Sixty years ago today, the Democratic Party's presidential nominee went to the eastern part of North Carolina. Although this sounds like normal activity in a presidential election year, it was actually a rarity at the time. Until John F. Kennedy's campaign swing, the most recent time a presidential candidate had shown up in eastern Carolina had been when William Jennings Bryan stumped there in 1896.
But on Sept. 17, 1960, Massachusetts' junior senator, John F. Kennedy, made the trip despite being cautioned by the Democrats' old guard that the area might not be all that receptive to a Roman Catholic candidate -- even if he was a war hero. Gubernatorial candidate Terry Sanford, who was the same age as Kennedy (43), was warned in a caustic letter from the senior clergyman at Greenville's oldest Methodist Church that a Catholic president would "surely cut America's head off."
But Terry Sanford and Jack Kennedy represented a new generation of postwar Democrats who didn't scare easily. (Sanford had been a U.S. Army paratrooper who fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Kennedy still suffered the physical effects of his heroics in the Pacific after his PT boat was sunk.)
In any event, JFK was met by large, young, and enthusiastic crowds in North Carolina where he could see that his decision to address the Catholic issue head-on was paying dividends.
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John F. Kennedy was just the second Roman Catholic presidential candidate to receive the nomination of a major political party, and the only one ever elected to the Oval Office to this day. (That may be about to change: Joe Biden is Catholic.) All four Catholic nominees were Democrats, the first being New York Gov. Al Smith in 1928.
When Smith was ran, it was common for preachers in the rural South to equate a vote for the New York Democrat with a vote for Satan. Partly this was due to Smith's outspoken opposition to Prohibition, which put him on the side of "demon rum." Most of it was because of Smith's religion and his enlightened views on race relations. When he spoke in Oklahoma City on the subject of racial tolerance, the local chapter of the KKK burned crosses outside the stadium. Many in the crowd heckled him as he spoke, and the following night the same venue was the backdrop for another speech titled "Al Smith and the Forces of Hell."
By 2004, however, John Kerry's Catholicism was largely a non-issue, and he split the Catholic vote with George W. Bush. In between those two campaigns was the cauldron of 1960. Kennedy's faith was a source of great pride to Catholic voters, particularly Democrats and most particularly Irish-Americans. In the end, pro-Catholic pride more than offset anti-Catholic prejudice, propelling Kennedy in the White House.
But that was an uncertain factor at the outset of the campaign. A 1959 Gallup Poll showed 25% of voters were disinclined to support a Catholic for president. Antipathy was strongest in the Bible Belt, which presented a problem: At the time, a successful Electoral College strategy for a Democratic presidential candidate necessitated running well in the South. It was why Kennedy was in North Carolina on this date, the reason he had picked Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, and why he had ventured five days earlier -- on his seventh wedding anniversary, no less -- into the inner sanctum of anti-Catholicism when he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
"I am not the Catholic candidate for president," Kennedy told the Protestant pastors in that momentous speech. "I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."
Earlier that day, Kennedy had visited the Alamo. In preparation, he asked his staff to find out how many Catholics had fought there. The best his aides could do was produce a list of Irish surnames among the dead, resulting in one of the most poignant passages of the 1960 campaign:
"Side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey," said John Fitzgerald Kennedy. "But no one knows whether they were Catholics or not, for there was no religious test at the Alamo."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.