Alan Canfora: Kent State survivor’s story

By Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholar

As a 21-year-old growing up in Barberton, Ohio, in 1970, Alan Canfora never planned on joining the anti-Vietnam War movement. Like many in his generation, Canfora had been raised to support the military because his parents served in World War II, his mother as an Army nurse and his father in the Army.

The United States had entered into its fifth year of the Vietnam War. Men between the ages of 18-25 years old were drafted by the Selective Service System as the U.S. became directly involved in the war in 1965. 25 percent of the drafted men in the Armed Forces during the war came from poor families, 55 percent from working-class families, 20 percent from middle-class families and few came from upper-class wealthy families, according to Vietnam War statistics.

Although about two-thirds of the American troops volunteered to serve in the war, the rest were drafted.

While many of Canfora’s relatives and friends were drafted to serve, most of what Canfora knew about the war came from watching television and reading the newspaper. However, ten days before the tragic events of May 4, 1970, the war came home for Canfora when one of his childhood friends was killed after being drafted to Vietnam.

“We were upset,” Canfora said, regarding the students who came to the funerals of his childhood friends. “This was a situation when Vietnam wasn’t something that was just on the TV. This was real.”

While students at Kent State University continued to feel more unrest, Canfora said they were shocked to see former President Richard Nixon announce the invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970, expanding the Vietnam War.

“We were outraged,” Canfora said. “I remember we were cursing at the TV. We wanted to send a message to President Nixon.”

On May 1, there were protests against Nixon’s expansion of the war across the country. At Kent State University, an anti-war rally was held at the Commons, a large grassy area in the middle of campus that had been the site of rallies and demonstrations. At the rally, speeches against Nixon’s administration and the Vietnam War were given and a copy of the Constitution was buried, symbolizing the murder of the Constitution. Another rally was called for noon on Monday, May 4, 1970, according to Kent State.

Canfora said although Friday, May 1, began with many college students peacefully spending time in the local bars, the night erupted into violent confrontations between local police and protesters.

Canfora, who was one of the protesters in the street, said a male protester threw a beer bottle toward the local police, which “jazzed up the crowd,” he said. Soon, 28 windows of the bank buildings in Kent were broken after being smashed by the protesters.

Leroy Satrom, the mayor of Kent, Ohio, declared a state of emergency and declared all of the bars to be closed.

“We had no idea the events that took place that night would be the catalyst for what came next,” Canfora said.

On May 2, Satrom called for the Ohio National Guard to be dispatched to Kent, and 1200 Guardsmen were sent to the campus, 800 Guardsmen on Kent State’s campus and 400 Guardsmen in the city of Kent. They came into the city as nearly 1000 protesters gathered in downtown Kent at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps building, which was located near the campus.

“ROTC was a common target of protest,” Canfora said. “It was a direct link between college and the war in Vietnam.”

Although it is debated how the fire started, the ROTC building burned to the ground. The protesters cheered, and their confrontations with the National Guard continued during the night, causing several arrests, Canfora said.

On May 3, Ohio Governor James Rhodes flew into Kent to speak at a press conference, where he gave a statement that inflamed the protesters on campus, Canfora said. Rhodes said the campus protesters were the worst types of people in America and that the Ohio National Guard would be used to eradicate them.

“He should have known that his words would have consequences,” Canfora said.

On the night of May 3, there were confrontations between about 300 protesters and Guardsmen, leading to several bayonet injuries on students. Canfora said the conditions were right for the events that would take place on May 4, 1970.

“It was like a Shakespearean tragedy about to unfold,” Canfora said. “We didn’t know it yet, but that’s what it was.”

Shortly before noon on May 4, General Robert Canterbury, the highest official in the Guard, tried to disperse the crowd of student protesters who had gathered at the Commons, declaring the rally to be illegal. The Guard lined up across the field, directly across from the protesters. Canfora stepped forward from the crowd and raised a black flag in protest, leading to the famous photograph that represented student protest across the nation.

The protesters angrily shouted at the Guard and some threw rocks, which were not thrown far enough to hit the Guardsmen. Canterbury ordered the Guardsmen to load their weapons. Tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd around the Victory Bell on the Commons, and some of the students threw the canisters back at the Guardsmen. The Guard then marched toward the protesters, causing them to retreat up Blanket Hill.

Many of the students ran past the Pagoda at the top of the Blanket Hill and down the other side, which led into the Prentice Hall parking lot. As the Guardsmen followed the students, they reached the top of Blanket Hill, and 28 of the more than 70 Guardsmen suddenly opened fire. About 61-67 shots were fired in only 13 seconds, according to Kent State.

Four students were shot and killed by the Guardsmen: Jeffrey Miller was shot about 270 feet away from the Guard; Allison Krause was shot about 330 feet from the Guard; William Schroeder was shot about 390 feet away from the Guard; and Sandra Scheuer was shot about 390 feet from the Guard, according to Kent State.

Nine students were injured in the shooting, including Canfora who was shot in his right wrist about 225 feet from the Guardsmen. When he ran from the Guardsmen, Canfora said he jumped behind a tree to protect himself, and he was shot as he hid behind it. He said he thought he was targeted by the Guardsmen because he waved the black flag at the beginning of the protest.

“I was more shocked by the fact that I actually got shot,” Canfora said. “Everyone thought they were shooting blanks. All around us, we could hear bullets zipping past us. I’m one of the lucky ones who lived to tell the story.”

Ambulances arrived, and emergency medical attention was given to students who had not died immediately. Following the shooting, Kent State’s campus was evacuated by 5 p.m., and the campus was closed for the rest of the semester. Classes did not start again until the summer of 1970, according to Kent State.

Canfora described the next few days after the shooting to be eerie because of the looming presence of the National Guard in Kent.

“After the shooting, it was tough,” Canfora said. “For me, the most difficult thing was seeing the cover-up by the government.”

Canfora said he was banned from campus from fall 1970 to fall 1973. He said Kent State stopped commemorating the victims of the shooting, and a gymnasium annex building was built on the field of the shooting site in 1977. Canfora and his parents were arrested for civil disobedience, along with 194 other protesters, for choosing to stay on the site of the construction before the building was completed.

Canfora, now a 69 year-old librarian in Akron, Ohio, said he has dedicated his life to collecting evidence about the Kent State shooting and the event’s commemoration because Miller, one of the students killed, was one of his friends, and he does not want Miller and the other victims of the shooting to be forgotten.

“I’m here to be the voice for Jeffrey, Sandy, Bill and Allison,” Canfora said.

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Nicole Ziege

Nicole Ziege is a honors student at WKU. She is majoring in journalism and minoring in history.

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