May 4th Task Force faces uncertain future

“Our May 4 Coalition who occupied Blanket Hill for 62 days in 1977 to protect the May 4 site from destruction — protesting at a Board of Trustees meeting to demand they move the gym,” Chic Canfora said.

Madison MacArthur

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four students and injuring nine others.The university was ordered to close. In 1975, the university believed that commemorations of the event were no longer necessary; the May 4th Task Force took over the commemorations for the foreseeable future.

Students created the May 4th Task Force and believed “the truth about what happened in May of 1970 had yet to be told and that the lessons to be learned from the tragedy should be part of a continuous and living history,” according to M4TF website.

Among the students who formed the Task Force were survivors and witnesses to the tragedy, such as Chic Canfora and her brother, Alan. Alan Canfora was the founder and charter member of the Task Force in 1975.

Chic Canfora worked intermittently since she first became involved with the Task Force. While she has not held an office or official role, she remained active and supportive, especially seeing students continuously come forward for the commemoration.

“It takes a rare level of integrity and commitment to see what is not easily seen and to give time to a cause for which the personal rewards, for them, may not be immediate,” Canfora said.

She has seen changes over the past 48 years, such as the rising and falling number of students involved with the Task Force.

“That is why I most recently called for the university to assume its rightful ownership of May 4; it is not because I don’t believe that students can and will do it,” Canfora said. “It is because the university administration is far more capable than student volunteers to provide the time and resources needed to adequately commemorate and educate a broad national audience around May 4, its impacts on our democracy and its potential impact on our nation today.”

Canfora served as a panelist and speaker over the years and gave her eye-witness testimony as a member of the “Kent 25,” which refers to the 25 students and faculty indicted by a grand jury on criminal charges for a total of 43 crimes in conjunction with the shootings.

She remembers the candlelight vigil on May 3, 1999, when “the markers were dedicated on the spots where our friends died” in the Prentice Hall parking lot.

“Seeing Sandy’s marker, lit up with her name on it for the first time, my knees buckled and my friends held me up,” Canfora said. “One of the indelible images for me of that fateful day is seeing Sandy as she lay dying in the Prentice Hall yard; but now, I was seeing the spot where she died — etched in stone for eternity.”

Canfora walked with the surviving parents of the students who died, she remembers holding the arm of Jeffrey Miller’s mom, Elaine Holstein, as they approached his marker to see his name as well.

Maddie Camp, a student co-chair of the Task Force and a sophomore political science major, first became involved last spring semester when she attended a meeting last spring while in the May 4

class at the Kent campus. This past year, she has served as president of the student organization.

“I think it’s a really important organization, but it’s not always recognized as such by current students,” Camp said. “I think people really don’t know about it and I think they need student support to survive.”

The biggest change Camp has seen is the university taking over the 50th commemoration of May 4. On March 6, 2019, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution that committed the university to commemorate the anniversary of May 4 for the 50th and beyond rather than the responsibility falling to the Task Force.

that committed the university to commemorate the 50th anniversary and beyond rather than the Task Force’s commemorating it. 

Camp worked through the resolution to plan this year’s 49th commemoration and candlelight vigil Friday at 11 p.m, remebering last year’s vigil for inspiration. 

“I wasn’t even that involved in the Task Force, but I think it is such a powerful event,” Camp said. “I remember walking back and being at the markers and looking at them thinking, ‘these kids were literally my age.’”

Camp said most work done is collaborative, contacting speakers and organizing all the events for the commemoration, but she worked on the Fall Forum where she moderated a panel between Chic Canfora and President Beverly Warren.

“(The work) is mentally exhausting, not only are you dealing with a lot of work but the subject matter is really heavy,” Camp said. “I’m speaking for Sandy and going through letters that people wrote about her and it’s just crushing.”

With the university taking over commemorations, the Task Force’s role appears to be in the air.

“I think people will continue to be passionate about having an activist organization related to May 4 and not have everything controlled by the university,” Camp said. “But I don’t think (the Task Force is) going anywhere.”

Before the Board of Trustees passed their resolution, Faculty Advisor Idris Kabir Syed resigned from his role, but he looks back at his time on the Task Force with pride. He became involved with the Task Force when he was an undergraduate student.

He has not seen a change in the functions of the Task Force, he believes they have remained consistent in their work of activism concerning women’s rights, anti-racism and others.

“Sometimes there are leaders who are more political and sometimes there are student leaders who aren’t as political,” Syed said. “It’s like an ebb and flow, but I have the feeling that next year there will be more students who are looking to engage.”

Syed said working within the May 4 community gives more experiences at many different levels, such as interacting with the families (of the victims) and the students who were shot that day. 

“Since 1975, those Task Force students really pushed to have the university recognize the importance of that day, and to recognize the importance of the movement at Kent State.”

Syed has seen students who leave after graduating, but he believes that the work they gain by being involved in the Task Force is invaluable, to themselves and to the Task Force.

“I look forward to what these new incoming group of students will bring and what they want to talk about and what they want to bring to the table, it’s about the generations that follow and what they do with May 4,” Syed said. “It’s a living legacy.”

Canfora said without the Task Force, it is unlikely that the commemorations would have ever continued beyond 1975.

“The Task Force has, since then, been a testament to the power of history and the determination of college students to recognize and make relevant moments in history that have meaning for them today and in the future,” Canfora said.

According to the Task Force’s website, five goals were set April 4, 2000, to honor the victims: to place a marker by the Pagoda, identify where the Ohio National Guard fired, set aside visitor parking on site for those who visit the May 4 Memorial, have the university officially recognize the four Kent State buildings that have been named after the four killed students, achieve historical status for the May 4 site and call for the Ohio National Guardsmen present on campus on May 4, 1970, to come forward and tell the truth.

“Without the May 4th Task Force and it’s tireless work over the past five decades, we would not have a May 4 Memorial, or markers where our classmates fell; we would not have national historic landmark status, a May 4 class or the May 4 Visitor’s Center and the walking tour,” Canfora said. “Most of all, the May 4th Task Force is an indelible chapter in May 4 history and in the history of student activism in America.”

She hopes students will not only commit to learning about May 4 but be engaged in commemorating and educating others about history.

“May 4 will forever give Kent State students not only a platform for addressing issues that affect them, but an opportunity to show America and the world that public debate and peaceful dissent against government policy can happen on a university campus — a place where freedom of speech must not only be promoted and respected but also protected,” Canfora said.

Madison MacArthur is a senior reporter. Contact her at [email protected]