Surprisingly, presidential candidates largely overlooked the civil rights struggle in the 1960 election. Several signs pointed to a favorable year for the Democrats, out of power in the White House for the eight years of Dwight Eisenhower, but the party still relied heavily on its Southern segregationist wing. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who waged an unsuccessful campaign to win the party’s vice presidential nomination in 1956, opened the race as a top contender because of family money, a highly publicized war record, his personal attractiveness, and the glamour of his wife, the former Jacquelyn Bouvier. Kennedy feared alienating key white Southern politicians as he fought an uphill primary battle with two-time presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, the favorite of the liberal wing, and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who had the support of many key Democratic leaders in the South such as U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who also hailed from the Lone Star State.
Kennedy avoided discussing civil rights issues as much as he could during his primary battle, and he actively courted and won an early endorsement from arch-segregationist Alabama Gov. John Patterson. Noting that Eisenhower had pulled Southern whites into the Republican camp in his 1952 and 1956 campaigns against Stevenson, the eventual GOP nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, also sought the backing of whites in Dixie who supported Jim Crow laws.
Eisenhower, a World War II hero, would not be on the ballot in 1960, the first of many political problems facing the Republican Party. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik space satellite in 1957 panicked many American voters, who feared that the Russians had rapidly caught up or even surpassed the United States in technology and that this might make the country militarily vulnerable. Voters also remembered the 1957-1958 “Eisenhower” recession, in which five million Americans lost their jobs. Reductions in federal spending, tight Federal Reserve Board policies that made borrowing more expensive, an inflation rate of 2.7 percent, and reduced consumer spending caused the sharpest economic downtown since the end of World War II. In the 1958 off-year elections, voters blamed the Eisenhower administration for the economy. Unhappy with what was seen as its tepid response to the downturn, they handed the Republican Party a stinging defeat. Democrats picked up 16 seats in the United States Senate and 49 seats in the House of Representatives to claim a commanding majority. The Republicans controlled only 14 of the lower 48 state legislatures.
Democratic candidates spent the next two years playing on voter fears that the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear supremacy and warned of a non-existent “missile gap” between the two countries. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev added to the uncertainty when he claimed, with great exaggeration, that the USSR could wipe any country “off the face of the Earth.” Eisenhower’s winter of discontent grew colder still in May 1960 with the shooting down of American pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower then suffered the indignity of a Paris summit in which Khrushchev revealed the American president had lied about aerial espionage over the Soviet Union, got denounced by the Russian premier, and then had to cancel a flight to Japan because of anti-American riots in Tokyo.
These events, plus the 1959 Cuban Revolution followed by overtures toward an alliance with the Soviet Union by the island nation’s leader Fidel Castro, led many American voters to wonder whether Republicans had lost control of both domestic and international events. “The nation was threatened by a missile gap,” writes historian Allen J. Matusow of the American mood at the beginning of 1960. “ . . . but Eisenhower was more worried about the budget. The nation needed spiritual inspiration, but Eisenhower was playing golf. The nation needed strong leadership and an activist government, but Eisenhower was old, tired, and increasingly dominated by reactionary advisers. In contrast, the Democrats were prepared by history and by preference to use the state for great public ends and to lead the people out of danger.”
The Democratic Primaries
In spite of their many advantages going into the 1960 presidential race, the Democrats almost lost. Kennedy had essentially run for the presidency since 1957. That year saw publication of John Kennedy’s second book, "Profiles in Courage," a series of biographical sketches of eight senators who defied the wishes of their party or risked political popularity because of principle. There have been persistent rumors that Kennedy family friend and speechwriter Ted Sorenson had ghostwritten the book. In any event, the work became a bestseller and established Kennedy’s intellectual credentials. He then won a massive majority in his Senate re-election bid in 1958. Kennedy then toured the country, developed relationships with politicians across the country to build a network of support, and sent aides to acquire political intelligence on opponents and learn about local issues.
Nevertheless, Kennedy had to fight to win over liberals in his own party. His wealthy father, Joseph P. Kennedy, a former ambassador to England, had been seen as an appeaser of Hitler’s Germany in the days leading to World War II. The elder Kennedy was a close friend of Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Bobby Kennedy, the Senator’s younger brother, had been the minority Democrats’ lead staff attorney advising McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which had the job of finding alleged communist subversion in the federal government. Finally, during debates on a 1957 Civil Rights Act, John Kennedy had sided with Southern segregationists on some issues. Liberals did not trust him because they felt that during his Senate career, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, he had shown “more profile than courage.”
Kennedy’s obvious intelligence, charm, humor and good looks, however, proved to be potent political weapons. As the historian Matusow notes, people were attracted to Kennedy because of his potential rather than his thin list of accomplishments. Aware that party leaders wanted a more experienced leader, like Adlai Stevenson, as the nominee, Kennedy decided to demonstrate his popularity through a series of primary victories. The big challenge came in the West Virginia primary contest against Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Many expected Kennedy’s Catholicism to be a problem with West Virginia’s overwhelmingly Protestant voters. The only other serious Catholic candidate for president in American history had been Democratic nominee Al Smith in the 1928 presidential race and Smith lost badly, to a large degree because Protestant voters believed that a Catholic president would be subservient to the pope and would weaken American independence.
In speeches Kennedy told voters, “I refuse to believe that I was denied the right to be president on the day I was baptized.” During a television broadcast in West Virginia, he said, ‘. . . [W]hen any man stands on the steps of the capitol and takes the oath of office of president, he is swearing to support the separation of church and state . . . And if he breaks that oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him – and should impeach him – he is committing a sin against God.” Kennedy beat Humphrey in the West Virginia primary by a comfortable margin and convinced Democratic Party elders that a Catholic could win the general election. Humphrey dropped out of the race and at the Democratic National Convention that summer, Kennedy outmaneuvered his chief rivals, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson, to capture the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. In a controversial move protested even by his brother and campaign manager Bobby, Kennedy selected Johnson as his running mate. The move was aimed to comfort Southern Democrats but antagonized party liberals who questioned Johnson’s commitment to civil rights.
Civil Rights and the 1960 Campaign
On the Republican side, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller attempted to frustrate Vice President Nixon’s campaign for the GOP nomination by appealing to liberals within the party on civil rights. Many African Americans grew disgusted with the continued dominance of Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party and had voted for Eisenhower in 1956. Some African Americans felt reassured by Eisenhower’s use of the National Guard to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Nelson Rockefeller believed that the Republicans had a chance to win the black vote in 1960 and that this could give the party an edge in close races in major Northern and Midwestern states. Rockefeller demanded a stronger than planned civil rights plank in the 1960 Republican platform and Nixon, also hopeful of winning black support, acquiesced. The platform pledged “vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws,” support for “court orders for school desegregation” and creation of “a Commission on Equal Job Opportunity” and “Action to ensure that public transportation and other government authorized services shall be free from segregation.”
Nixon tripped over himself trying not to alienate black voters while at the same time hoping to carry white Southern voters as successfully as Eisenhower had in 1952 and 1956. Kennedy, meanwhile, described segregation as “irrational,” but was largely unaware of the conditions faced by African Americans in the South and seemed to have little emotional investment in the issue. Yet, he realized that the black vote could swing six of the eight most populous states his way in the November elections. Liberal advisors persuaded him to reach out to African Americans. Once, while driving his red convertible through Georgetown on his way to the Senate, Kennedy spotted Harris Wofford trying to get a cab. Wofford was an attorney advising Democratic campaign on civil rights. Kennedy pulled over, picked Wofford up and, as his left hand tapped on the car door, he said to Wofford, “Now in five minutes, tick off the ten things that a president ought to do to clear up this goddamned civil rights mess.” Giving tacit support to the sit-in movement, Kennedy also promised that with a “stroke of the pen” he would end discrimination in federally funded housing. An incident in Georgia, however, provided an important, lucky opportunity for the Democrat to win over African American voters.
On October 19, less than a month before the election, police arrested civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., along with 53 other African American protestors at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, for refusing to leave tables at the segregated Magnolia Room Restaurant. Five days later, authorities released the other protestors from jail, but King was sentenced to four months’ hard labor for supposedly driving with a suspended license, and was transferred to Reidsville State Prison. Members of the King family feared that the minister would be murdered while in custody.
Nixon instructed aides to tell the press that the Vice President would offer no comment on the issue. The Kennedy campaign, however, saw an immediate opportunity to gain ground with African American voters. “They’re going to kill him – I know they’re going to kill him,” King’s wife Coretta, who was six months pregnant, said in an urgent call to Harris Wofford. The campaign’s civil rights advisor shared her concern about King’s safety and sent an urgent message to Kennedy, who was campaigning in Chicago and in Michigan. Kennedy placed an immediate call to Mrs. King and told her he would see if he could assist the family.
Campaign manager Bobby Kennedy phoned the judge who had sentenced King. “It just burned me up . . . to think of that bastard sentencing a citizen to four months of hard labor for a minor traffic offense and screwing up my brother’s campaign and making our country look ridiculous in front of the world,” Bobby Kennedy later said. “. . . I made it clear that if he was a decent American he would let King out of jail by sundown.” It took a little longer, but within days authorities released the minister from jail. The incident got relatively little coverage in the white press, but word spread quickly in the African American community. The civil rights leader’s father, the influential minister Martin Luther King, Sr., had said that, “I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this. He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.”
A blue-bound election pamphlet distributed to African American church congregations quoted the elder King’s endorsement and spread among black congregations in the days leading to the presidential election. Kennedy himself later laughed at the mixed message contained in the African American minister’s words. “He was going to vote against me because I was a Catholic, but since I called his daughter-in-law, he voted for me. That’s a helluva bigoted statement, wasn’t it? Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., having a bigot for a father.” Then, acknowledging the controversies surrounding Joseph P. Kennedy, Kennedy grinned as he observed, “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?” Kennedy had won over black voters worried about his Catholic background, but his religion continued to be an issue with white Protestants.
The Catholic Issue Returns
As Kennedy became a more serious contender for the White House, several prominent Protestant ministers, such as evangelist Billy Graham, bestselling author Norman Vincent Peale, and W.A. Criswell (head of the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the world, First Baptist Church of Dallas), warned that a Catholic president represented a threat to religious freedom in America. Graham told one audience, “A man’s religion cannot be separated from his person; therefore where religion involves political decision, it becomes a legitimate issue. For instance, the people have the right to know a Quaker’s view on pacifism or a Christian Scientist’s view on medical aid, or a Catholic’s view on the secular influences of the Vatican.”
Kennedy had in fact repeatedly split with the Catholic Church on numerous issues, for instance backing bills that provided federal funds for public schools but opposing funding for parochial schools, and opposing the appointment of an American diplomat to Vatican City. Jackie Kennedy, his wife, fumed in frustration over the controversy. “It’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s a Catholic,” she said. “He’s such a poor Catholic. Now if it were Bobby I could understand it.” According to friends, John Kennedy believed in God but was uncertain about his relationship to the church and about the validity of specific church doctrines. Nevertheless, Rev. Peale presided over a national meeting that Billy Graham had helped organize, the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, intended to fuel public worries about Kennedy’s religion.
Peale claimed in public statements that a Catholic president’s primary allegiance would be to “an authoritarian hierarchy” and to a “supposedly infallible man [the Pope].” Meanwhile, Graham’s father-in-law, Dr. Norman Bell, made a speech in which he claimed that the Roman Catholic Church is a “political system that like an octopus covers the entire world and threatens those basic freedoms and those constitutional rights for which our forefathers died in generations past.” In a sermon, Criswell, a segregationist, warned that under Kennedy the Catholic faith would be imposed on American Protestants.
Criswell’s words reached a wide audience. Eccentric oil billionaire H.L. Hunt printed pamphlets with quotes from Criswell’s sermon and sent them to churches across the country. John Kennedy concluded he had no choice but to directly address the issue as he had in the West Virginia primary, and the forum he chose was the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12. This was a city suspicious about Kennedy’s stands on civil rights and with a strong anti-Catholic bias in the white Protestant community. Kennedy planned to make opening remarks on church and state, then take questions from the audience. Many historians, journalists and political scientists rate it as the future president’s finest performance in the campaign.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and where no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote,” Kennedy said. “[An America] where no church or church school is granted public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” The press covering the event interpreted this as the moment when Americans grew comfortable with the idea of a Catholic president. For the rest of the campaign Kennedy largely focused on Eisenhower’s handling of the Cold War and the sluggish economy, and tried to shift blame for these failings to Richard Nixon.
Television and the Kennedy-Nixon Debates
Television news came of age during the 1960 presidential campaign, and the signal moment arrived when Nixon and Kennedy debated four times on national network television. A championship college debater, Nixon had judged Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention during the summer as a failure and, in a moment of overconfidence, agreed to appear on a television stage with the junior senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy advisers, aware that many voters feared that the relatively young and inexperienced Democratic nominee lacked the qualifications to serve as president in the nuclear age, hoped that a respectable showing in TV debates would erase any advantage Nixon enjoyed from his eight years in the Eisenhower administration, including two stints in which Nixon acted as president when Eisenhower suffered heart attacks.
Nixon kept a promise to campaign in all 50 states, and maintained an exhausting schedule right up to the day of the first of four television showdowns. Kennedy, by contrast, allowed himself time to rest. Ill and suffering from a painful knee injury, Nixon arrived at the CBS television studios in poor shape for the critical first debate. Pale, tired and underweight, Nixon suffered from an unfortunate tendency to sweat heavily on his upper lip, which bore a heavy “five o’clock shadow” even after the candidate shaved. Nixon tried to cover the stubble with ineffective, light, “lazy shave” makeup that only highlighted the uneven facial hair. Reportedly, a Nixon campaign aide asked Robert Kennedy his assessment of the Republican’s makeup. As Kennedy biographer Ralph G. Martin tells the story, “Bobby noted Nixon’s paleness, his sunken cheeks and shadowed eyes, and replied, ‘Terrific! Terrific! I wouldn’t change a thing!’”
Eighty million Americans watched the first debate, which marked a shift in American culture in which Americans increasingly got their information from television rather than newspapers. In the years to come, expensive television advertising and staged events for network cameras would become at least as important in the thinking of campaign strategists as stump speeches, rallies and campaign buttons. Always the lifeblood of politics, money became even more central to any potential political candidate’s prospects.
Following their first TV faceoff, the consensus of the media and the political world was that a cool-headed Kennedy had triumphed and achieved his primary goal of attaining presidential stature standing next to nervous Richard Nixon. Nixon, stumbling over his words, directed his comments toward his debate opponent and often did not look at the camera, and he often appeared to be talking down to the Democrats. Kennedy, with a better understanding of television, directed his comments to the TV audience. “Nixon was best on radio simply because his deep resonant voice carried more conviction, command, and determination than Kennedy’s higher-pitched voice and his Boston-Harvard accent,” wrote "New York Herald Tribune" reporter Earl Mazo. “But on television, Kennedy looked sharper, more in command, more firm – his was the image of a man who could stand up to Khrushchev.”
Examining transcripts from the four debates, which occurred between September 26 and October 21, it is surprising to find how largely irrelevant the issues discussed would be over the next decade: farm policy, communist subversion, the importance of a president’s age, the U-2 spy plane incident, and the Chinese missile attacks on the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. The communist insurgency in Thailand came up, but Vietnam was ignored. The civil rights struggle unfolding in the South was largely ignored, issues facing women were overlooked, and air and water pollution received no attention.
There was scarcely any distance between the two candidates on the issues. The sharpest difference came over Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Kennedy had been briefed by the State Department about CIA plans to overthrow Castro, who was moving toward an alliance with the Soviet Union. During the debates, Kennedy pushed for a more aggressive U.S. posture toward Castro. Nixon, not wanting to tip off the secret CIA planning to the Russians, attacked Kennedy’s posture as reckless, but ended up making himself, in the intense Cold War climate of the day, look weak and vacillating.
THE REASONS FOR KENNEDY’S VICTORY
The election was a squeaker. Kennedy carried only 49.7 percent of the popular vote as opposed to Nixon’s 49.5 percent, a raw vote difference of 118,550 ballots out of nearly 69 million votes. Nixon would suggest that Kennedy won the Electoral College 303 to 219 because corrupt Democratic political boss Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago, stuffed ballot boxes. In Illinois, Kennedy’s margin was 8,856 out of a total of 4.75 million. Voting results in Chicago were suspicious. At Precinct 50, Ward 2, 22 registered voters somehow cast 74 votes for Kennedy and three for Nixon. Regardless, even if one accepts Nixon’s later claims that Kennedy stole the state’s Electoral College votes, as Matusow points out, “Illinois’ 27 electoral votes would have been insufficient to produce a Nixon majority in the Electoral College.”
Nixon partisans also accused Lyndon Johnson of stealing Texas’ 24 Electoral College votes, which clinched Kennedy’s victory even without Illinois. The claim that Nixon might have won Texas, however, is unlikely since Lyndon Johnson, the vice presidential nominee, had won previous statewide elections, and because the state had usually voted Democratic in the first decade of the twentieth century (except for when Al Smith, a Catholic, was the nominee in 1928 and when Adlai Stevenson backed the federal government in a dispute over offshore oil claimed by Texas in the 1950s.) Texas would even support Hubert Humphrey, a candidate with a liberal civil rights record, in 1968.
What made the election so close in spite of all the advantages enjoyed by the Democrats? It appears that despite Kennedy’s performance before the Houston ministers in the fall, many Southern and Western Democrats abandoned the Democratic nominee because of religion. The Democratic Party as a whole won 5 percent more votes in total than Kennedy did. In the South, Kennedy lost 17 percent of voters who normally cast Democratic ballots, a total of a million votes. He also lost votes from Democrats in the Midwest and the Plains States. He seems, however, to have clearly lost only two states because of anti-Catholic sentiment: Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Kennedy, however, did extremely well among Catholic voters, carrying 80 percent as opposed to the usual 67 percent carried by Democratic presidential candidates. In the industrial Midwest states, his gains among Catholics offset losses from anti-Catholic voters. He also lost few Southern whites on the civil rights issue even though he was more vocal in his support of integration. “Southern whites still tended to view both national parties as hopeless on this issue and to cast their votes instead for reasons of class or tradition,” as Matusow writes.
Meanwhile, even though at the start of the Democratic Convention Kennedy was the least popular among the party’s major candidates among African Americans, on election day he carried 70 percent of black votes. This constituency provided his margin of victory in South Carolina and Texas, and also may have pushed him over the top in nine other states, including electoral-vote rich Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Whatever his emotional distance regarding the civil rights struggle, Kennedy probably owed his presidency to African Americans.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.