Continued from page 4

“I can remember the cross being burned,” Nelsen said. “They’d beat on windows and run, they cut electricity off, they’d burn a cross. And then all of the sudden people I played with all of the time, or I had gone to their houses, you could see the kids had been influenced by the parents, because I was suddenly invisible to them.”

Zacher may have thought the ceremony ended his standoff with the administration, but town leaders were furious about the publicity generated by the homecoming. There were plans under way to make sure the coach’s contract wasn’t renewed.

“At the end of the year, it just escalated and escalated and escalated to where the board decided they were going to fire the coach, and that’s when people started lining up behind him or behind the board, and it was almost always split between black and white lines,” said Bob Knoll, the assistant coach.

English teacher Charlotte Kincaide, who is white, was an exception, although not the only one. She said she did not shy away from talking about issues of race during class if questions arose. And Martin remembers how Kincaide took him aside in the hallway.

“She’d always say, ‘Hey, hang in there, don’t worry, the school board doesn’t know what it’s talking about,’” he said.

One day, Kincaide was called out of her classroom after school for a special meeting.

“So we went down to the superintendent’s office and a couple of the school board members were there,” she said. “Right away, I knew something was going on. They were essentially chewing me out for speaking out about how I felt. And they just made me so mad. I told Mr. Moore right then, ‘Well, if that’s the way you feel, I won’t be here next year.’ And so I quit.”

The school board meeting to decide Zacher’s fate took place in Nowata’s gymnasium on a Friday night in April. There wasn’t an empty seat. Pro- and anti-Zacher factions sat on opposite sites of the gymnasium. It was a meeting that already had polarized the town, playing out for months around dinner tables.

Basketball team manager Blake Rider had shouting matches with his father so frequent and fierce that he became sick from the stress. Then his father, without explanation, perhaps moved by the words of a son who later entered religious life, ran for the school board on a pro-Zacher slate of candidates. He lost.

Before the meeting, Moore handed out copies of a 12-page report to the board and news media. In it, the superintendent called Zacher “a man of high moral character” who was “extremely difficult, if not impossible” when it came to decisions he didn’t like affecting his basketball program or personal convictions.

Moore insisted that most of the Zacher opponents from the white community were not racists: “They also recognize that many kinds of discrimination do exist and that it will not end because someone demands authority or defends a principle,” he wrote, “but it must be overcome through education, understanding, compromise and compassion … for both the black and white races.”

Cheered in the same gym as basketball stars, Caliman and Sprague returned to their old school to a different reaction when they spoke up for their coach.

“I remember walking up to the podium looking at all the same people who cheered me, boo me when I finished,” Sprague said. “And I tell you, that had quite an impact.”

When Caliman later returned to the Naval Academy, superiors confronted him about a letter that had been sent from someone in Nowata. It said Caliman was a disgrace to the uniform and that he should be kicked out for getting involved in local politics.

Story Continues →