes — who on May 3 blamed the violence, without evidence, on outside agitators and angrily vowed “we are going to eradicate the problem” — had already activated the National Guard to deal with a Teamsters strike. Now these armed troops were diverted to Kent State.