Public Program: Q&A with Professor Bruce Nelson, Dartmouth and the Civil Rights Movement Panelist

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. For this year’s celebration of this momentous event, the Rockefeller Center explored Dartmouth’s connections to the Civil Rights Movement by hosting a faculty panel. After their talk, "We Were There…Dartmouth and the Civil Rights Movement," Courtney Wong '15 sat down with Bruce Nelson, a speaker on the panel, for an interview. This is the last interview in a series with each of the panelists.

J. Bruce Nelson taught US history at Dartmouth from 1985 to 2009. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and was jailed in Selma, Alabama in 1965, on the eve of the famous Selma to Montgomery march.

Professor Bruce Nelson

Courtney Wong (CW): What prompted you to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement, a movement that preached some vastly different values than the ones you grew up with?

Bruce Nelson (BN): I grew up on Long Island, attended a private school in the northeast, and went to Princeton University. I was a pretty typical student for the time – very uneducated and non-interested about political things. I remember living in a segregationist environment, one that wasn't really progressive nor enlightened. I didn't challenge or question my environment until junior year in college when my parents divorced, which made me question the idea of the American Dream. As a result, I became quite religious and eventually majored in the subject. I also became attracted to the Civil Rights Movement because of the distant figure of Dr. King and the religious dimensions of his narrative and his vision of a redeemed American society. That began to really resonate with me.

Afterwards, I decided to move to San Francisco to pursue my theological studies and was assigned to work at a predominantly black church. This began an experience for me that was radically at odds from what I had grown up with, which was an all-white, segregated environment. All of the sudden, I was surrounded by this predominantly black community, which I found to be extremely warm and welcoming. I entered a totally different world and didn't look back.

CW: What did your parents think about that?

BN: Well fortunately they were 3,000 miles away. My sister, who I was close with, lived close by and was at least cautiously supportive of me, but I remember meeting people who were not part of the conventional mainstream and who challenged the status quo, and I found their demeanors and ideas very exciting.

CW: What were some of the biggest obstacles that you faced participating in the Civil Rights Movement?

BN: I was married at the time with a second child on the way and I was a graduate student at [University of California,] Berkeley, so I couldn't just "go South" even though I wanted to. Some of my heroes were the young Civil Rights Movement leaders in an organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or "SNCC." I wanted to emulate them, but with everything going on (like family and work), it was hard to devote myself entirely to the Movement. Regardless, it was exciting, stimulating, and sometimes disorientating, but it was all an incredible experience. There was a lot to learn and I was a willing pupil.

Professor Bruce Nelson, right, speaks at "We Were There...Dartmouth and the Civil Rights Movement."

CW: You wound up in Selma during the historic weekend of the march by accident. How did you wind up there?

BN: I was very active in the Presbyterian Church and although I found it somewhat difficult to participate in the Movement, I was involved to some degree. There happened to be a sequence of events leading up to the march in Selma, in which state troopers attacked marchers in an awful occurrence called Bloody Sunday. I wasn't there, but Dr. King put out a call in the aftermath of the event for people of goodwill, especially clergy, to come to Selma. I felt this tremendous sense of moral urgency, like somehow I belonged there. I had no idea how to get there and we had no money, but fortunately, it was 1965 and people were very political at the time, and my fellow TAs offered to cover for me.

As for getting there, I heard through my pastor that Presbytery (larger body of congregations) of San Francisco put up plane tickets for four seminary professors to go to Selma. I knew that although that they were sympathetic, these guys weren't really active in the Civil Rights Movement like I was, so I was angry that I couldn't go as one of the most active members around these issues. It turned out that one of them couldn’t go, so it worked out. I went and it was an experience I will never forget.

CW: What were your thoughts when you were jailed in Selma in 1965? Were you afraid?

BN: There were two dozen of us who were arrested, but [the police] didn't want to keep us in jail. In fact, they wanted to get us out of jail as quickly as possible because it was costly and they didn't want to make martyrs of us or have any more disruption near the mayor's house. We sat up all night in what was barely a jail, talking about theology and politics and the Movement. You felt a tremendous sense of camaraderie in the moment. We were treated like heroes when we were released, but looking back on it, it wasn't heroic at all.

CW: How has your participation in the Civil Rights Movement influenced your approach to teaching US history to students?

BN: In addition to the Civil Rights Movement, I was also very active in the anti-war movement and the Labor Movement. Given all of these experiences, I've had to learn how to be faithful to my own values and at the same time not simply be a partisan mouthpiece. I've had to try to respect and highlight alternative voices and show a full and complicated picture of the subject that I teach. Sometimes it's not an easy thing to do.