In our fifth entry on global (and local) histories of riots, protests, and race, Dr. Bob Hutton takes us back to campus protests over Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and Billy Graham. Additional essays in the series can be found here.
In May, 2020 the University of Tennessee (UT) campus was virtually deserted, so its students, staff, and faculty had no chance to properly commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its greatest moment of public protest when dozens of students and faculty stood up to denounce Richard Nixon’s re-vamped war in Viet Nam, as well as the blatant killings of students by police and national guard on American college campuses. Between 1968 and 1970 UT students shared the feeling of unrest felt on many other campuses largely because they did not consider their campus a democratic space. At the beginning of the 1968 fall semester, one student commented that the “change” sweeping over other campuses had “finally arrived in Big Orange Country.” But the pronouncement was probably slightly premature. Something resembling a concerted anti-war movement probably could not have come into being at UT without circumstances specific to the campus itself, namely a local conflict over university leadership.
UT was not a hotbed of war protest in the 1960s. Protests against the US war effort in southeast Asia war were muted in the South compared to those in coastal areas and the Great Lakes region, and many students supported the war. UT Student editorials from the mid-1960s expressed perplexity and slight amusement at the marches and sit-ins taking place at campuses like Berkeley, and Knoxville politician John J. Duncan (by now a member of Congress) noted in early 1965 that his district’s university lacked the “loud, protesting youth” seen on other campuses. That same year a reported 700 UT students rallied in support of American involvement in Indochina. Even as late as fall, 1969, with the war far less popular than it had been four years earlier, members of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter burned a Viet Cong flag in the newly-constructed Circle Park area of campus.
Nevertheless, UT students wanted to hear other viewpoints, and this was reflected in their choice of campus speakers in the late 1960s. In 1967 UT students invited controversial speakers like African American New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, LSD researcher Timothy Leary, journalist Max Lerner, crusading leftist attorney William Kunstler, and civil rights activist Julian Bond, all critics of the war but also of American political and cultural complacency. That fall, When the student-run Issues Committee asked Chancellor Charles Weaver for permission to invite comedian Dick Gregory Weaver balked, fearing that Gregory’s presence on campus would anger Tennessee’s conservative Democratic governor Buford Ellington. The school’s board of trustees refused to present the school with an official speaker policy, prompting students to take UT to court in early 1969 with representation by Kunstler. The end result was a student victory.
Coming off of the free speaker movement, many students and faculty wanted more input into out-going President Andy Holt’s replacement, and both parties were angered by the board of trustees’ surreptitious Christmas holiday appointment of Edward Boling, a career Tennessee politico with no professional background in education. In January, 1970, faculty and students attempted to forcibly occupy an administration building, meeting resistance from university police and conservative students who tried to block the door. Twenty-two protestors were arrested and, in following with Kunstler’s recent defense of the “Chicago Seven,” he returned to represent the “Knoxville 22” in April- as it happened, the same month Dick Gregory finally visited.
Despite the show of resistance, Boling went on to serve as UT System president for the next eighteen years, and feelings over his appointment were still raw that spring when Weaver used the open speaker policy himself, arranging a visit from globetrotting Baptist evangelist Billy Graham. What became known as the “East Tennessee Crusade” was finally settled at $20,000 for multiple nights in late May and, Weaver stressed to students and faculty concerned over church/state separation, not officially a UT-sanctioned event, but rather a community usage of the stadium.
As May arrived, UT students had other things on their minds. Four students protesting the bombing of Cambodia in late April were shot dead at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard on May 4. UT students, along with those at Knoxville College and Maryville College, participated in a nationwide three-day student strike with the support of many of their professors. African American student body president Jimmie Baxter warned an assemblage of 3000 that what happened in Ohio could happen in Tennessee, and Kunstler returned yet again to support the growing resistance. Classes were cancelled. The protests were endorsed by the student government and even Weaver praised Baxter’s characterization of the protest as anti-violence. The newly-formed UT Black Student Union held its own protest against the killings of two students by policemen on the Jackson State University campus in Mississippi.
The Graham crusade began later that month, the Friday evening of May 22 with no problems save student concerns that the expanded traffic would complicate the exam period. Things got complicated midway through the following week when local media suddenly announced the arrival of President Nixon to join Graham on “Youth night” six days later. Graham (who already had a close relationship with Nixon) and Congressman Duncan were said to be the source of the invitation although there were also indications that Weaver had requested the president’s presence for UT’s 175th anniversary). The strange abruptness of his addition appeared to many a direct response to Baxter, Kunstler, and UT’s agitated student body.
Whoever invited him, Nixon needed a friendly audience to kick off his midterm campaigning, preferably on a university campus in the most Republican part of the South. By the 1960s the Solid South’s old means of power, the Democratic Party, was losing ground to the Republicans in many parts of the region. Knoxville was a beachhead for Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” or, at least, an opportunity to campaign for Republican US Senate candidate Bill Brock (his opponent Al Gore, Sr. was not invited). An appearance with a Southern minister, let alone the most-loved evangelist in America, would provide an extra layer of legitimacy. “Town, gown, bank, church and Crusade were of one mind,” [in Knoxville] wrote conservative commentator Garry Wills in the pages of Esquire Magazine. “If this was not Nixon Country, then what is?”
When word got out that Nixon had been added to the program students and faculty quickly organized protests. John Smith, Baxter’s (white) successor as SGA president met with the president aboard Air Force One, but others telegraphed Nixon asking him to cancel his speech. On the afternoon of his appearance, Religious Studies professor Charles Reynolds and Psychology professor Kenneth Newton led more than four hundred students, and about a dozen other faculty, into Neyland with signs saying, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” Their boos at Nixon were dampened by the cheers from the mainly non-UT throng of thousands as police photographed those they considered miscreants. One graduate student complemented his long hair and beard with a biblical gown (his alleged name, Carroll Bible, did not prove to be apocryphal). The protestors left after Nixon finished to avoid disturbing Graham’s subsequent sermon, but not before nine were arrested and many signs confiscated. The Knoxville police arrested 46 of the protestors later, including Reynolds who was fined $20 for interrupting a religious gathering. Although Andy Holt condemned the protest, no one was fired, expelled, or suspended by UT, even after eighty faculty members issued a “statement of ‘moral outrage’” stating that the Neyland Stadium gathering was political rather than religious. In the aftermath, many protestors were pleased that they had managed to express their disapproval to the president without actually disturbing the original purpose of the gathering. Reynolds appealed his conviction on the grounds that his rights of free speech and equal protection had been violated by his arrest. In early 1974 the US Supreme Court voted 6-3 not to hear Reynolds’s case, with all four of Nixon’s appointees voting in the majority.
The 1970 demonstration at Neyland Stadium offers us a lesson in political geography that is all too relevant to the ongoing nationwide protests of 2020. In a sense, Nixon and others were right about coming to Neyland Stadium; the president ultimately carried Knox County by more than seventy percent when he ran for re-election in 1972. But a relatively small group of vocal dissenters were enough to prove that Nixon’s approval was not absolute, and that even the seemingly “safe” confines of a conservative space could not protect the president from the censure of Americans who were tired of killing in the dubious name of democracy in Southeast Asia. After Kent State and Jackson State, virtually no American college campus was likely to give Nixon a happy welcome. Why would UT be any different just because it happened to be in the South? It was still, after all, a university.
What Nixon also did not consider was that local grievances- like UT’s speaker controversy- can create a critical mass of activism that finds connections to national and international issues. In many ways, the 1970 protest was the beginning of Knoxville’s New Left; veterans of Neyland Stadium went on to participate in social justice movements organized by groups like the Highlander Research and Education Center and the Tennessee Council on Human Relations targeting civil rights and the persistence of Appalachian poverty. Student unrest at UT in 1970 was exemplary of other contemporary campuses, but it would never have happened without leadership from a biracial coalition of student leaders who recognized that their campus’s speaker policy was undemocratic. In some respects, a “student movement” at UT had only begun just as it was fizzling on campuses all over America. Essentially, the 1960s came to UT and Knoxville in the 1970s, thanks to a notorious wartime president in search of a safe space.
In 2020 crowds have gathered all over the United States to protest the violent deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd as part of a pre-existent movement called Black Lives Matter, and many have done so in small, overwhelmingly white towns in places like Covington, Virginia, Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and Huntsville, Tennessee and many other towns not known for progressive public demonstrations (or public demonstrations at all). They are small compared to the crowds that have gathered in Minneapolis and Washington DC (or, for that matter, Knoxville), but then the group that shouted Nixon down in May, 1970 were small in number compared to the teeming masses of students and faculty who radicalized Berkeley and Columbia earlier in the decade. But they were large enough and loud enough to show Nixon that there was more between heaven and earth than was dreamt of in his Southern Strategy. In 2020, we protest racism even in places where the local electorate may vote to re-elect a president who appeals to xenophobia and white rage.
Protesters who take to the streets or attend assemblages to protest injustice rarely reflect majority opinion in their respective cities and towns, and they rarely reflect the will of the majority in the heated moment of protest. However, their actions often reflect the voice of the voiceless. Moreover, they express a dissatisfaction with the status quo that cannot always be solved with the ballot box in a democracy that remains flawed, indirect, and to this day unequal. Leaders who inspire white resentment and backlash have been shown in 1970 and 2020 that their political safe spaces also contain voices of dissent.
 Daily Beacon, September 25, 1968 quoted in Ruth Ann Thompson, “‘A Taste of Student Power’: Protest at the University of Tennessee, 1964-1970,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1998), p. 85
 Katherine Ballantyne, “‘Students Are [Not] Slaves’: 1960s Student Power Debates in Tennessee,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 54, Issue 2 (May, 2020), (shared by author pre-publication; exact pagination not available); Joseph A. Fry, The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), pp. 285-322
 Ruth Anne Thompson, p. 85; Ballantyne
 Joseph A. Fry, The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 298
 Ron Leadbetter, Big Orange, Black Storm Clouds and More: A History of A History of the University of Tennessee by Ron Leadbetter Retired Associate General Counsel (self-published, 2015), pp. 12-13
 Daily Beacon, July 30, 1968; The Speaker Ban Controversy: A Statement of Facts and Principle by the Student Government Association, Hodges Library, University of Tennessee; Scott Frizzell, “Not Just a Matter of Black and White: The Nashville Riot of 1967,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring, 2011): pp. 26–51; Benjamin Houston, The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), pp. 164-201
 The Speaker Ban Controversy…
 Ruth Anne Thompson, “‘A Taste of Student Power’: Protest at the University of Tennessee, 1964-1970,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1998), p. 85; Ballantyne
 Interview of Jack Reese by Milton Klein January 14 and March 19, 1991, Bruce Wheeler Papers (in author’s possession); “Boling Rejects SGA Request,” Daily Beacon, January 15, 1970, “Protest Stirs Ruckus at U-T,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, January 16, 1970, “Trustees-Please! Include Us, Too,” clipping August 1, 1969, Office of the University Historian Collection (hereafter OUHC), 1819-1997, AR.0015, Box 23, Folder 13, University of Tennessee Special Collections (hereafter UTSC)
 “Statement for Student Disruption,” January 15, 1970, OUHC, 1819-1997, AR.0015, Box 23, Folder 13, UTSC
 Clipping, “Sale of ‘22’ Raffle Tickets Causes Disorder,” April 25, 1970, OUHC, 1819-1997, AR.0015, Box 23, Folder 12, UTSC; Randall E. King, “When Worlds Collide: Politics, Religion, and Media at the 1970 East Tennessee Billy Graham Crusade,” Journal of Church and State, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), pp. 276-277; Ballantyne; Ron Leadbetter, Big Orange, Black Storm Clouds and More: A History of A History of the University of Tennessee by Ron Leadbetter Retired Associate General Counsel (self-published, 2015), pp. 14-15
 Protests and Progress: Nixon Visit Put Knoxville on National Stage,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 26, 2012; Randall E. King, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), pp. 277-279
 “Statement from Chancellor Weaver,” Daily Beacon, May 29, 1970, “OUHC, 1819-1997,” AR.0015, box 23, folder 21, UTSC; Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2009), p. 500
 Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2009), pp. 500-503
 Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), pp. 141-143; Randall E. King, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), pp. 279-280; Bruce Wheeler, Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South [2nd edition] (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005), pp. 145-146
 Quoted in Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), p. 260
 “Smith, Nixon Discuss Main Goals,” Daily Beacon, May 29, 1970, OUHC, 1819-1997,” AR.0015, box 23, folder 21, UTSC
 Interview, Dr. Charles Reynolds, April 27, 1987, OUHC, 1819-1997, AR.0015, Box 63, Folder 22, UTSC; Wheeler, Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South [2nd edition] (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005), pp. 145-146; Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008), pp. 500-503; Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), pp. 141-143; Mark Boulton, Failing Our Veterans: The G.I. Bill and the Vietnam Generation (New York & London: NYU Press, 2014), p. 169
 Interview, Gus Hadorn, February 21, 2020
 Interview, Dr. Charles Reynolds, April 27, 1987, OUHC, 1819-1997, AR.0015, Box 63, Folder 22, UTSC
 “32 Nixon Hecklers Held in Tennessee,” New York Times, June 4, 1970; Ruth Anne Thompson, pp. 90-91; Clipping, “The Truth Has Always Hurt,” “OUHC, 1819-1997,” AR.0015, box 23, folder 21, UTSC
 “Summary of Actions Taken by the Supreme Court,” New York Times, January 22, 1974
 Interview with author, Gus Hadorn, February 21, 2020