The lasting impact of May 4


11/17/16 May 4 book Thomas Grace

Lauren Rathmell

Each year past and present Kent State students gather to commemorate the tragedy that occurred on May 4, 1970. It is a day that marks the university’s past, and it is a part of the school’s history.

Thomas Grace was a sophomore that year, and was on campus when demonstrations protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia were taking place. In fact, Grace had an exam to prepare for.

“I wasn’t exactly living in the moment that day,” he said.

For Grace, the May 4 shootings are not only a part of Kent State’s history, but it is also a part of his history. That day is not marked into his history because of the ‘A’ he earned on that exam, but instead it is marked by a foot injury from a bullet that tore through his left ankle. As one of the 13 unarmed students shot by the National Guard that day, the history major became history himself.

“I wasn’t even planning on protesting,” Grace said. “I didn’t go to Kent State to become an anti-war protestor; I went to Kent State to get a degree in history.”

Grace was nearly 75 yards away from the collection of guardsman — a distance he knows well because it has since been paced off for maps and documentation.

“I wasn’t very aware of how all these events were being spun in the media at the time,” he said. “Back then, we didn’t have internet. We had three TV stations and the radio.”

As a history scholar, Grace looks at that day with a different viewpoint than others. Recently, he published a book entitled “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.” His book examines the reasons why an event like this could have happened on Kent State’s main campus, which was perceived as an unlikely spot for such demonstrations.

“The reality is, the area was always politically active,” Grace said. His book highlights the history of student activism at Kent State, stretching as far back as the ’50s.

“People get a lot of things wrong about May 4,” he said. “The internet offers such a vast amount of information, it’s almost too much for some.” 

Thanks to his passion for history, Grace was able to use his college dissertation—”A Legacy of Dissent: The Culture and Politics of Protest at Kent State University — 1958-1964” to kick-start his book.

For the dissertation alone—which Grace highlights as being a book-length study but not a book—he scanned student directories for the names and hometowns of 5,218 students for the years 1955-56, 1959-60 and 1965-66 to better understand the correlation between where the students grew up, and how it impacted Kent State’s political climate.

“To undertake such a large task with the dissertation, I was able to draw upon the awareness that I had done this in some form before,” he said. “I had already written dozens of research papers. I just had to string several research papers together.”

For his book, only about two or three chapters includes his dissertation —he had to cut the rest.

“The dissertation didn’t cover the shootings, except for a brief paragraph after,” Grace said. “It gave the readers a look into what an expanded version of that dissertation could be.”

After retiring from a career in social work, Grace began to revise and expand the dissertation to include 1965 through January 1973.

“This time, I had complete confidence,” he said. “It was just a matter of finding and dedicating the time to the work.”

Grace debated on writing the book for about five years. His involvement during the events gave him pause initially.

“I didn’t have any plans to ever write about those experiences,” he said.

He poured years of research into his book, offering a 17-page account of his personal connection to the day in the book’s prologue. But he prefers the focus be less on him and more on the day itself.

In order to avoid a conflict of interest, Grace spent time researching and supporting claims he makes in his book. He made sure that everything he was going to say was verifiable and documented.

“I was almost put off by the thought of my involvement,” he said. “I wanted to be as accurate and as credible as possible to ensure trust from the reader.”

Even for Grace, he often refers to an interview he gave in 1985 about his account of May 4, simply because it was fresher in his mind at that time. That interview appears in Joan Morrison and Robert Morrison’s’ book “From Camelot to Kent State.”

“In terms of trying to determine what the activism was like, reassembling protests and meetings, I tried to rely less on oral history for that,” he said. “I was interviewing people way after the fact.”

Now, Grace resides in Amherst, New York, and teaches American history as an adjunct at Erie Community College. He said being a part of the events on May 4 made him a more committed activist — something he is proud to see current students still participating in.

Lauren Rathmell is a features correspondent, contact her at [email protected]