State Violence and the Problem of Race: The Shootings at Kent State and Jackson State 50 Years After

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Panel Discussion

Tags: Crime and Violence; Public History and Memory; Race


This panel examines two moments of state terror in 1970—the May 4 shootings at Kent State University and the May 14 assault at Jackson State College—from the perspective of fifty years and the unequal coverage these violent acts received then and since. “If I try to tell people about…Jackson State,” said one Mississippian “they don’t know about it. They don’t know until I say ‘Kent State.’” The session assembles eyewitnesses and scholars to explore similarities and differences of the events, thereby probing the long arc of unpunished state violence, seeking newer understandings of old problems of state impunity and racial inequality.

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Robert Cohen, New York University
Robert Cohen, professor of history and social studies education at NYU, has written extensively on the history of student protest and campus politics in the US. His most recent books include Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary: Sit-Ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women’s Student Activism (2018); The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings that Changed America (2014); Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s (2013), co-edited with David J. Snyder; and Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s(2009) – which in 2014 was the book selected by UC Berkeley for its common reading (On the Same Page) program. Cohen has published articles on white student resistance to desegregation at the University of Georgia, part of a larger study of the deep South campus integration crises of the 1950s and 1960s. Cohen has also worked to connect high school students and teachers to historical scholarship, as in his article “Teaching About the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: Civil Disobedience and Mass Protest in the 1960s,” Social Education (2015). He is currently an inaugural fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, and is writing a history of the UC Berkeley free speech crises of the early Trump era.

Panelist: James "Lap" Baker, Planning Consultant
James "Lap" Baker was born in Picayune, Mississippiand graduated from George Washington Carver High School in 1966. He attended Jackson State College in 1966 and graduated with honors in 1970. He was selected as “Who’s Who Among Students in America’s Colleges and Universities” in 1969. He attended San Jose State University in 1970 and was the first Black to receive a Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the university in 1972. He was the first Black professional City Planner to be employed in the City of San Jose, California in 1973. He accepted a position in Louisville, Kentucky and became the first Black professional City Planner to be employed in the history of Louisville, Kentucky. He moved back to Mississippi after accepting a position to become the first and Black to write the health plan for the State of Mississippi from 1977 to 1986. In 1986, He established the first Black professional planning consulting firm in the history of Mississippi. He was employed as the Director of Planning and Administration for the Hinds County Department of Public Works. In this position, he created the first surveillance system for illegal dumping in the history of Mississippi, as well as created the first rubberized-asphalt project in the history of Mississippi. He is a vocalist, song writer and poet. He has recorded several songs with “Brandy” and “Ray-J’s” father, Willie Ray Norwood. He was on campus the night of May 14-15 and witnessed the shootings there. He has been a lifelong advocate for the memory of what took place that night.

Panelist: Nancy Kathleen Bristow, University of Puget Sound
Nancy Bristow is a distinguished professor of history at the University of Puget Sound, where she has taught for 28 years. She has published two books, including American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War (New York University Press, 1996). She is nearing completion of her third book, under contract with Oxford University Press (due for publication in 2020), which explores the shootings at Jackson State College in 1970. The book picks up on themes of citizen / state relations, social cataclysm, and memory evident in her earlier work, while foregrounding the study of state violence against African Americans and the role of white supremacy, in the guise of “law and order,” in causing and then erasing this violence. This work is based in archival research at Jackson State University, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Tougaloo College and the University of Mississippi, as well as extensive oral histories with past and present members of the Jackson State community, law enforcement, victims, family members of the deceased, and a small number of those who witnessed or have worked to preserve the memory of the May 4 shootings at Kent State University. In 2015 she gave remarks at the Jackson State University commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the shootings.

Bristow has served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of American History and The American Historian, and has written book reviews for American Historical Review, Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, Social History of Medicine, Western Historical Quarterly and others. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 2003-2004, Bristow served as a Visiting Scholar for two NEH Seminars on the 1918 influenza pandemic at Virginia Tech University (2015, 2018), and has also served as a peer reviewer for the NEH. She has given invited lectures at the University of Montana, Towson State University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Washington University Medical School, Linfield College, the University of New Hampshire, and Oregon Health Sciences University and conferences at the University of Alabama, the University of Michigan, the University of South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sante Publique (Rennes, France) and upcoming in February 2019 at Goethe University (Frankfurt, Germany.) At the University of Puget Sound she was a founding member of the African American Studies Program, and recently facilitated its acceptance as a major field of study. She also serves on the Leadership Team of the Race and Pedagogy Institute at Puget Sound, and is also serving as a mentor to a group of Posse Scholars on her campus.

Panelist: Alan Canfora, Kent May 4 Center
Alan Canfora is recognized as a leading expert regarding the Kent State tragedy of May 4, 1970, the history of American student activism, and political organizing. He has remained politically aware and active his entire adult life to the present day.
The son of a union leader in Akron, Ohio, Alan joined the antiwar movement during 1968-1969 as a member of Students for a Democratic Society at Kent State University (SDS). Brilliant leaders and militant members of Kent SDS inspired Alan and planted the 1969 seeds of antiwar rebellion that blossomed in May 1970 and culminated in an epic tragedy of a generation.
Alan Canfora descended into the maelstrom of violence. Desperation breeds desperados and Canfora evolved within a minority of Kent militants highly motivated to stop the controversial war.
Brutal war experiences described by working-class friends returned from Vietnam particularly inspired Alan's antiwar motivations. True war stories detailed unwinnable war, poor battlefield leadership and tactics, barbarous atrocities, fear, the horror of death, and severe injuries.
Fatefully, one of Canfora's childhood friends was killed in Vietnam. At the funeral of William Miles Caldwell on April, 24, 1970, Alan and several Kent comrades vowed to take their most militant antiwar actions "when the time is right" -- to send an anti-message to President Nixon from Kent, Ohio.
Six days later, on April 30, Nixon announced his provocative decision to escalate the war and invade Cambodia with US troops. Antiwar student protests erupted nationwide but none so significant as the revolt May 1-4 in Kent, Ohio.
Alan Canfora was a prime mover among the hundreds of antiwar Kent State students who spontaneously revolted on May 1 and May 2 in downtown Kent and on the KSU campus until 1200 Ohio National Guardsmen occupied the Kent State campus and downtown Kent.
On May 4, Canfora was again a leading protester and confronted armed national guardsmen while waving a black flag of protest -- a symbol of his anger and despair after his friend's death in Vietnam. He was shot by a bullet through his wrist during 13 seconds of mayhem.
Alan has been Director of Kent May 4 Center in Kent, Ohio, since 1989. He is library director at Akron Law Library since 2011 and Chairperson of Barberton Democratic Party in Ohio since 1992. Alan earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Kent State University.

Panelist: Thomas Mark Grace, Erie Community College, State University of New York
A lifelong student of the American Civil War, Thomas M. Grace is best known for his scholarship on the student rebellion of the 1960s. He is the author of Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties (2016) as well as a number of articles and chapters in books mostly devoted to the protest era.

As one of nine surviving casualties of the Ohio National Guard gunfire in May 1970, he spoke at the second and fifth commemorations of the fatal shootings at Kent State and in every decade since. In the aftermath of the deadly shootings, he served on the board of the Kent Legal Defense Fund, which raised funds for twenty-five defendants charged for their roles in the May antiwar demonstrations. During the 1970s, he was part of a group of plaintiffs that won a 1974 US Supreme Court decision, Scheuer v. Rhodes, for their right to sue Ohio National guardsmen and state officials. Of the thirteen plaintiffs and their families, he was the only one to testify in both the subsequent 1975 and 1978 civil trials. Grace also testified at the federal grand jury that returned criminal charges against eight guardsmen in March 1974.

Pursuing a long-term interest in public history, Grace suggested the placement of historic signage at Kent State where the fatal confrontation occurred, an idea that came to fruition in 2007. From there he served on a committee of scholars that oversaw the creation of the May 4 Visitor Center and placement of additional outdoor signage, making Kent State University the only location in the United States where the anti-Vietnam War movement is interpreted. Concurrent with this effort, work was undertaken to preserve what remained of the site of the campus confrontation with the area being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Subsequently, in December 2016, the same site received designation from the National Park Service (NPS) as a National Historic Landmark. Grace helped craft the language for the NPS plaque and, together with Alan Canfora, another former student wounded in 1970, worked with the university in 2017 to remove non-historic tree growth from the site of the shootings.

In 2003, Grace earned a PhD in history after decades as a social worker and elected labor leader and union representative. Currently, he is adjunct professor of history at SUNY Erie Community College.

Panelist: Constance Iona Slaughter-Harvey, Legacy Education and Community Empowerment Foundation
Constance Slaughter-Harvey, born in Jackson, Mississippi, and a graduate of Tougaloo College, was, in 1970, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi School of Law. By this time she was already a veteran of the civil rights struggle, and took her new skills to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, where she served for two years. On the night of May 14-15, 1970, she was in Jackson when she heard (from her apartment on Lynch Street) and then saw in the sky, the outburst of police violence at Jackson State College. She had 2 sisters enrolled there, and though prohibited from entering campus that night, she was soon contacted by several of the victims, and became their lawyer, filing the suit that would lead to the 1972 civil case (Burton vs. Williams) against the state of Mississippi, its former governor, the mayor of Jackson, the officer in charge of the Mississippi Highway Patrol unit that night, the forty-two officers who were with him, and a handful of Jackson police who had admitted firing their weapons. The experience would be a difficult one. She was not surprised when the all-white and all- male jury found for the defendants, counting on a victory on appeal. The federal appeals court did find for the plaintiffs, suggesting that the law enforcement officers had overreacted in an “excessive and unjustifiable use of force,” but still maintained that no damages could be paid because the state and its officers were protected by “sovereign immunity.” After several appeals to the Fifth Circuit and once to the U. S. Supreme Court, the last legal recourse to the Jackson State victims had been shut off when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Following this experience Slaughter-Harvey would build a lengthy social justice career. She served as executive director of Southern Legal Rights, and then as the director of East Mississippi Legal Services. In 1980 she became the Director of Human Development for the state of Mississippi, and in 1984 Assistant Secretary of State for Elections and Public Lands. In 1995 she became the coordinator of the Mississippi State Democratic Party Coordinating Campaign, after which she re-established her law practice in Forest and retired in 2015. For 35 years, she worked as a Tougaloo College pre-law adjunct professor. She was the first African American female to serve as a judge in the state of Mississippi. Her honors are many, including being inducted into the Halls of Fame for the University of MS (Ole MS) the Ole MS Law School, Tougaloo College, and the National Bar Association, the highest honors bestowed on female attorneys - Mississippi Bar’s Susie Blue Buchanan Award and the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Achievement Award. She has spent her life fighting for the rights and interests of the poor and people of color, and particularly for the young among them. She is presently president/founder of Legacy Education and Community Empowerment Foundation in Forest, MS.