Friday, April 8, 2016
Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings, Craig S. Simpson and Gregory S. Wilson, Kent State University Press, $28.95
67 Shots: Kent State and The End of American Innocence, Howard Means, da Capo Press, $25.99
This spring three new books will revisit the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State. Two of these books were written mostly for academic audiences, while the third was written by a professional author.
The first study was written by Thomas Grace, a KSU alumnus who was severely wounded when an Ohio National Guard bullet shattered his left ankle, leaving him with a limp. Grace is now an adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College in College in Buffalo, NY, and the only one of the nine wounded survivors whom I have never met. I had plenty of opportunity, but had no desire to, after he told a friend “the only way you get justice is to pick up a gun.”
It is not clear whether Grace still subscribes to that view, but his heart and mind still belong with sixties militants. His book is mostly an academic history of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and antiwar protest at Kent and throughout the United States, followed by a detailed recounting of the events of 1970, which culminated with the four unnecessary deaths on May 4, 1970. Grace devotes a good 200 pages to this pre-1970 history, but never explains why he joined the SDS. Nor does he try to connect the dots between the behavior of former SDSers (which, as a group, had been officially banned from campus) and the May 2 destruction of the university's ROTC building and the killings on May 4.
In fact, Grace removes himself from the equation so completely that you forget he was an active participant in the protests. The Justice Department concluded that he was among the group that waved flags and encouraged people to throw rocks at the Ohio National Guardsmen. He also was close friends with Thomas "Aquinas" Miller, who was involved in the arson, and was indicted by a state grand jury for rioting. In the book, Grace portrays himself as merely an innocent bystander to all these events--a claim that struck me as disingenuous. As knowledgeable as Grace is about the events of May of 1970, he seems to be holding back on everything he knows. His Kent State is definitely not a tell-all book. One is tempted to call it closer to what the Nixon administration used to call "a limited, modified hang-out."
The second book, the bizarrely titled Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings, was co-written by Craig S. Simpson, a former archivist at Kent, and Gregory S. Wilson, a history professor at the nearby University of Akron. Although the title makes it sound like these scholars were in an invisible blimp watching the action below, Simpson explains in his introduction what he really meant: "We, as authors and historians, have sought to stay above the din and present a multitude of perspectives, respecting (if not always agreeing with) the views of the narrators."
The narrators in this case are mostly former students and faculty members who shared their recollections with Kent State's Oral History Project organized some 20 years after the fact. The majority of the statements were collected after more than 8,000 pages of FBI reports and a 13,000 page trial transcript became available, making the entire project redundant at best.
The book at least publishes excerpts from some of the better narratives, while intermittently lecturing on the theories of oral history. I would say that I am not a big fan of this Weenie School of History--where historians are too afraid to weigh in on any controversy--but my wife says I should always find something positive to say about other people's hard work. So I will say this: after four and a half decades and half a dozen books published by the Kent State Press, Kent State has finally found two scholars who will at least acknowledge there was a debate.
Mazel tuv, Kent State. You have taken another baby step!
At least Howard Means, the author of the third book, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, was willing to wade into that debate. His book is the 36th on what is known by shorthand as May 4 (if you count all the children's books, novels, and subdisciplinary scholarly works.)
In telling the story Means, a professional author, relies extensively on the same oral histories as Simpson and Wilson. His book, however, is better written, and he does a much better job distilling the collection’s few nuggets and molding them in a mostly chronological narrative.
In an attempt to be fair, Means faithfully reports what all sides claimed. His book may not break any new ground, and the book's real significance is that Means is now the sixth of the eight major May 4 authors to agree that the shootings were deliberate. (Grace also makes that case.) That in itself is a pretty damning statement against the soldiers.
Finally, there is one issue that casual readers might not care about, but which actually seems emblematic of the atrocious bad-boy behavior quietly taking place behind the behind the scenes. Personally, I found it annoying that even though my own book on the shootings (Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?) clearly influenced Means’, Means refused to credit me (or for that matter, all the other authors) for their original reporting and research. Both casual readers and scholars who check his source notes might think that everything Means reports in his book was discovered by Means himself.
Here’s an example: on page 43, when discussing the May 2, 1970, ROTC fire, Means reports that two previously unidentified individuals (the both now-deceased Thomas “Aquinas” Miller and George Walter Harrington, the brother of another of Grace's friends), were among those who helped set the university’s ROTC building on fire. This information–-and the identities of these individuals-- was first reported last year in the updated e-book version of my book. Yet Means would not acknowledge the existence of my book. He even excluded it in his bibliography. It was almost as if he did not want to draw comparisons, especially since he essentially agrees with virtually every conclusion I reached 26 years ago.
Just to be clear, Means does not actually plagiarize anyone; he simply makes all the previous chroniclers of the Kent State tragedy magically disappear.
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