James Nickerson had been president of Mankato State since 1966, at the helm of a college going through a huge transformation.
The college was moving up the hill, to its current location. Due in part to its reputation as the most active campus in the state, the enrollment would increase from about 8,000 to 14,000 during his presidency.
And every day, in the midst of it all, people were behind microphones or literally atop soap boxes preaching civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and ending the war in Vietnam.
By 1970, anti-war demonstrations at Mankato State and in the community had begun to grow and escalate. In May of that year, a torch-light parade jammed traffic for 90 minutes at Front and Main streets. And an attempt was made to burn a Navy recruiter van.
Political science professor Abbas Kessel, a staunch advocate of nonviolence, was present at most demonstrations and cautioned the students to be peaceful.
Scott Hagebak and Mark Halverson, students active in anti-war demonstrations at the time, laughed when they recalled the slight and strange-looking Kessel’s long-winded speeches about peace at rallies. He often “let the air out of the balloon,” said Halverson, who was speaker of the Student Senate.
The Kent State shootings May 4, 1970, added fuel to the fire at Mankato State. Students went on strike to protest and anti-war activity on campus increased, Halverson said. Students burned effigies of Nixon in front of the post office. More than 1,000 protesters gathered downtown for a parade and rally. And after two black students were killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi, 2,000 people gathered for a teach-in on the mall at Mankato State.
Nickerson, who died in 2009, was seen by some community members as being too soft when it came to handling protests and demonstrations, Halverson said.
Retired philosophy professor Ron Yezzi, who often took part in marches and sit-ins, said Nickerson did a good job of acting as a liaison between students and law enforcement. He did his best to serve as a political harbinger while keeping the academic side of the college running as smoothly as possible, he said.
“He was really open to allow free expression,” Yezzi said.
Police at the ready
Nickerson worked closely with the Mankato Police Chief Charles Alexander, who also is credited for keeping the lid on what could have been an explosive era in Mankato history. Halverson said the police didn’t respond forcibly at demonstrations. They sat back and monitored in case things got out of hand.
Steve Davis of Amboy, a Mankato police officer in the early 1970s, said the more hands-off approach at large demonstrations was by design.
When Alexander had been a detective, he was assigned to Mankato State to keep his finger on the pulse of campus activity. That was when Davis and Alexander met; Davis was a campus guard before joining the Mankato force.
“He was very good with the college, and he was very willing to meet them more than halfway on most everything,” Davis said.
When the anti-war protests began to heat up, Davis was in the heart of all of it, he said, responding to every sit-in and march. When tension mounted between a fed-up Mankato community and demonstrators, Davis said Mankato police were always on alert. But Davis said he never got frustrated with the students.
“No, that’s not our job to be frustrated or not frustrated,” he said. “Our job is to keep the peace and go where we need to go and do what we need to do.”
Had another police chief with a less patient and watchful approach been at the helm, Halverson said there would have been violence, possibly even a situation like Kent State, he said.
“(Nickerson and Alexander) came up with very good plans on how to manage demonstrations without having confrontations,” Halverson said.
Davis said law enforcement was well aware of what the students were planning at any given time. They knew that outside agitators had been brought in specifically to rile up students involved in the anti-war movement. They, at times, had plain clothes officers in the larger gatherings to listen and keep a watchful eye.
“Federal, state, county, local (law enforcement) all had their finger in the pie,” Davis said. “They all knew ahead of time. ... They all knew who was doing what to who.”
Nickerson and campus administration were accommodating of the students, Halverson said. Rooms were made available to gather, and the university sanctioned various on-campus demonstrations.
Still, by June 1970, emotions ran high on campus. Nickerson didn’t close the school, but he gave students the option to take an incomplete or accept the grade they had at the time without taking finals.
“We thought there might be trouble,” Nickerson told MSU’s alumni magazine Today 10 years ago. “I did it in fairness to the kids. They deserved to be heard; they had something to say. They were so burned up and burned out. They thought, ‘The hell with school.’”
“That was the first time at Mankato State where I think there was widespread, almost universal outrage,” Halverson said.
The pied piper
Nickerson had begun a revolving residency at Mankato State called the Chair of Ideas, which brought various artists and authors to campus to teach. Among them, from 1971-’72, was Mitchell Goodman, an author and activist widely viewed as a political extremist.
“He was kind of the pied piper,” said David Phelps, a reporter at the Star Tribune who was editor of the Mankato State student newspaper, the Reporter, in the spring of 1972.
Phelps said Goodman was a “galvanizing force” in amping up the anti-war demonstrations.
“He was pretty much an extremist,” Hagebak said, adding that Goodman rallied a hard-core group of anti-war protesters who were interested in escalating the movement. Hagebak backed away from Goodman’s group.
Halverson, who worked with Goodman on protests and took his class, said he had widespread support among students.
“With that said, I think most if not all of this would have taken place without Mitch, as it was more the state of international affairs that drove things, not one committed radical,” Halverson added. “To me, he was not the skunk some others paint him (as). After all, he was a nationally respected author and journalist.”
Yezzi said Goodman had a way of firing up students and then not being present during situations that could have led to violence. Hagebak agreed Goodman had a way of disappearing.
By the end of the spring semester in 1972, Goodman’s reputation on campus had been diminished, Phelps said. He left shortly after.
Goodman later married a Mankato State alum, Sandra Gregor, and became best known for organizing an anti-draft protest that led to charges against him and four others, known as the “Boston Five,” for gathering war protesters’ draft cards and turning them into the Justice Department in Washington.
He died in Maine in 1997.