BLACKS & WHITES COMING TOGETHER
Fire in the Heartland is unique among films about Kent because it tells the story by showing the essential context of the Civil Rights struggle and its influential leadership at that campus. Kent, Ohio was a primary river, canal and rail hub during slavery. It was an active Underground Railroad stop. Sojourner Truth is said to have been there many times. John Brown was adopted and grew up here, in Kent, then known as Franklin Mills.
The story of blacks and whites together working in the Civil Rights movement in Kent begins in 1960 with the sit-in protests at the Corner Bar in downtown Kent. Those strikes result in victory, ending the system of de-facto segregation practiced at nearly every bar and restaurant in Kent at the time.
It continues between 1961 and 1968 with protest after protest and victory after victory resulting in ending official town and university policies and practices of segregation at public parks and swimming pools, high schools, housing, and at the University. Kent State citizens and students lead delegations of people in the 1963 March on Washington, they go to fight for voting rights in the South during Freedom Summer 1964, and to see Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark anti-war speech in New York City in 1967.
At the beginning of 1968 black students at Kent form Black United Students (BUS) to fight racism, poverty, the war and the lack of black history educators and courses at Kent. Their landmark achievements at this public university in the northern United States made the national newspapers and news television headlines again and again.
On April 4th 1968, BUS students, with SDS students, led others in a walkout of Vice President Huebert Humphrey, the leading contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, that resulted in real changes in his campaign, and his decision to consult further with Bob Pickette by asking him to join his staff. The Democratic Party suddenly has to realize they cannot take another student or black support for granted any longer unless they address their liberal failures and reprehensible militarist and racist policies.
In November, 1968, BUS students working with SDS students prevent the Oakland Police Department from recruiting on the Kent State Campus. At this point in time, the Oakland Police had become notorious in its reaction to and repressive treatment of the Black Panther Party, a self-defense organization, and its members in the Oakland area. BUS and SDS felt that it was an insult for the Oakland Police to recruit students from Kent to continue to oppress and repress the Black Panther Party members.
At the same time, BUS and SDS organized the walkout of the entire black student population from the University in the nation’s history, and again make national news.
Between 1968 and 1970 their actions, work, organizing and passion led to a major curriculum and hiring reforms at the University, including the establishment of what is now named the Pan African Studies Program and Cultural Center.
They also contribute to and support all efforts to stop the racist, immoral and unjust war in Vietnam.
Between May 1 and May 4 1970 at Kent, black students, cognizant they will be targets for potential police and National Guard violence, stay home from the events. Bob Pickett, co-founder of BUS, Vice-President of the Student-Body, President of the Student Senate, and a columnist for the Kent Stater attend the rallies on the Commons on May 4th, 1970 in support of efforts to protest the way and the presence of the National Guard on campus, as a student body observer and representative.
He becomes an eyewitness to the violence and shooting perpetrated against the students by the National Guard. He then becomes a star witness for the FBI Report, the Scranton Commission Report, the Kent 25 trials, and the civil suits of the wounded and parents of the dead against the state of Ohio. (He has visited the campus many times and spoke at the 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the shootings.)
On May 15th, 1970 just after midnight, police open fire on students at the traditional black university of Jackson State. Two students are murdered and nine more wounded. Dr. Gene Young is present. He had a storied career in the Civil Rights movements and on that night he is credited with saving the lives of students by leading them in recitations of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in freedom songs of the Civil Rights movement. He receites those words again for the film.
(Dr. Gene Young and many prominent civil rights leaders speak regularly at the annual commemorations of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State.)
Kent students adopt the ongoing theme of the annual commemorations as “Long Live the Spirit of Kent and Jackson State.”
These stories of Blacks and Whites together fighting for Civil Rights at Kent are featured in the film, Fire in the Heartland.