The summer of 1960 was a hot one in Texas, as most summers are, but the temperatures at my grandmother’s little round kitchen table where I had eaten for fourteen years were even hotter – and the cause wasn’t just the heat from the frying pan on the stove that held the delicious fried pineapple pies she’d fixed for dessert. Nope. Presidential politics was the fire-starter that summer at our kitchen table and many others around the country. Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy versus Republican standard-bearer Richard Nixon was a hot topic for us.
My family that gathered around the kitchen table had always voted Democratic. They were the quintessential yellow dog Democrats and lovers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, they believed, was responsible for putting an end to the Great Depression of the 1930s and bringing a successful ending to WWII. After all, both of their sons had crossed the Pond to place their very young lives in harm’s way for their country, but President Roosevelt had brought them home without a visible scratch. Democrats were “for the people,” as my grandfather never failed to remind me whenever he had an opportunity. He rarely had any opportunity since my grandmother held court in most of our family discussions – which made any remarks from my grandfather more memorable to me.
In addition to their faith in the Democratic Party, however, all of us at the kitchen table – and beyond were members of a small Southern Baptist church in our town. My paternal grandmother, Ma, was very proud of her church attendance and the Christian heritage that went with it. Her faith itself was a mixed bag since she couldn’t keep herself from poking fun at the minister’s sermons every Sunday, but she had very definite opinions on every religious topic including her suspicions regarding the Catholic Church, the Pope and her Polish neighbors who went to the Catholic Church ten miles away in Anderson. My grandmother was prejudiced against Catholics, among other groups.
Here was her dilemma in that hot summer of 1960. The Democratic nominee, Senator John F. Kennedy, was a Catholic. Not just a little bit Catholic, but a whole lot Catholic. He was a card-carrying Catholic, and his family had been Catholics as long as hers had been Baptists and Methodists. Mr. Nixon was not a Catholic. He was a Quaker, of all things, and that really didn’t suit her, either; but she knew Quakers didn’t have a Pope.
My daddy and grandfather argued for JFK at that little table and in other, more public places, and said the idea that he would be taking orders from the Pope in Rome was ridiculous. For one thing, he would be so busy with the Russians that he wouldn’t have time to talk to the Pope about every little matter that came up and plus, with Lyndon Johnson as Vice-President to keep him in check, no Pope could get past him. Lyndon was a Texan who was also a savvy politician in the Democratic Party and hadn’t Senator Kennedy made a wise choice in choosing a man who could move things along up there in Washington without any help from a Pope.
My little kitchen table was a microcosm of the larger anti-Catholic sentiment that was one of the major campaign issues in 1960 and a cause for one of the slimmest margins of victory in American presidential elections . In fact, Senator Kennedy made a swing through Texas with Senator Johnson on September 12, 1960 to give one of his most famous speeches to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. In that speech he emphasized the “far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence…; the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice-President by those who no longer respect our power – the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms – an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues – for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured – perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in.”
And this is what he talked about in the speech in Houston that evening, an America where separation of church was “absolute” and an America where he wouldn’t be “accepting instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of churches or any other ecclesiastical source…”
Two years later on September 12, 1962, after John Fitzgerald Kennedy squeaked out his victory over Richard Nixon, President Kennedy returned to Houston to address a crowd of 35,000 in Rice University’s football stadium. I was sixteen years old, just beginning my junior year of high school, and I was there. My dad took me. He said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear a great President speak in person, and he wanted us to go. There must have been something special about Houston for JFK – that speech became one of the cornerstones of the President’s space program.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people…” I was mesmerized by the President’s words, his delivery and I was in awe of being a part of such an amazing crowd. It was a memory maker, as Granny Selma would say.
The very next year in November, 1963 President Kennedy made a final trip to Texas, this time to Dallas, and was fatally shot while riding in his motorcade. I mourned with the rest of the nation.
Fast forward to the Presidential Election of 2008. On November 04, 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama, the first African-American man to be elected President, gave one of his most famous speeches in Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois, his home town. I shared that moment with Oprah – she was there in person while I watched with Rachel Maddow from my living room. I was in love with another American President just like Annette Bening. Heady stuff.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” he began and his message of “Yes we can” reverberated around the world to give hope that race should not be a barrier to leadership or equality.
Finally this week, there is a presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in the person of former Secretary of State, former New York Senator and former First Lady of the United States and now the first woman ever to be nominated by a major political party: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Another barrier comes tumbling down as all of us who are the survivors of the feminist movement of the 1970s are fortunate enough to witness the fruits of our labors. The bitter feelings of defeat after the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass in South Carolina in the 1980s have been replaced by the fulfillment of the promises and dreams I first had when I watched the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. Thank you, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards. Thank you, Gloria Steinem, for the inspiration to do outrageous acts and everyday rebellions. Thank you, Hillary Clinton, for the massive undertaking of running for President. I admire your resilience and your abilities. Onward.
Remarkably, in my seventy years, I have hit the trifecta! I have personally observed the prejudices of religion , race and gender be revealed to the world for what they are – excuses to exclude and divide people from each other – to build walls instead of bridges. By the dawn’s early light I’ve seen what so proudly we hail at the twilight’s last gleaming…a glimmer of hope for a level playing field for every citizen in our currently great country. Greatness does not mean flawless, but we can – and will – continue to strive for the right.
As for my grandmother and JFK, I will never know what happened when she voted in 1960 because she refused to tell despite the pleadings of my daddy. In the 1968 Presidential election when I was finally old enough to vote, I cast my first vote for Republican and Quaker Richard Nixon.
My family was horrified.