On May 4, 1970, a bullet fired from an Ohio National Guardsman pierced the foot of Thomas M. Grace on the Kent State University campus. He was one of nine unarmed students who were wounded. Four other students were killed by the rapid gunfire, including Sandy Scheuer, who was in an ambulance with Grace, when the paramedics pronounced her dead and covered her body with a sheet.
The incident shocked the nation, and spurred protests, strikes and political activism. College campuses became the battlegrounds for social change as protests intensified against the war in Vietnam.
All the emotions affiliated with experiencing violence, fear, death and social responsibility stay hardwired to a person’s soul. They inevitably led Grace to write a dissertation which he completed in 2003, and then expanded it into a narrative book. After a lengthy process, it was accepted and published by University of Massachusetts Press.
Now 46 years later, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties,” is on bookshelves across the country. The book is layered with factual accounts that raise multiple themes, not only relevant to that decade, but today.
“I wrote the book to recover history and the social movement at Kent State from 1958 to 1973. It may have influence on what is happening today, but I did not write it for that purpose,” Grace said. “There are some parallels between the excessive use of force at Kent State and the recent shootings of the unarmed African-American males. At first, people align themselves with the uniformed authorities. But as we have a longer time to reflect upon and study these matters, we come to have a deeper understanding of the people who were either wounded or killed by authorities.
“Most historians believe the killings silenced the events on the Kent State campus. It had the opposite effect. It hardened and expanded the anti-war movement. That led to the largest mass arrest in the history of Kent State that occurred in the summer of 1977. More than 200 people were arrested when they attempted to block a bulldozer attack on the site where the shootings occurred. The parents of Sandy Scheuer were among those arrested.”
Another subtheme in the book focuses on the students and the union involvement of their fathers. Grace said there was an undeniable generation gap in the 1960s. However, generational continuity existed as many Kent State students inherited the “New Deal” democratic tradition from their parents.
“Very few people realize the anti-war movement also evoked racial equality. Blacks and whites worked together for a common cause, particularly on civil rights issues. The ranks of the protesters included many Vietnam veterans, including those who were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard. The book also challenges the prevailing myths of the 1960s such as the students being upper middle class, spoiled and white. It was just the opposite. Many were the first in their families to go to college, and paid their own way,” Grace said.
“The Kent State experience and the invasion of Cambodia did influence my later union involvement. These two events launched the largest student strike in American history. Millions of students disrupted higher education and forced Richard M. Nixon’s administration to make a faster exit from Cambodia. Congress reacted with legislation to lower the voting age to 18 in all federal elections. In the following year, the voting age became uniform in all state and local elections with the adoption of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The solidarity, activism and results Grace experienced as a student, in part, supported his first union role in 1972 as a member of the Sheet Metal Workers in his hometown of Syracuse. He became a state employee in 1975 working as a social worker at the West Seneca Developmental Center, a 30-year stint. Grace was a steward and Executive Board member of the Civil Service Employees Association, until PEF won the representation of the PS&T Unit in 1979.
Grace was an active PEF member holding various positions such as Regional Coordinator and founded PEF Division 167, the first local chartered division in upstate New York, west of Albany. He has remained a vital member of PEF’s Divisions Committee, providing institutional background, and is a delegate for the Buffalo AFL-CIO. He also teaches Civil War history, his specialty, at Erie Community College.
— Story By DEBORAH A. MILES in the upcoming March 2016 edition of
SHARING AN HISTORIC TIME – Thomas Grace speaks to an audience at Kent State University last May about the forthcoming release of his book. — Photo courtesy by Christian Bobak