By Evan Heichelbech, F/G Scholar
It’s impossible to adequately study protest in the United States without discussing the Vietnam War era of dissent. The late 1960’s through the early 1970’s was a formative time for Americans when it came to exercising their First Amendment rights, and the height of the tension came on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University.
Another important aspect of any protest, regardless of time period, is the role that music plays in dissent. For decades, protesters have been inspired by music which ultimately influenced the course of history.
To find out more about how these issues are sewn into the threads of protest history, we visited Kent State and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a class in early November.
With the 50-year anniversary of the shootings at Kent State approaching, we traveled to Kent, Ohio, to better understand what happened on that day. While at Kent State, we started with a viewing of Fire in the Heartland, an unreleased documentary about the city of Kent’s legacy as a Midwest town with a surprisingly rich history in protest. The documentary provided some important context to our trip before we toured the May 4thVisitor’s Center and spoke with a survivor of the shootings.
Emma Austin and Rebekah Alvey spent time talking to students at Kent State about the shootings, trying to gain an understanding for how much the events of May 4, 1970 truly mattered to students today.
“Most of the students at Kent State at least knew what had happened with the shootings,” Austin said. “Some could tell us more about it than others, but overall I’d say it’s something that most students are at least aware of.”
Once we returned to Bowling Green, Austin and Alvey went around WKU’s campus to ask students here what they knew about that day in history.
“When we got back to WKU, not too many students knew what we were talking about and had very little understanding of the Kent State shootings,” Alvey said. “I was a bit surprised, but I expected the Kent State students to know more.”
Later in the day, we toured the actual site of the shootings, starting on the hill in front of Taylor Hall where the victory bell sits before walking the path of the national guardsmen who fired 67 shots on that infamous day.
“For me, it really put the whole thing in perspective,” Cameron Coyle said. “To stand where the National Guard stood when they fired those shots gave me chills.”
After our guided tour of the visitor’s center and walking tour, we wrapped up the day at Kent State by listening to Alan Canfora, one of the nine students who was shot and wounded on May 4.
The 45 minutes spent listening to Canfora’s firsthand perspective of the days leading up to the shootings was fascinating. He spoke of his personal connection with the Vietnam War and how his feelings toward it evolved over time.
Initially, Canfora was not opposed to the war. The son of two military veterans, Canfora said he didn’t develop a true dislike and hate for the war until his childhood friend was killed in Vietnam just weeks before the shooting.
Canfora’s detailed account of history from an hourly perspective on the days of May 1-4 were incredibly helpful in allowing all of us to really feel what it must have been like to be wrapped up in history as young college students.
“After touring the site and seeing where everything happened, it was really cool to hear from someone who was there nearly 50 years earlier and was directly affected by the events,” Austin said.
A day after walking the path of the national guardsmen and hearing from a survivor, we traveled an hour down the road to Cleveland to find out more about the impact of music in times of protest. While at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we split up and looked at the exhibits spanning across the different generations of music to see how much of a role it can play when social issues arise.
From “the King” Elvis Presley’s controversial hip movements to rap group NWA’s in-your-face lyrics, freedom of speech and expression was everywhere inside the Hall of Fame.
As we covered each floor of the building, certain quotes from the inductees regarding protest and dissent stuck out more than others.
“My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel,” read one quote from John Lennon circa 1972. “Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”
After two days of seeing, hearing and understanding significant American dissent in action, we returned to Bowling Green with a much greater appreciation for the First Amendment and why it is so important to every citizen of this country.