Kent State shootings: Survivor continues activism, sees healing on campus 50 years later

Kent State shootings: Survivor continues activism, sees healing on campus 50 years later

By Kerry Clawson, Akron Beacon Journal
May 2, 2020

Protesters and bystanders at the edge of the Commons below Taylor Hall gesture and yell at the Ohio National Guardsmen across the field. At left, wearing a headband, is Jeffrey Miller; Mary Ann Vecchio is looking to the left wearing a black t-shirt and dark pants, partially behind the young man flipping the bird. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries | Special Collections and Archives

Kent State student Alan Canfora was angry when he confronted armed Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, waving a black flag of protest.

Angry about the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Angry about the death of his childhood friend — whose funeral he had attended just 10 days before — who was killed in the Vietnam War.

Canfora, a 21-year-old junior, was one of hundreds of anti-war students who protested May 1 through 4 in downtown Kent and on campus. On May 4, he was 176 feet away from guardsmen when they fired on unarmed student demonstrators.

“They’ve got to be firing blanks. There’s just no reason to shoot,’’ thought Canfora, who was walking away in front of Taylor Hall because he thought the protest was over.

He jumped behind a tree but was shot through the right wrist in the first of 13 seconds of fire: “I knew that tree was saving my life.’’

Four students – Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer and William Schroeder – died. Canfora was one of the nine wounded.

Today, the longtime political activist, 71, is an expert on the Kent State shootings whose continued mission is to educate and bring to light what happened that day.

“I’ve just found it impossible to ignore this injustice, especially as long as there’s been Kent State students, faculty members and others who were joining in the fight for truth and justice for Kent State,’’ the Munroe Falls resident said.

“Plus, I feel a sense of duty, a sense of obligation, because Jeffrey Miller was my friend,” Canfora said. “The last time I saw him, he was lying dead in the back of an ambulance with a bullet through his head.”

Canfora said the injustice continued immediately after the shootings, when National Guard commanders blamed the victims by saying they fired in self-defense after students threw objects at them. Canfora said students had stopped throwing rocks and other objects 15 minutes before the shootings. He said that numerous people reported hearing a verbal command to fire that day, including guardsmen, students and a university electrician walking by.

Canfora, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, grew up the son of a union activist in Barberton. No stranger to demonstrating, he protested the Vietnam War twice in Washington, D.C., in 1969 and was part of the militant SDS group that confronted campus police at Kent State’s administration building with anti-war demands that year.

When SDS leaders were arrested and two went through suspension appeals, Canfora was among hundreds of students who tried to disrupt the closed hearings at the Music and Speech Building, breaking through chained doors. He and his sister, Roseann “Chic” Canfora, were trapped with other students on the third floor after police sealed off the stairways. They escaped down a freight elevator.

Alan Canfora, one of nine wounded student survivors, leads a 2019 walking tour of the National Historic Landmark site. Canfora takes the group beyond the Pagoda towards the Don Drumm sculpture that has a bullet hole from May 4, 1970 in it. Lisa Scalfaro | Record-Courier

Protecting the legacy

Canfora has fought for decades to protect the May 4 legacy. As a graduate student, he was a founding member of the May 4th Task Force, a student group that sponsored annual May 4 commemorations from 1976 through last year.

In the late 1970s, he and Task Force members protested construction of a gym annex that covered the spot where student James Russell was wounded May 4. They also campaigned for a decade for Kent State to build the May 4 Memorial, dedicated in 1990.

The Task Force worked to block off the part of the parking lot where the four students died. Memorials in the lot were dedicated in 1999 under President Carol Cartwright.

“That had a great healing effect and we really started to evolve more favorably with the administration,’’ Canfora said. “Finally, in the late ’90s the university stopped trying to ignore us and defeat us and they started to embrace” the victims’ families and May 4th Task Force activists.

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The university acknowledged the tragedy by creating the May 4 Visitors Center in 2012, Canfora said.

In 2017, it removed two of four trees planted in 1971 in the guardsmen’s line of fire. Activists objected to the trees, because they created the illusion that the Guard fired through foliage. (Another disputed, diseased tree was removed in 2010.)

Canfora said current President Todd Diacon has been the most sensitive about the May 4 legacy and education, committing major resources to the 50th anniversary commemoration. Those events have since been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“They’re trying to heal the wounds, and consequently, our families have joined with the university and the students and the faculty and there’s more unity now about the May 4 issue than there has been I think since the early 1970s,” Canfora said.

Alan Canfora, far right, was one of 25 people indicted for the May 4 protests. Ten of the 25 indicted by the special state grand jury held a press conference on January 28, 1971, to say they “have won their first victory.” In the session called by the Kent Legal Defense Coordinating Center, those indicted said in a prepared statement, “In the wake of this decision we are all very happy that the long-range outlook is good.” Charges were later dropped. From left are David O. Adams and Kenneth Hammond, both indicted for second-degree riot; William Whitaker, a University of Akron law student active in the defense of several of the indictees; Ruth Gibson, indicted for malicious destruction of property and second-degree riot; Ronald Weisenberger, indicted for inciting to riot, first-degree riot, and interference with a fireman at the scene of a fire; and William G. Arthrell, and Canfora, both indicted for second-degree riot. Don Roese | Akron Beacon Journal

In 1989, Canfora created the Kent May 4 Center, an educational nonprofit. He’s also the director of the Akron Law Library and formerly served as chairman of the Barberton Democratic Party.

In 2005, amid other research materials, he received from the Yale University archives a digital copy of a May 4, 1970, analog cassette recording made by freshman Terry Strubbe from the window of his dorm. After first listening to the CD in 2006, followed by further research and analysis, Canfora announced in 2007 that the audio contained evidence of a clear verbal command ending in the word “fire,” before a 13-second barrage of gunshots.

In 2010, he asked the Justice Department for a new investigation of the Strubbe recording. In 2012, an FBI analysis found it inconclusive.

Alan Canfora, behind bell center, and members of the Kent May 4 Center & May 4 Task Force held a news conference at the bell on the Kent State University commons near Taylor Hall on Monday, May 11, 2010 in Kent, Ohio. Canfora, holding a CD of the recording, announced that recently discovered possible National Guard commands on a May 4, 1970 recording will be presented to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Cleveland for investigation. Paul Tople | Akron Beacon Journal

Canfora, who has spoken for decades on the anti-war movement, serves on Kent State’s 50th Anniversary Advisory Committee and gives eyewitness tours of the May 4 site. After the shootings, he wasn’t afraid to return to finish a general studies degree, followed by a master’s in library science.

“We just thought it was another aspect of our lives because we were political activists,” he said of himself and roommate Tom Grace, also wounded that day.

Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or Follow her @KerryClawsonABJ or