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The Leaders of Tomorrow

What happened in 1970 after Richard Nixon was told, “I doubt that there would be any problem of student demonstrations in Tennessee.”

President Richard Nixon and Reverend Billy Graham during the “Crusade for Christ” at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1970. [National Archives]

The Tet Offensive in January 1968 spurred an escalation in antiwar protests on college campuses across the South. Administrators at Memphis State University and Vanderbilt University were well aware of these national protests and were determined to keep similar incidents from developing on their campuses. Cecil Humphreys, president of Memphis State University, took steps to clarify the state Board of Education’s position as well as that of his university regarding student demonstrations. In August 1968, Humphreys proposed a set of guidelines that the board passed unanimously, which outlined the rights of students to protest policies and politics on campus, local, state, and national levels. These guidelines also protected the university’s interests by prohibiting demonstrations that prevented students from attending classes, using college facilities, and those that involved illegality. Humphreys later referred to the late 1960s as “the best of times and the worst of times,” during which he and other administrators made it their goal “to not over-react.”

Regionally, the antiwar movement became more vocal as white New Leftists emphasized American racism domestically and in foreign policy. Joining with Students for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) International Student Strike on April 26, 1968, the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC) called for a ten-day national protest against the war from April 20 to April 30, called the Southern Days of Secession. They declared that as “young Southerners we hereby SECEDE” against “THE WAR AGAINST THE VIETNAMESE, RACISM AND EXPLOITATION OF THE POOR, [AND] THE SELECTIVE SERVICE SYSTEM.” They further stated the desire to disconnect from the “tools” the United States used to “implement its attempts at global domination, especially the draft law and the use of our universities for military research, investment, and training.” This attempt to appropriate the South’s Civil War history in support of SSOC’s resistance to oppressive authority sprang from the organization’s efforts to “rewrite” their identity as Southerners. Secession, SSOC members argued, was in fact, “a radical tradition in the South.”

Students linked their antiwar protests to longstanding campus-based efforts to gain greater student representation in university affairs. So did faculty members. The University of Tennessee’s (UT) American Association of University Professors campus chapter stated in a March 1969 letter that it condemned violence on campuses and believed that being a student at UT was a privilege, “not an inalienable right,” yet they “[approved of] these responsible student leaders on this campus who have labored so hard this year for an open speaker policy and for relaxed dormitory hours for women.” The reference to the open speaker policy and parietals at UT clarifies that faculty members perceived these campus protests as part of a broader range of student complaints. The letter also referenced several times the democratic nature of the protests in an attempt to counter accusations from “many people, both inside and outside our academic community, [who] have equated the proper efforts of our students to achieve reform with the nefarious violence of nihilists on other campuses across the country.” The faculty members who signed the letter expressed disappointment that UT’s administration did not respond more positively to UT student proposals. 

Prior to the national October 15, 1969, Moratorium (a day of awareness and education in protest against the Vietnam War), UT students were deeply divided on whether the university should hold an event in support of it. By October 11 campuses had committed to participating, with four still considering involvement. Tennessee’s event organizers sanctioned boycotts of classes to minimize disruption for the general student body, in contrast to the national plans. Organizers considered having participants skip their classes, a less confrontational (and more feasible) alternative to holding physical demonstrations to block other students from attending. 

Student activists at UT denounced the wider student body’s supposed apathy in the context of Vietnam, echoing back to previous criticisms of supposed lack of political agency on Tennessee campuses. In an October 1969 article in the Daily Beacon, UT’s student newspaper, a photograph of the university office used to organize the campus’s Vietnam War Moratorium showed a poster stating, “Students Are Slaves!” Student activists at smaller schools complained of student apathy as well, notably at historically Black Fisk, and historically white Sewanee, Southwestern, and Maryville. The week before the moratorium, the Highland Echo featured an article announcing the events at Maryville College with the following call to action for the student body: “There’s no excuse for remaining passive — except, of course, the same insane apathy which has already slaughtered millions of innocent people.” Two years earlier, the newspaper had published a poem needling apathetic students. It referenced Che Guevara’s death, the peace movement, Albert Camus’ novel The Rebel (in reference to existentialism), whether one could support those troops who fought in Vietnam but also be against the war, and ended with the hook, “Do we really give a damn?” 

The reaction from conservative students and the state’s Republicans was hostile. The state chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), UT student Jim Hager, publicly described the moratorium as “rather phony pacificism that points to the fact that we are the ones in the wrong here and makes no acknowledgement of North Vietnam, China, Russia, and various Communist satellites,” and condemned the moratorium supporters as “new left nazis” [sic]. Fred Berry, a Republican state senator, echoed Hager’s condemnation, and recommended that UT refuse to pay the salaries of any faculty who participated in the moratorium. Republican congressman Bill Brock denounced the national moratorium as an attempt to “demoralize our men in Vietnam [and] weaken President Nixon’s efforts” while Congressman John Duncan, another Tennessee Republican, encouraged Americans to “boycott the boycotters,” and said that the moratorium would be “a big day for some but … will be a day of shame” for the country as a whole.


The shock of the Kent State shootings changed the tenor of Vietnam demonstrations in Tennessee. Students across the country were furious after Kent State, with President Nixon’s approval rating on college campuses dropping as low as 31% in some polls. Across the country, 2 million university students went on strike following Kent State, with hundreds of universities and colleges ending the academic year early. National Guardsmen were called onto a number of campuses to maintain peace after Kent State, although only one of those campuses was in the South, the University of South Carolina. Despite efforts by university administrators to quell anger on campus, post–Kent State student unrest at UT continued to mount. Student demands for greater autonomy contributed to demonstrations during the late 1960s that had focused on continued racial discrepancies and gaining a greater voice in university affairs. 

Shortly after the Kent State shootings, Student Government Association (SGA) president Jimmie Baxter, the first African American elected to the position, called for a student strike of classes at UT for the remainder of the week. Speaking at a rally of around 3,000 students after the memorial, Baxter said, “Yesterday four students were killed because they were in the process of protesting something we probably should have been protesting long ago … We have an obligation to speak out … we can’t wait until it comes to UT.” A student editorial in UT’s Daily Beacon written just after Kent State described UT as “a relatively conservative school in a conservative state” and called for support of the strike. “Allow this force — these deaths — to bring about the needed reforms in government and its military policy.” During the strike over half of students were estimated to have stayed away from class, although it is unclear how many supported the strike versus those who used it as a pretext to skip lectures. Contrasting Baxter’s measured response on May 5, 1970, the bombing of the UT campus ROTC building the same day provided a more militant reaction to the tragedy. Black student activist “Sparky” Rucker recalled of the moment, “it was the first time I felt the University of Tennessee was united in the struggle against this war.”

The most public manifestation of student frustrations over Kent State occurred during President Nixon’s surprise appearance at Rev. Billy Graham’s evangelical crusade in Knoxville. The Graham Crusade Committee of Knoxville had secured Neyland Stadium, UT’s 65,000-seat football venue, for the event, planned for May 22–31, 1970. Nixon’s decision to attend surprised the university administration; Chancellor Weaver recalled that UT had extended several unsuccessful invitations to Nixon to visit the campus in 1970 before his May trip. To Weaver, Nixon’s speech could not have been planned for a worse time for the university, given the significant campus unrest the school had weathered earlier in the 1969–1970 school year.

It is unclear why the White House decided that Knoxville would be a good location for Nixon to speak, although Republican congressman John Duncan’s May 23 conversation with fellow Tennessean and White House staffer William E. Timmons likely contributed. In his report of the conversation, Timmons ended with the statement, “I doubt that there would be any problem of student demonstrations in Tennessee.” Prior to Nixon’s visit, a rumor spread throughout the campus that Nixon’s administration had chosen UT for his first public speech on a university or college campus following Kent State because it believed he would be speaking to an audience of supporters. 

By May 25 the White House and Graham had settled on May 28 for Nixon’s speech. A White House official stated on May 25 that Graham did not want Nixon’s speech to be related to Memorial Day (May 25) at all, likely due to the political implications that would arise from such an association. Instead, the evening was to be a “Youth Night” for the crusade. Graham “[felt] the President should concentrate on saying something to the youth of the country” and on “the importance of religion to the moral fiber of the nation” given that the speech was taking place on the campus and that the crusade had anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand UT students in attendance each evening. Graham expected even more to attend the Youth Night on May 28. Graham reportedly also wanted Nixon to emphasize “that the youth are the leaders of tomorrow and that their lives must be balanced — and part of that balancing is the acceptance and belief in religious values.” In the hours prior to the speech, the White House expected only 20 to 30 students to be involved in protests. Intelligence reports described protestors’ plans to hand out leaflets outside the stadium but not to enter Neyland Stadium itself.

While a growing minority of the student body was frustrated by Nixon’s appearance, some of their peers welcomed Nixon’s upcoming speech. On May 27, the incoming SGA president, John Smith, requested a “hand-shake meeting” with Nixon during his visit to Knoxville. With the help of Congressman Duncan, Smith met with Nixon on Air Force One after the crusade. Smith asked for the meeting in order to “solve the problems facing the universities today” and to get Nixon’s opinion on “what other students can do to become better informed” citizens. In official correspondence, Nixon described his conversation with Smith as one of the “most interesting aspects of the trip,” but Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman wrote in his diary that Nixon “was very unimpressed.” 

Whatever the expectations or plans for the protests, a small yet vocal group of students and faculty protested Nixon’s presence inside Neyland Stadium. One UT student protestor described the scene as “250 Lions to 90,000 Christians.” The protestors numbered between 300 and 500 and were outnumbered between 100-to-1 and 250-to-1 by crusade attendees. 

Student and faculty protestors carried signs stating “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and attempted to enter the stadium for Nixon’s speech. A crusade attendee reportedly told one of the student protestors holding a sign “to stick it up [their] a—.” The Secret Service and local law enforcement standing outside the stadium confiscated these signs but members of the group were still able to enter Neyland Stadium, some with their signs hidden on their persons. In a possible reference to students’ apparent serfdom, student protestor Carroll Bible wore a robe, and held a sign demanding “Let my people go,” echoing Moses’ remarks to the pharaoh in Exodus, as he led the Israelites out of slavery. There appears to be a question among protestors, however, as to who Bible represented; fellow student Barry Bozeman remembered him dressing up as Jesus, not Moses. Once inside, however, the plans for silent protest fell apart as several members loudly interrupted the religious proceedings as well as Nixon’s speech. The expectation that they could maintain such a disciplined approach was, as a protesting faculty member later remarked, “idealism at its worst.”

Instead of simply protesting Nixon’s speech and otherwise remaining quiet during the rest of the crusade proceedings (or leaving the stadium after Nixon’s speech), protestors chanted, booed, and heckled loudly throughout the entire program. Graham warmly introduced Nixon and referred to previous presidents’ controversial decisions that nonetheless, in Graham’s opinion, demonstrated their leadership and commitment. Graham said, “I know all Presidents have had to make hard, agonizing decisions that are often unpopular — but which they think are in the best interests of our country.” Graham’s implicit backing of Nixon’s war policies in the environment of a mostly supportive crowd cheered Nixon. Protestors interrupted Nixon enough that at one point he stopped speaking and gestured to them. Chants of “One-two-three-four, we don’t want you anymore” could be heard at times until the crowd drowned it out with either cheers and clapping for Nixon or with boos towards the protestors. Pleased, Nixon told the crowd that he was “just glad that there seems to be a rather solid majority on one side rather than the other side tonight.”

Chancellor Weaver defended the university’s position soon after the event. “The University of Tennessee is not now and will never be a sanctuary of any sort for those who break the law … There is never any excuse for the disruption of speakers on any platform at the University of Tennessee.” Photographs of protestors taken during the event assisted with the arrests of over forty people for violating Tennessee Code Annotated 39-1204, which criminalized the disruption of religious services.

The Nixon administration knew of the demonstrators’ arrests. In a letter to a concerned citizen in Knoxville, a Nixon staffer noted that the president had urged local authorities to be “firm but carefully judicious” and to allow the arrested students to finish their exams before facing prosecution. Knoxville mayor Leonard Rogers did not attempt to stop the arrests and later faced anger from UT faculty members for not controlling what they viewed as overzealous police action. The FBI’s COINTELPRO Knoxville division also pursued surveillance of the charges and trials of the protestors, signifying both the organization’s reach as well as the perceived threat of student protest toward the president, even in a city that Bureau officials had considered insignificant enough to recommend ceasing surveillance of New Leftist activities there a year earlier. 

Excerpt from Radical Volunteers: Dissent, Desegregation, and Student Power in Tennessee by Katherine J. Ballantyne. Copyright © by the University of Georgia Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Georgia Press.







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