Richard Nelson was a most unlikely person to land in the middle of a national controversy over the national anthem.
Awarded both the Silver and Bronze Stars for his gallantry in World War II, Nelson became a lawyer after the war, then a steel company executive before taking over as the silver-haired president of Northern Illinois University in the summer of 1971.
In the parlance of the times, Nelson epitomized The Establishment.
Only months into his NIU tenure, however, Nelson made a decision that drew the same type of angry condemnation now aimed at sidelined NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes — with challenges to his patriotism interlaid with racial hostility.
Nelson’s offense was to order that the Star Spangled Banner not be played before NIU’s home basketball games.
There was no announcement. It wasn’t until a week after the first home game that a reporter for the student newspaper asked him what had happened to the anthem.
Nelson explained he’d decided to suspend it in a bid to keep the peace between black students who had protested during its playing the prior season and white students who took exception.
The protests had included African-Americans making the clenched fist Black Power salute popularized by track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
Such demonstrations were commonplace in college athletics in those years, but Nelson’s response was unique.
“The reasoning behind my decision is simply that the playing of the national anthem should be inspirational and a symbol of unity for all those who hear it,” he said. “If in a particular context it becomes a symbol of divisiveness, and has a potential for doing harm to the overall well-being of the university community, I believe it serves no purpose for it to be played.”
That explanation didn’t sit well in a nation still wrestling with campus unrest over the Vietnam War and related social upheaval upsetting the status quo.
Hundreds of letters poured in to Nelson, all of them still carefully preserved in the university library. Reading through them this week became an unpleasant journey back in time.
Some of the letter writers confined themselves to the importance of the anthem as an expression of patriotism, either politely questioning his decision or ripping him for “pure un-American cowardice.”
What stood out, though, were all the letters blaming the black students.
A woman from Oak Lawn suggested Nelson “send them back to Africa.” A Rockford woman said they “should get there (sic) own college.”
Someone addressed him as “Doctor Nelson: Traitor to our White Race.”
The commander of the American Legion of Illinois demanded he “stop kowtowing to the disruptive minorities.”
Others made liberal use of the N-word.
Even Lester Maddox, then the arch-segregationist lieutenant governor of Georgia, weighed in. Maddox, who rose to prominence on his staunch opposition to African-Americans eating in his restaurant, told Nelson he didn’t deserve his job.
A month later, Nelson reversed course. The anthem resumed, as did the protests.
I knew none of this when I arrived as a freshman on NIU’s campus just two years later. I didn’t know about it until I began researching this column.
All I knew is that by 1973 it was already the well-established practice of NIU’s African-American students to remain seated in protest when the national anthem was played before basketball games.
Exactly what they were protesting, nobody ever really said. I always understood it as a general protest against racism and discriminatory treatment of black people in America.
I can’t say white students paid no attention, because they did. But I never saw any disputes. The right to protest was understood, if not always appreciated. By the late-70s, the anthem protests had stopped. Nelson died in 1994 at the age of 78.
As I get older, I make the mistake of assuming matters I thought were long ago settled will stay settled—such as the importance of playing the national anthem being inseparable from the right to use it in protest.