Robert L. Nelson was born August 10, 1931 in Dover, New Hampshire to Albert and Alice Nelson. He grew up in Dover, and spent his summers in South Freeport, Maine where his mother was born. He attended MCI prep school for one year, then went on to Bates College. After two years at Bates, the Korean War began and Robert spent two years in the army. He then returned to Bates and graduated in 1956. He attended Georgetown Law School, and worked at the Library of Congress. Just before graduating he began working on the Commission on Civil Rights. He continued this work after law school, working on the commission for a total of five years. He then became the special assistant to the head of the African Bureau and was soon moved into the Aide Bureau. He spent six weeks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When he returned he was offered the position of the program secretary in the mission in Brazil and returned to Rio. He stayed there with his wife for two years. He then returned to the U.S. and took over as the executive director of the lawyers committee for Civil Rights. He assisted in forming the Muskie Election Committee, and after working on the Muskie campaign he went to work for Joe Albritton, as vice president of his holding company. He also worked for the Washington Star, and was assistant secretary of the Army.
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L'Hommedieu, Andrea, "Nelson, Robert oral history interview" (2003). Edmund S. Muskie Oral History Collection. 300.