On June 20, 1963, the 100th birthday of West Virginia, President John F. Kennedy made his last appearance in the Mountain State. Speaking in Charleston, he declared: ‘‘I would not be where I am now, I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia.’’ He referred to the 1960 West Virginia primary, when he triumphed over Hubert H. Humphrey.
The success of Senator Kennedy in winning the Democratic primary on May 10, 1960, eliminated the religious barrier to Catholics to run for president. It was also an early example of the very expensive media campaigns that have since become common. The campaign also began televised campaign debates between Kennedy and Senator Humphrey, preceding the famous debates held in the fall between Kennedy and Nixon.
Although Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon nationally in 1960, he won by the comfortable margin of 46,000 votes in West Virginia. However, he ran far behind other statewide Democratic candidates and this poor showing has been attributed to an anti-Catholic vote. Former Governor Hulett Smith, the Democratic state chairman in 1960, said, ‘‘I suspect every voter in West Virginia was besieged with different types of hate literature’’ and attributed Kennedy’s loss of some counties to the anti-Catholic effort.
What was the Kennedy legacy in the Mountain State? In his first act as president, Kennedy doubled the surplus food allotment for the poor in West Virginia. He also extended welfare benefits for the needy, initiated the national food stamp program in West Virginia, and in a few months drastically increased the amount of federal aid sent to the state. In three years he boosted West Virginia’s rank in defense contracts from 50th to 25th and helped the state to obtain new buildings and to improve the park system. Perhaps the greatest boon was the inclusion of a north-south highway as part of the federal interstate highway system. Kennedy’s election gave the people of the state an uplift of spirit and a sense of pride for the major role they had played in his becoming president.
The words from his last visit to the state were: ‘‘The sun does not always shine in West Virginia but the people always do.’’ Kennedy found a special place in the hearts of West Virginians, his photograph going in many homes that previously had displayed pictures of the beloved Franklin Roosevelt or union leader John L. Lewis.
This Article was written by Dan B. Fleming
Last Revised on October 07, 2010
Fleming, Dan B. Kennedy vs. Humphrey, West Virginia, 1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1992.