Nixon and Graham in Knoxville, May 28, 1970

Larry Van GuilderOur Town Stories

The possible impeachment of President Donald Trump brings to mind events of nearly 50 years ago when another president was – unwittingly – on the path to impeachment. President Richard Nixon came to Knoxville in 1970 as a guest of evangelist Billy Graham and the University of Tennessee administration, and controversy dogged the president’s visit.

Graham’s 10-day Knoxville crusade began on May 22. Night after night, 50,000-60,000 people filled Neyland stadium to hear Graham preach the Gospel. Nixon’s arrival on May 28 roused already stirring unrest on the campus.

There were portents that the president might not be warmly received by all members of the student body and faculty. A student strike that took place from May 7-9 was one. Similar protests were occurring on college campuses around the country.

May would not go down as a banner month in the Nixon presidency. On May 2, the president made a televised announcement that he had ordered U.S. troops to invade Cambodia, thus escalating the war in Vietnam.

On May 4, a student protest against the war at Kent State University ended tragically when four students were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. Later, historians would view the event as a turning point in public sentiment about the war. Long before the president’s involvement in the Watergate break-in was uncovered, Vietnam had tarnished Nixon’s legacy.

Graham was a beloved figure in the Bible Belt. When he invited Nixon to join him in Knoxville it added to his long association with U.S. presidents. Late in life, he said he may have “crossed the line” melding his ministry with politics, but in 1970 he wasn’t troubled by such concerns.

When Nixon rose to speak on the evening of the 28th, a handful of protesters hoisted signs, most reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Police, forewarned, were quick to corral the tiny minority in the crowd who chanted and yelled in an effort to interrupt the president’s speech. Nine were arrested that night.

Photo from UT Libraries

A report issued by the Faculty Senate on June 29 said 500-600, most seated in one section, were involved in the protest. Ultimately, 47 were charged with disrupting a religious service. City Judge Jesse Butler was accused of setting “unexpectedly high bail.”

Most all the protesters were exonerated, but a few served some time in jail. Although the Faculty Senate report on the incident concluded, “A university campus must offer opportunity for free speech, even when pressures in other parts of society inhibit free speech,” it followed with the admonition that, “A speaker and his audience should not be subjected to unwelcome interruption.” (After all, UT was not Berkeley.)

The singer Ethel Waters was part of Graham’s entourage that evening. There’s little doubt she spoke for the overwhelming majority of those jammed into Neyland when she said, “Now you listen, children. If I was close enough to you, I’d smack you. But I love you.”

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.

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