Nelson traveled in a car with a group of local college students to Atlanta, and from there Allendale, S.C., to do voter registration work on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It was a life-changing experience for me at age 17,” said Nelson, now 64, a veteran University of San Diego Theology and Religious Studies professor. “I briefly met Dr. King and later that summer I got arrested and was put in jail for disorderly conduct because of a sit-in.”
Nelson said King delivered an introductory lecture as part of an orientation session of the SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project in Atlanta. King, afterward, shook hands with many of the volunteers, including Nelson.
“He thanked us for coming and appreciated what we were about to do,” Nelson said.
It was a tense time in America’s history. Civil rights, Vietnam and other key issues were at the forefront. Nelson listened to music, strumming his guitar, and took in the lyrics from Bob Dylan songs, including “A Hard Rain is A-Gonna Fall,” which he said, “captured that image of a gloomy outlook, that we were living in a dangerous time.”
Nelson recalled the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — “I grew up crouching under a desk for air raid drills … people wondered if this was going to be it” — then his own world changed in April 1963 when his father died in a car accident. Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed two months later. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in August, but President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November. The next year brought the Civil Rights Act, Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Vietnam War intensified on President Lyndon Johnson’s watch.
March 1965 brought forth the infamous Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama regarding the voting rights movement for African-Americans. Dr. King led a few thousand people on one march. The initial march turned bloody with excessive force used by law enforcement against the marchers.
“That’s what started it for me. It was a huge national thing. It touched something deep inside of me, seeing that injustice,” Nelson said. “I was developing my interest in India, Gandhi and the study of nonviolence resistance. Seeing people abused so dreadfully at the Edmund Pettus Bridge went along with my thoughts about the importance of Gandhi and the poetic sense of protest by Bob Dylan.”
Though voting rights for blacks had long ago been granted, most southern states, where communities had a 70-80 percent black population, still only had a small fraction of people who were registered to vote. Limited access and limited resources made it a serious issue.
Participants from SCOPE were sent to Mississippi, North and South Carolina and Alabama. Nelson’s group arrived in South Carolina’s Allendale County in the southwest part of the state that bordered Georgia. Nelson said it was a very rural farming community with 70 percent African-American population but only 15 percent registered voters.
“We were welcomed by the African-American community,” he said. “White community members were hostile, but we set up our office in a small house. We lived with African-American families, ate what they ate and went to church with them. We went around the county and talked to people about registering to vote.”
Two obstacles, Nelson said, were that voter registration in non-election years was limited to one day a month and there was only one clerk to process the registrations. SCOPE and SCLC made a stronger push on Aug. 2, 1965 when an estimated crowd between 300 (Associated Press story) to Nelson’s recollection of nearly 600 people sought to register that day. At 5 p.m., the Allendale County Courthouse was set to close; yet more than 150 African-Americans were still waiting to register. The Aiken (S.C.) Standard and Review story said only 59 black voters were processed for registration that day.
“We decided that wasn’t good enough. We were told to leave the courthouse or we’d be arrested for disorderly conduct,” Nelson said. “We weren’t leaving, we were staying.”
The newspaper said state police arrested 37 people, including Nelson and another man who were “carried bodily from the courthouse.”
Days later, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the charges against Nelson and others were dropped. The group resumed its work for a few more weeks, but Nelson returned to Albany and then went onto college at the University of Chicago.
Reflecting on it now, Nelson still appreciates what the 1965 summer gave him and how it still factors into his work at USD.
“It continues to inspire me in my teaching, whether it’s World Religions, Hinduism, Liberation Theology or my study abroad courses,” said Nelson who is teaching a USD course in Hong Kong this Intersession. “It heightened my interest in social justice and culture much the same way that religion motivates people to make changes in their lives. I’ll always remember being in Allendale, working closely with the religious leaders. It was a very different culture, a different social culture. It was very intense. This is why I enjoy working with young people and giving them a broader view of the world. My experience at 17 opened up my world a lot. I’m very grateful that USD offers students so many opportunities to study abroad. I put a lot of time into that because I think it’s a really great way for them to see a bigger world.”
— Ryan T. Blystone