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Kent State Shooting Victim Alan Canfora's Legacy Of Post-May 4 Activism

Alan Canfora (right) after presenting an award to former Kent State University Professor Gerald Kamber at a May 4, 2010, commemoration on the KSU Commons. In 1970 Kamber helped disperse students after the shootings when Ohio National Guard commanders threatened to attack them. [Mark Urycki]
Alan Canfora (right) after presenting an award to former Kent State University Professor Gerald Kamber at a May 4, 2010, commemoration on the KSU Commons.

Fifty years after he was shot by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, Alan Canfora has died at 71. Maybe more than any one person, Canfora kept alive the stories of what happened that day in 1970 when soldiers killed four students and wounded nine, including Canfora, during anti-war protests.

Canfora was just 20 years old in April 1970 when President Richard Nixon announced he was expanding the Vietnam War by sending American troops into Cambodia. Canfora had already been a veteran protester and member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He and other SDS members heckled and disrupted Richard Nixon at a campaign rally in Akron in 1968.

Canfora originally supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a youngster in Barberton. His father Albert Canfora was a city councilman there and had been a United Auto Workers local vice president. But Alan’s opinions on the war changed when friends in his neighborhood began being drafted and sent to Vietnam, he wrote in an online blog decades later. And then one, Bill Caldwell, came home in a body bag in April 1970.

On the morning of May 4, Kent students were mostly focused on the presence of guardsmen who had taken over the campus, and broke up a student rally on the Commons that day at noon. Alan Canfora, then a junior majoring in pre-law, was one of the most noticeable and provocative of the protesters, waving a large black flag in front of the soldiers wherever they marched.  

When the guardsmen appeared to be retreating to the Commons, Canfora followed behind. He was 75 yards away when the troops suddenly turned and fired, mostly in his direction. Canfora was hit in the wrist and dove behind a tree that was blistered with more bullets. Next to him was his roommate, Tom Grace, who was knocked to the ground when a bullet struck his ankle. Forty feet behind them Jeffrey Miller was shot in the throat and died.

KSU students on May 4 gesturing to National Guard troops across the Commons. Alan Canfora is waving a black flag. The man in the cowboy shirt (far left) is Jeffrey Miller. Both will be shot within 20 minutes. Miller will die. [Kent State University Libraries]

A Portage County grand jury handed down indictments after the shootings – not against guardsmen but against students. Canfora became known as one of the Kent 25. Over time the charges were dropped and criminal and civil cases were brought against the soldiers who fired on the students. The plaintiffs eventually won a $600,000 settlement with the Ohio National Guard and state of Ohio, most of the money going to Dean Kahler a student who was paralyzed after being shot in the back.

Alan Canfora, Kahler, and wounded student Robbie Stamps did not put the killings behind them. They created the May 4 Task Force to educate future students at the campus about the events that spanned the first four days of May 1970.    

In 1977 Canfora, Kent students, and supporters held rallies and sit-ins on an area near the shootings where the university wanted to build a gymnasium annex. Protesters, who created a tent city at the site, argued that the new building would change the perspective on land they considered sacred ground.

All the while Canfora continued to demand the school build a memorial to the slain students. At the time, one small stone with the names of the four dead, dedicated by the campus B'nai B'rith, was the only marker at the parking lot where most of the students fell.

The university had suffered a drop-off in enrollment after the shootings and officials largely wanted to put the killings behind them. In the 1980s KSU was calling itself simply Kent and the words State University were reduced in its logos and stationery.

But Canfora remained active with each new class of students. Each year on May 4 a ceremony is held at noon on the campus Commons. The victory bell is rung in honor of the students who were killed or wounded. Speakers and musicians take the stage in the day, a candlelight procession is held at night. Those annual ceremonies are organized not by the school but by the May 4 Task Force that Canfora helped form. 

Canfora was not above chasing conspiracy theories over what sparked the shootings. While a number of witnesses say vandalism that happened on May 1 in downtown Kent was simply the result of some drunk students, Canfora said it was an organized march prompted by former SDS members.

When the school’s ROTC building went up in flames the next night, Canfora dismissed student involvement and said agent provocateurs must have set the blaze.

And in 2007 Canfora held a press conference saying he could hear National Guard orders to fire on a cassette tape that was recorded during the shootings. According to the former wounded student, a guard commander could be heard yelling, “Right here. Get set. Point. Fire.” In 2010 a Plain Dealer analysis of the same tape came up with, “Guard, all right, prepare to fire!"

Canfora has said he wanted a truth and reconciliation committee that might prompt long-silent guardsmen to come forward and tell their stories about what happened. 

As new Kent State administrations changed, so too did their attitude about the history made in May 1970. In 1990 Canfora got his wish when the school dedicated a memorial near Taylor Hall at the top of a hill overlooking the Commons. Then-Governor Dick Celeste made a speech in the rain and apologized on behalf of the state of Ohio for the killings.

Canfora continued to lobby until the school added the names of the wounded students to a memorial and in 1999 built barriers around the four spaces where the slain students had died in the Taylor Hall parking lot. 

By 2010 the university opened the May 4 Visitors Center, a museum in Taylor Hall near the site of the shootings. In 2016 a 17-acre parcel of land where the events took place was named a National Historic Landmark.

John “Derf” Backderf posted on Facebook that Canfora helped him research his award-winning graphic novel, “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio,” bringing him 20 boxes of material from the Yale University archives of the Kent State Collection and sitting for an interview.

“He was honest and enthusiastic and full of details. No one knew more about May 4 than Alan,” Backderf wrote. “He was an activist with an agenda, not a historian, but his breadth of knowledge was truly amazing.”

Earlier this year, Kent State University was set to mark the 50 th anniversary of the shootings with a week-long series of events. Jane Fonda and Lawrence Tribe were set to speak; David Crosby and Joe Walsh would perform.

Canfora wrote on his website he was excited about the events and urged people to attend but that he didn’t need to get involved. The school had fully accepted memorializing its place in an historic tragedy, but COVID-19 restrictions forced its cancellation.