After a legacy of activism, the May 4 Task Force faces a cloudy future

A screen grab of page two of the May 3 1971 Daily Kent Stater. 

Gina Butkovich Editor In Chief Sara CrawfordOpinion editor

Editors note: This evening at 4 p.m. there will be a virtual presentation followed by a Q&A discussion on the future of the May 4th Task Force. You can register to attend here.

For close to half a century, the May 4th Task Force did what Kent State administrators initially refused to do—it planned and held an annual commemoration of the killings of four students by members of the Ohio National Guard in 1970. 

The student-run group, created in 1975, existed as a separate entity from the university as a whole and took on the planning of the annual memorial when university President Glenn Olds announced Kent State would no longer observe the anniversary. 

But as the years passed, the attitudes of both students and administrators changed. In 1975, the task force was made up of students who were in high school when the National Guard opened fire, killing Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder and wounding Alan Canfora, Tom Grace, Joe Lewis, Dean Kahler, Robby Stamps, Douglas Wrentmore, James Russell and Donald MacKenzie during an anti-war protest. 

In 2021, the average college student sees 1970 as distant history. Jerry Lewis, who was a faculty marshal on May 4, 1970, and is currently an emeritus professor of sociology, watched the change happen first hand. To him, students used to view the event from an emotional standpoint. Now, more than 50 years later, students look at it historically. 

The university administration gradually changed its views on the commemoration, as well, and in 2019 agreed to take over the responsibility of planning commemorations. 

But the question remains: What happens to a task force that for so long was a force of student activism on campus? 

Fall 1970 – Spring 1971: After May 4 Shootings

When students returned to campus the fall following the shootings, tensions between the university and the anti-war movement on campus had not lessened. 

“In the fall of 1970, [Kent State] was a rather jarring place to be,” Tom Grace, one of the students wounded, said. “One of the first things that happened was a memorial service in the gymnasium, in Memorial Gym, fittingly named, and that was the first time that Kent State students had officially had a memorial service, because the school had been closed immediately [after May 4].” 

Five thousand people attended the memorial service held in September of that year. Grace and Dean Kahler, another student injured on May 4, both spoke. It was the first time the two met, and Kahler’s first time back on campus after he was shot in the back and paralyzed by the guardsman. He spent the previous three months in between hospitals and rehab centers.  

“There are four people dead on this campus,” Grace said in his speech, “and all the university has done is to double security forces. There have been narcotics arrests here, this year, repressing the counter-culture students have tried to build.”

Tensions continued to heighten in the following weeks. A special state grand jury probe into the events of May 4 began in Ravenna, and the rumors flying around campus said it would be going after as many participants involved in the protests as possible. 

In October of that year, the jury released an 18-page report and indicted 25 people, 24 students and one faculty member, on 43 charges. None of the guardsmen were initially indicted. Grace said the grand jury was prepared to indict up to 250 people at first, but “prominent people in Columbus” advised against doing so. 

“[They] said, ‘If you do that it’s going to enlarge the number of people who have a stake and an outcome in what took place there,’” Grace said. “What they were worried about was a public backlash against the state of Ohio for indicting that number of people.”

When the news of the 25 indictments reached campus, students gathered around the offices of The Daily Kent Stater in Taylor Hall, where signs reading “no Guard” were posted. According to a New York Times article at the time, students “shook their heads with a mixture of anger and resignation and muttered curses.” 

The jury placed most of the blame on Kent State administrators for “fostering an attitude of laxity, overindulgence and permissiveness with its students and faculty to the extent that it can no longer regulate the activities of either.” The result of this “laxity,” the jury said, was that groups such as “Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Young Socialist Alliance, Red Guard, Student Religious Liberals (SRL) and other groups who advocate violence and disruption” were recognized on campus.

Students and faculty were angered by the grand jury report. The executive committee of the faculty senate was “dismayed by the oversimplification of the issues involved by the inaccuracies and exclusions of certain information and by the Grand Jury’s evident failure to understand the nature of a university in a free society.” Many students also questioned the report and were particularly angered by a paragraph that focused on the students “vulgar and obscene” language. On the day of the shootings, students chanted, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war.” 

“They didn’t even mention in the report that anyone had been killed at Kent State,” Grace said. “But they did devote an entire paragraph in the report to the fact that there was foul language used in the protests on May 4, 1970, … grand jurors were appalled by the use of language, but evidently they were not appalled by the fact that four people were shot.” 

Throughout the fall 1970 and spring 1971 semesters, students organized to fight the 25 indictments and continued to protest the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. 

“We could not allow the fact that four of our classmates had been shot to death to dissuade us from continuing to do so because the war continued to go on,” Grace said. “So it really became a renewed movement with a dual purpose.”

The first goal was to win exoneration of all 25 people indicted, so the Kent Legal Defense Fund was created. In the end, five cases relating to the burning of the ROTC building went to trial. One defendant was convicted of interfering with a fireman, one was acquitted, charges were dismissed against one and two pleaded guilty. Eventually, charges against the remaining 20 defendants were dismissed due to a lack of evidence.

The second goal was to reconstitute and reorganize organizations on campus to provide leadership to the anti-war movement. A Kent chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War was created. 

The response from professors during this time was a mixed bag, Grace said, with some who did not like him, due to his association with May 4 and his anti-war efforts, and others who “bent over backward” in order to be nice to him. But the response from the higher-ups of the university was consistent, and it was not good. 

The president of the university at the time, Robert White, sent letters home to families of Kent State students, Grace said, asking them to tell their children not to attend the demonstrations that were held weekly to protest the 25 indictments. 

“That didn’t go over well with some of the students,” Grace said. “‘Who is this guy, trying to scare my family?’ There was great tension between the anti-war left and Kent State University.” 

Chic Canfora, a sophomore in the spring of 1970 who witnessed the shootings and whose brother, Alan, was one of the wounded, said the university did not know how to handle the trauma, grief and outrage brought about by the shooting. Alan died in Dec. 2020 following a brief illness.

“There was no meaningful way when our university campus was shut down in two hours, for us to gather, to remember and commemorate that year, or even in the days and months that followed May 4,” Canfora said. 

Laura Davis, one of the witnesses of the shooting, spent the entire summer after May 4 excited to get back to campus and to see her college friends. Once she returned in August, she quickly found herself distressed over what was happening around her. Her group of friends returned with her, but by the end of the year, the majority of them left due to the atmosphere on campus, and Davis never saw them again. 

“Kent was like the most amazing place when I got there in the fall of ‘69,” Davis said. “And that activity and sense of consciousness, it was still in the air, but for me, it deflated by the end of the year, because everybody I was connected to was gone.” 

In the months leading up to the first commemoration, there was conflict over how the campus should commemorate May 4. The Daily Kent Stater ran two stories about the commemoration on page two of the paper on May 3, 1971. The first talked about White’s views on the commemoration and the university.

White talked about the increase in communication he saw between students and administrators in the previous year. He said administrative officers had an open-door policy and that he “learned a great deal from rap sessions, informal luncheons and what you might call potpourri discussions in my office with randomly selected groups of students.”

The second story ran immediately below the first. The headline said, “According to two Coalition leaders: Communications have not improved on campus.” Ken Hammond and Ken Johnson, two leaders of the May Day Coalition, an anti-war group on campus, stated they did not feel like the university was listening to students. 

“I don’t feel that the communication process has improved in any true and real way,” Johnson said. “You talk with people forever, but if you don’t get them to listen, where does that leave you?”

In the end, the university-sanctioned commemoration appeared to go off without a hitch. Kahler spoke for the nine wounded students and told the crowd to “remember last May forever” and urged people to commit themselves to nonviolence. 

“[The commemoration] enabled us, even many of us like myself and others who moved on and dropped out and went to other universities or took time off or focused on our indictments and things, it gave us a place to gather, to talk about what happened, to teach others about what was going on with the grand jury investigation, with the indictments of the Kent 25,” Canfora said. “So we were doing a lot of teaching about May 4. We were doing a lot of commemorating on May 4, 1971. That was very healing for us for five years.” 

The 1971 commemoration was, Lewis said, the first time many students came back to campus following the shootings.

On May 3, 1971, the first candlelight vigil and walk began at 11 p.m. Created by Lewis with the help of Michelle Klein, a Kent State student at the time, and other students, the procession looped around the perimeter of campus and ended at the Prentice Hall parking lot. The vigil continued overnight, with volunteers standing watch at each of the spots where the four students were killed until 12:24 p.m. on May 4 — the time of the confrontation between the National Guard and the protesters. 

“What we talked about was the importance of remembering in a peaceful, polite way, but it was essential, as I remember our discussions, that it be important but simple,” Lewis said.  “After talking for a while, we decided that standing with a candle on the spot where the four students are killed would be the best way to do it.” 

For the past 50 years, the walk and the candlelight vigil remained essentially the same, other than the sealing off in 1999 of the parking spaces where each student was killed. 

1971-1975: University Holds Commemorations 

Between 1971 and 1975, the university held a commemoration ceremony every year. 

“Those of us who remained active, including my brother and Tom Grace and a number of the wounded and indicted students along with a lot of the old SDS folks like Billy Whitaker, kept returning to teach people about what happened and what was happening in the aftermath,” Canfora said. “We were making sure that at the forefront was a quest for truth, to know why the National Guard opened fire on us and to call for understanding of what made them do it.”  

At the same time, the university was sponsoring the commemorations, they were also still pushing back against student activists on campus, including a notable incident that made national news in which an undercover Kent State policeman infiltrated a Vietnam Veterans Against the War meeting and tried to convince them to commit unlawful acts of violence. 

Portraying himself as an anti-war activist, Ronald Mohr attended meetings in 1972 and advocated for the use of violence against police and the ROTC. He owned an AK-47 rifle which was, his roommate said at the time, a “wall decoration” in his apartment, and a rocket launcher. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War members alleged that he offered the weapons to the group to use, perhaps in an attempt to set them up to be arrested for their possession. Mohr was arrested by the Kent City police on charges of possessing an illegal weapon the night of April 24, 1972. 

“The Vietnam Veterans Against the War were able to turn the tables on him, because there was very poor coordination between the Kent City police and the Kent State University police,” Grace said. “They each felt that neither department supported the other very well. So there wasn’t really much dialogue between the two, and when the Veterans Against the War were able to determine with absolute certainty that this man was indeed a KSU police officer instead of what he was portraying himself as, an anti-war activist, they approached the Kent City police and told them that they knew of a radical in Kent who had these dangerous weapons and that he might be using them for nefarious purposes.” 

The incident, Grace said, took place with the knowledge of the university president at the time, Glenn Olds. Within a week of Mohr’s arrest, Olds announced the end of using university police to surveille campus organizations. The move was, according to Olds, due to recommendations from a campus security advisory committee. 

Despite the continuous pushback against the anti-war groups on campus by the university, the shootings were still recognized and commemorated every year. 

Until 1976. 

1975-1995: The Creation of the May 4th Task Force 

The university made the decision in 1975 to stop its sponsorship and support of the May 4 commemorations. During the weekend of May 4 that year, the university put on its last commemoration. It would not sponsor another for 44 years. 

The decision was a “slap in the face” to those who spent the last five years working to educate people on what happened at Kent State. 

“We said, if the university is no longer going to do this, we’re going to do this without them,” Canfora said.  

The May 4th Task Force was created. Three of the wounded students, Alan Canfora, Robby Stamps and Kahler, along with four other students, Nancy Grim, Bob Hart, Maureen Stauton and Steve Timinsky, organized the group. 

“The purpose of the task force is to coordinate actions concerning the issues stemming from the events at KSU on May 4, 1970,” the proposal read. “Projects may include: fostering a positive attitude in the community and in the KSU administration; fund-raising; campaigning for action by the Ohio General Assembly.”

The May 4th Task Force and the Center for Peaceful Change Lectureship Committee, announced the two groups would be coordinating the sixth commemoration in December 1975. The committee would focus on the organization of the candlelight vigil and booking lecturers, while the task force would focus on all other May 4 activities, ranging from videos, slides, photos and reaching out to the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs and defendants during the May 4 trials.

The groups’ first commemoration was a success in 1976, with the maintenance of the different aspects of the commemoration. It was raining the night of the candlelight vigil, and the attendees kept one anothers’ candles alight by pouring fire from one candle to another. Olds, the university president who decided to end commemorations, attended as well, to the shock of some students and reporters there, and spoke of the importance of remembrance. 

Olds announced in Nov. 1976 that a gym annex would be built, partially on the site of the shooting. The arguments for building the annex in that location were that it would be cost-effective, utilize three existing walls in the facility and save money on heating lines, locker rooms and shower space. It also would not require new parking lots to be built.  

After the May 4 march in 1977, the students learned that there was a Board of Trustees meeting happening at the time. A group of 600 students marched toward Rockwell Hall, which was the administration building at the time. As approximately 250 students made it inside of the building, the sit-in began.

Students listed their demands — which ranged from not building the gym annex to canceling classes on May 4. When the university hosted the commemorations from 1971 to 1975, May 4 was a day of remembrance, with no classes. Once the university-sponsored commemorations stopped, so did the annual cancellation of classes on May 4.

The administration refused multiple requests from the May 4th Task Force to cancel classes, and in Feb. 1976, the Student Caucus made the decision to reach out to individual faculty members in hopes of changing their minds. Hart, one of the task force’s founding members, met with John Snyder, executive vice president and provost, on March 15. Snyder explained university policy said because the program planned by the task force was not part of a university function, the university could not cancel classes for part of the day. 

On May 12, 1977, the Board of Trustees responded to the demands and agreed not to punish anyone who missed class on May 4 or who demonstrated at Rockwell Hall. The board sent the demand to cancel classes every May 4 to committees for further discussion, and they refused to halt the construction of the gym annex. 

Three hundred May 4 Coalition members, a combination of Student Caucus and task force members, walked out of the Board of Trustees meeting. That evening, the first tent was pitched on Blanket Hill. By the morning of May 13, 250 coalition members agreed to set up a “tent city.” 

“It’s time now to take a stand,” said Greg Rambo, a coalition member, at the time. “We are going to stay out here and face the elements.” 

Tent City lasted for 62 days, until July 12, 1977. Kent State secured a court injunction, and Portage County sheriff’s deputies ordered all those still living on the hill to disperse. When the protesters refused to leave, police arrested 194 people. Construction for the annex began in September, and by the summer of 1979, employees moved into the building. 

Karen Cunningham, now a professor in the School of Peace and Conflict and past task force advisor, had her first exposure to activism at Kent State involving the newly completed gym annex. 

“They were having a mock dedication of the gym, they had black ribbon and dedicated the new gym annex to the insensitivity of Governor Rhodes,” said Cunningham. “And so that was my first exposure to a demonstration at Kent State as a freshman in 1979.” 

Meanwhile, the fight for the cancellation of classes for the commemoration continued, as the May 4th Task Force and other supportive groups kept pushing for recognition. In a Faculty Senate meeting in early April 1977, the cancellation of classes on May 4 was “unanimously supported by the Faculty Senate earlier this week, but university administrators said Thursday that classes will still be held.”

Although the administration stated that classes would continue, Snyder, the provost, sent out a letter to all deans and department chairpersons to encourage leniency on May 4. The argument from the university was the students who were not going to commemorate May 4 were going to take the day off with the cancellation of classes. 

Finally, on Apr. 12, 1978, May 4 was declared an official day of remembrance. University President Brage Golding announced the program plans recommended by the May 4 Observance Committee would be accepted, while most made by the May 4th Task Force he stated were “not relevant or appropriate.”

The presidential assistant said the decision to cancel classes was “in direct response to allegations’’ of insensitivity to and cover-up of May 4 by the administration. 

As the May 4th Task Force continued to create commemorations every year, they also worked to help educate Kent State students on May 4. 

“The May 4th Task Force would bring a film projector around to the dorms and do a dorm presentation,” said Rod Flauhaus, a member of the May 4th Task Force as a student and its chairman in 1984 and 1985. “They would show a film and then answer questions.” 

One of the reasons Flauhaus joined the task force was because of the influence of Alan Canfora. “Getting the chance to talk with Alan and really hearing a lot of his points of view, learning more about May 4, I said, ‘I need to be involved in this,’” he said. “It really was Alan’s way of educating people and encouraging people to stand up for things that they believe in or injustices. He really was the one that got me involved.” 

Throughout Flauhaus’ time on the task force, membership ranged from around three to five students, with more participating in preparing the commemorations. During the majority of his time as a member, he worked on collaborating with University President Michael Schwartz in creating the May 4 Site and Memorial. “It was myself and two other task force people that really worked for about two and a half years, very closely with the families, and then very closely with [Faculty Senate, student government and Interhall Council] on campus,” Flauhaus said. 

The May 4th Task Force went to the university in 1982 to propose a memorial and a committee to work on preserving the area, including the restoration of the Victory Bell and the creation of a plaque. In 1983, the task force took its ideas for the memorial to Schwartz and the Board of Trustees, who were very receptive to the plan and continued to work with the committee to prepare a memorial, Flauhaus said. 

“The Committee proposed to the Board of Trustees that a permanent memorial should be built and that it should be built in the area of Taylor Hall where the shootings occurred,” according to The Stater. “We did not want the memorial to be on the original site of the shootings, but on a site that was contiguous to where the shootings took place,” said the chairman of the May 4 Memorial Committee, Harry Ausprich. The memorial was approved by the trustees Jan. 24, 1985, and would be near Taylor Hall. 

After it was announced at the 15th commemoration, the university launched a national design competition to create the memorial. It included entries from artists and architects from across the country with an $85,000 grant to help with the competition funds.

The memorial was designed by Bruno Ast, an architect from Chicago; the groundbreaking began in Jan. 1989 and the project was finished in time to be dedicated at the 1990 commemoration. Surrounding the memorial and covering the hillside near Taylor Hall are 58,175 daffodils planted that year to symbolize the lives lost in the Vietnam War. 

The memorial continued to receive mixed reviews, as it was not what was originally expected. The university was asked for $500,000 for the construction of the memorial, but was only able to provide $100,000 due to a lack of funds from donors. The memorial itself was also smaller than expected due to the fundraising issues. The feeling behind the memorial was that its message was not clear and it originally did not include the names of the killed and wounded. It was not until Apr. 26, 1990 that the decision was made to add the names of the students. 

Tia Atchison, a Kent State senior from nearby Suffield, told The Daily Kent Stater she was undecided about whether she liked the memorial and whether it was an appropriate commemoration of the shootings. “I’m not sure it reflects what happened here. It’s kind of vague,” Atchison said. “I don’t know if people will come and realize what happened here. I don’t know if it’s enough.” 

Although the memorial caused some confusion and animosity, it also brought about the beginning of change with the university. 

“I think that time has been under appreciated quite a bit,” Flauhaus said. “It really was a time when the task force and the administration worked together to get the idea of doing something here because up until then, the administration just wanted to kind of sweep it under the rug and not deal with it.” 

1995 – 2014: Positive Changes in Administration

The 25th commemoration in 1995 marked a turning point in the relationship between the task force and the university, which was traditionally more helpful for “major” commemorations. In addition, Carol Cartwright, who became the university president in 1991, was generally viewed as a vast improvement over previous presidents when it came to relations with the task force. That year, she hosted a luncheon for May 4 advocates, and Grace was able to speak with her privately for a few moments.  

“I told her about the experience some educators had had at Kent State, coming to the campus in the late ‘80s and early 1990s and wanting to walk about the site,” Grace said. “They encountered a student who was there for the summer and who had no knowledge about what took place there 25 years ago. There was no literature other than the memorial that was in the corner.” 

There were, at the time, markers where the students were killed and no outdoor signage. Following his short conversation with Cartwright, Grace sent her a letter detailing all they talked about and asking her to put a historic marker on campus. Cartwright never answered the letter, but she did establish a committee to partner with the Ohio Historical Society in order to receive historical recognition. 

Davis, who stayed around Kent State in some form or fashion for most of the previous 25 years and was working in the provost’s office, was one of the administrators who worked with the society to get the marker. In 2006, it was officially dedicated. 

“President Cartwright, who initially was not warm to the idea of embracing the past, was able to kind of grow on the issue and understand that Kent State being an educational institution, had an educational responsibility to deal with their own history,” Grace said, pointing to it as an example of why the task force worked so hard to educate about May 4. 

In 1999, the task force achieved another of its large goals; four markers were placed in each of the locations in the Prentice Hall parking lot where the four students were killed. The task force spent the previous year collecting signatures and petitioning the university to place the markers. At the time, Alan Canfora told The Stater “these students will not let this issue die. They continue to speak for Allison, Sandy, Jeffrey and Bill. I think the spirit of those four students lives today in these Kent State students who fight to keep their memories alive.”

During this year’s 51st commemoration, 10 markers will be dedicated that show where the nine wounded students were shot along with the position of the National Guard. The round plaques on the ground state the student’s name and the number of feet they were from the National Guard. One of the most important factors in creating these markers was to ensure absolute confidence that each spot was correctly measured and marked. 

Also during Cartwright’s tenure, Davis and Carol Barbato, a communication studies professor at Kent State, started working together, taking over the May 4, 1970 and Its Aftermath class. This class was created by Lewis and political science professor Thomas Hensley to teach students about what happened on May 4. Davis, who was teaching at a regional campus at the time, ran into Barbato at a commemoration in the mid-1990s and they started talking. 

“One of my colleagues was sitting there in the auditorium, and I thought, ‘What is Carol doing here?’” Davis said. “So we found out that we both had been at Kent State during the time of the shootings and so forth, so we started working with each other at our campus and at some of the other regional campuses, teaching people about May 4.” 

It was the first time Davis used her voice to educate others about May 4, and it also brought about her first contact with the task force. 

2001-2012: Creation of the May 4 Visitors Center

While Davis was associate provost, a task force member proposed an idea for a new set of offices for the group. These offices would serve as an information desk, so people who were curious about May 4 could come and learn more about it. Due to Davis’ knowledge, she was asked by the provost’s office to oversee everything regarding May 4. As Davis and Barbato looked into it more, they realized there was a greater need. 

“There needs to be a place that has a display that tells the story permanently and that needs to be within the site, because we knew from teaching the May 4 course that there were always people wandering into the site, and they would end up in Taylor Hall,” Davis said. 

The decision was made in Nov. 2007 that once The Daily Kent Stater’s newsroom moved out of Taylor Hall and into Franklin Hall, the empty space would be dedicated to the creation of the May 4 Visitors Center. The hope was to open the center for the 40th commemoration, but it wasn’t completed until Oct. 20, 2012. 

Davis considered the museum an expansion of the memorial that already exists in University Commons.

In addition to the visitors center, a walking tour was created with different plaques explaining what happened on May 4, 1970. Dedicated at the 40th commemoration, the walking tour helped tell the story while the visitors center was being built, and it continues to tell the story today. 

For many who had long been involved in May 4 activism, having a visitors center was more than they ever thought they would get. 

“When I saw what Laura Davis and the late Carol Barbato did with the May 4 Visitor Center, it was just beyond the wildest hopes that my imagination could ever hope to imagine,” Grace said.

2014 – 2019: Administration Under Beverly Warren

Once Beverly Warren began her tenure as Kent State’s 12th president, there was a promise of the continuation of the university’s support and participation in the commemorations for most of the wounded students and the four families of those killed.

“It was truly a turning point for the university, but it was also a turning point for us,” Canfora said. “The survivors of that massacre that worry about what will happen to May 4 when we’re gone. [When] we are not here to do the teaching that we’ve done for 48 years to ensure the commemorations are pulled off and stepping in to help these young students who are just struggling to pull it off every year. What will happen when we’re gone?”

For years, there were concerns among the long-term members of the task force about what the future would hold. Alan Canfora was, for a long time, a rock for the group, but in 2015, he got married and soon had children, which took him away from the task force. It was also always difficult to keep a student-run task force going for so long, when traditionally students were only involved for a semester or two before graduating and leaving Kent. 

“When [Alan] was no longer involved, the number of students who were participating drastically fell off, and this is a bit controversial, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on anyone, but by 2016, 2017, 2018, there just weren’t that many students involved anymore,” Grace said. “And there were times when people around the country would be contacting me on April 15, inquiring ‘Where’s the schedule for this year? Who are the speakers going to be?’ And I wouldn’t know.” 

But there was nothing for the task force to do about their worries if the university was not willing to step in and help. 

At the 48th commemoration in 2018, Warren read the chronology normally recited every year by a task force member. The chronology begins on May 1, 1970 after the announcement that the United States entered Cambodia on April 30. This continues to go through the four days leading up to the shooting, explaining what was happening in Kent at the time. 

“Bev Warren delivered a chronology of May 4, 1970, and in 48 years it was the first time I heard a university president or a university dignitary of any sort talk about it with so much compassion,” Canfora said. “Owning it as if it was their events, their tragedy. Expressing her own outrage, that four of her college kids, the university’s college kids, would die there and nine others wounded, making a public declaration of a university’s responsibility to promote and protect freedom of speech.” 

For Canfora, it marked a new chapter in the task force’s relationship with the university. 

“I sat there right with the university president next to me and went through that same painful chronology, indicting the university for all of its years of insensitivity and coldness and neglect of May 4,” Canfora said. “At the same time, I was thanking her for promising a new era of collaboration and commitment to the resources and the time and the staffing needed to do this right.”

In 2019, 12 of the 13 families of the wounded and killed students went to Warren and the Board of Trustees with a request that the responsibility for May 4 education and the commemorations be returned to the university. 

“They would devote the time and the resources to take it to its rightful level of education about May 4, commemoration about May 4, 1970, in a way that is relevant to a new generation of student activists,” Canfora said. “And that is what we advocated for.”

The Board of Trustees passed a resolution in March of 2019 stating that they would, starting with the 50th commemoration, assume responsibility for the annual commemorations. They would also assume responsibility for the ongoing May 4 educational efforts.

The one family member left out of the conversation was Laurel Krause, the younger sister of Allison Krause. She was not a part of the decision to return the commemorations to university stewardship.

“I was not going to go along with it,” Krause said. She continued to say that no matter what, she would have disagreed, but there was not the opportunity for her to even do so. 

For Krause, her healing happened hundreds of miles away in Northern California at the Allison Center for Peace. She purchased the land 17 years ago and transformed it in 2015 into a “peace destination” for her and anyone else who might need to heal. Located on the Mendocino coast, the land is secluded and Krause built everything on it herself.

The Allison Center for Peace became her place to heal years after the Kent State shootings as it “is about healing and every day as I walk the land here, I heal a little bit more,” Krause said. 

She realized she needed to fully make peace with what happened to her sister after police came to arrest her for growing marijuana. “I saw their guns — now their guns weren’t drawn — but I saw their guns, and all of a sudden they turned into the Ohio National Guard, and they were coming for me,” Krause said of the arrest. 

The event pushed her to find peace about what happened to her sister and to search for the truth.

“When you don’t know the truth and you’re not encouraged to dig deep into figuring out what it means to you and what it meant to that loved one of yours when they died and to come to terms with it, you’re forever walking around with a sinking hole inside you that you can never get beyond, because it’s bigger than you,” Krause said.  

She created the Kent State Truth Tribunal in 2010 to work toward telling the truth behind the shootings. “When you look at the history of Kent State, you have to take a look at the resistance that’s been present since day one and the resistance is about truth,” Krause said.

With filmmaker Emily Kunstler, the daughter of William Kunstler, the attorney who defended the Kent State survivors, Krause worked for the last 11 years on their mission to record the personal Kent State massacre narratives of witnesses and participants, filming more than 80 people. 

In addition, the tribunal testified before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in March 2014. According to the tribunal’s website, the committee “asked the U.S. delegation specifically about the lack of adequate investigation into the Kent State massacre. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin stated that ‘In 1970, four students were killed, were murdered,’ the first official admission that the campus killings were murders.”

Krause wants the university to recognize the work that the tribunal does.

“I’d like Kent State University to acknowledge we exist,” Krause said “It’s funny. The United Nations does, but Kent State University won’t even put our name anywhere on their website or speak of us. We don’t exist as far as they’re concerned.”

2019 – Present Day: SDS Returns 

Chased off the Kent campus by the university administration during the late 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) returned in 2019. The student group “strives to build a long-lasting and resilient political organization led by students and youth, to fight back against the system we live under controlled by the rich.”

SDS does not agree with the university’s complete control over May 4 commemorations or May 4 education, nor do they agree with how the 2021 commemoration was planned. 

“Our position has always been that students need to have proper say in the planning of these commemorations and that was the deal the university originally presented back with Beverly Warren on the 50th,” said Colt Hutchinson, the chair of SDS. “They said that they wanted to come together and give [the task force] more funds to plan the 50th and that they wanted to have this open-working relationship. But we would like to see that the university continues to be involved with May 4, but it needs to be structured in a manner so that neither party can make unilateral decisions, and there needs to be complete transparency.” 

In Feb. 2020, a coalition of student groups including SDS, released four demands, the first of which was to return May 4 to the students. 

“We demand that the university establish a genuine working relationship with the student body regarding all commemoration planning and other May 4 related programming,” the demand stated. “This relationship should be structured in a manner which ensures that neither party can make unilateral decisions. Furthermore, all meetings should be completely transparent and held at a reasonable time to ensure that all students, community members and stakeholders are able to participate.” 

On May 1, 2021, SDS posted a Medium article titled “Return the Kent State Massacre Commemoration to the Students!” In it, they allege that while task force meetings were always open to the public, the university has only invited the president of the task force and the advisor of the task force to attend the meetings to plan commemorations. 

While SDS is not against the university having a role in the planning, stating that it is “long overdue for them to acknowledge the role they played in 1970,” they allege there is not an open and transparent working relationship with the students. 

“We’re totally fine with the university being involved,” Hutchinson said. “I think it is high time that the university actually stepped up and admitted they played a role in murdering four students in 1970, but they still haven’t done that. They are basically just controlling what’s going on and how the narrative is presented.” 

Currently, Ethan Lower, the most recent task force president, and Olivia Salter, a senior Kent State student and task force member, are working on an independent study about the future of the May 4th Task Force. Uma Krishnan, an English professor at Kent State, is their advisor on the study. 

“I’m sure we could’ve come up with a plan on our own and said, ‘This is what we want to do for the future of the task force, this is the best path forward, this is what everyone else should do,’” Lower said. “But we really thought, ‘Why don’t we get feedback from students through a survey. And then why don’t we interview former members, current members that we’ve worked with, that we haven’t worked with, reach out and talk to them.’ And we did do that, and it worked out pretty well.” 

They wanted to ensure they were not the only ones making the decision about an organization as historic as the May 4th Task Force. 

“As much as we care about this organization, and we’ve worked with it and the university very closely, we’re like ‘OK, we need to acknowledge that maybe we’re not the best people to make the decision,’” Salter said. “So let’s hear from the student body, and let’s hear from these really prominent voices.” 

The study is completed, and Lower and Salter are set to present their findings on Mon., May 3 at 4 p.m.

Canfora’s Hope for the Future 

Canfora has a vision for the future of the task force that keeps in mind its long history in activism. She no longer wants it to be a “group of five, three or four students with the burden of academic programming and event planning of something that happened 51 years ago.”

“Imagine if instead, the task force was a catalyst, a group that was committed to uniting student groups around the campus around the issues relevant to students today,” she said. “Whether it’s undergraduate student senate, whether it’s an environmentalist group, whether it’s SDS, what are the issues around which they are rallying?” 

Canfora acknowledged that not everyone who was a long-term member of the task force agrees with this vision. 

“My brother thought the task force should just be thanked and disbanded, because they had fulfilled their purpose now that the university was no longer stopping commemorations,” she said. “I, on the other hand, felt like the best way to honor the task force is to help them find a new direction.” 

Canfora does not have any concerns about the university backing out of recognizing future May 4 commemorations. 

“Students have never let that happen,” she laughed. “Students at Kent State did it in 1975, and they’ll do it again if there is ever a university president who goes against what we made sure was in writing. There’s a resolution, there is a public commitment, to continue May 4 education and commemoration.”

 Contact Sara Crawford at [email protected]

 Contact Gina Butkovich at [email protected]