Black United Students: Laying the groundwork for student activism at Kent State

By Lane Hedrick and Evan Heichelbech, F/G Scholars

The story of the events that took place at Kent State University in May of 1970 cannot be told without mention of a particular group of students who helped spark the flame of activism on campus long before four students were killed in an anti-war protest. The Black United Students, better known as BUS, became the critical link between black and white activism at Kent State. Without BUS, Kent State’s role in American history may have looked totally different.

Located in the Pan-African Studies building on Kent State’s campus– a building that is itself a byproduct of black student activism – is the Uumbaji Gallery. The gallery opened in early October and closed its doors on Nov. 14, and its images represent African diaspora, social justice, campus activism and many other salient issues people of color continue to face today. The most important story told by the images of the Uumbaji Gallery, however, is the story of how BUS united other activist groups together at Kent State.

“I think black students were much more aware of the danger than white students were,” said JoAnn Bohr, a 1969 graduate of Kent State.

Founded on campus in 1968, BUS quickly garnered traction amongst the university’s black student population, which already had a history of activism. BUS was created to advocate for civil and human rights and protested anything that advocated for the contrary on campus. BUS also pushed against the Vietnam War.

Alan Canfora, one of the nine students wounded during the May 4 shootings, said that it wasn’t hard for white students to relate to black students, particularly those involved with BUS. Canfora said the unfortunate circumstances of May 4 were especially unifying for white and black students.

“You lose the fellow students, and that was something that was happening to black students back then all the time,” Canfora said. “Now it was finally happening to us. I think we had some degree of white privilege. We thought, ‘It’s our campus. We may have long hair, we might be yelling, cussing, throwing stuff, but they’re not gonna shoot us.’”

But before protests against Vietnam, as Kent State is so famously known for, black student activism had already excelled. Earlier in the 1960s, the black student population formed a walkout to protest the university’s segregated housing policies. On a deeper level, BUS created tutoring services, requested a black cultural center be built on campus and brought in several prominent guest speakers from across the nation. They knew how to organize.

In the year it was founded, BUS teamed up with the Students for a Democratic Society– better known as SDS–  another student activist group against the war. Together, they protested the war and violations of the U.S. Constitution.

“Black United Students back then, they were militant,” said Canfora, who was an active member of SDS.

In 1968, the Oakland California Police Department visited campus to recruit from the nation’s rust-belt. After witnessing the Oakland Police Department’s harsh actions toward the Black Panthers, BUS and SDS protested their recruitment on campus daily. Along with his friends and roommates also involved in SDS, Canfora was there.

“As soon as we joined the SDS, here’s these black students protesting against these racist police,” he said. “The Oakland Police Department from Oakland, California came all the way to Kent, Ohio trying to recruit cops because they were so controversial for shooting black people. And so we thought, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna go outside and let these guys know, you’re not welcome here.’”

As a result of the protests, nearly the entire black student population at Kent State walked off campus with their bags packed and their intentions set. This is only one powerful example of BUS members fighting for what they believed in and cementing a legacy of activism on Kent State’s campus.

“That was national news,” Canfora said. “At Kent State University, almost all the black students march off campus because of racism. We won a big victory, the SDS and the Black United Students. We were together.”

Today, BUS is still a registered student organization built upon the promise to “identify relevant issues and initiate appropriate action in order to reduce or eliminate any impediments to be averse to students and their continued well-being and matriculation,” according to their website. Membership is open to anyone who identifies in theory or principle with the organization, its mission and its history.

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