Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy wins the hearts of southern West Virginia coalfield voters

by BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — In the spring of 1960, the state of West Virginia was a relevant political force for perhaps the first time in the state’s 97-year history at the time. U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts, three term U.S. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, D-Minn., and “the senator’s senator,” U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas were in a three-way race.

By April, the charismatic Kennedy and the jovial Humphrey were running neck-in-neck, with Johnson falling back in the pack. Neither candidate had demonstrated the kind of break-away appeal that could defeat two-term Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, who could gain the White House by virtue of his association with the popular World War II Supreme Allied Commander, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In most years, West Virginia’s primary elections don’t hold much national appeal. Even with six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — twice as many as there are today — West Virginia didn’t have the kind of political appeal as California, New York, Pennsylvania and other states with a much greater population. But in terms of reputation, West Virginia’s southern leanings were prevalent, and a Catholic candidate — Kennedy — could use a West Virginia victory to prove that he could perform well in November in the so-called “Bible Belt” states of the south.

Johnson did not get extremely active in West Virginia early in the process as both Kennedy and Humphrey did. In June of 1958, Kennedy attended the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Morgantown. Later that year on Oct. 4, 1958, Humphrey made a public visit to Moundsville.

Kennedy made two additional visits to West Virginia the following year — first traveling to Welch at the request of Sam Solins, a personal friend of former President of Harry S. Truman. Solins and Truman served together in World War I, and Kennedy’s May 9, 1959 visit to Welch coincided with Truman’s birthday. The second visit that year was to Wheeling and Wellsburg on Oct. 10, 1959 — a visit that ultimately ended in Charleston where Kennedy attended a Democratic Party fundraiser.

Both Kennedy and Humphrey filed candidacy papers in West Virginia, but Humphrey chose to send a campaign aide on Feb. 6, 1960, while Kennedy flew to Charleston to personally file as a candidate. By that time, it appeared clear that Kennedy was willing to a serious commitment to the state.

“I met him in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s,” Robert E. “Bob” Holroyd said. “I was working as a summer assistant for the National Labor Relations Board then. That was a position that you would probably call an intern now. There were four of us working at the NLRB and we used to go over to the Capitol Building to eat lunch. We could get our lunch there for .35 cents.

“Kennedy was one of the outgoing young lawyers in the Senate at the time,” Holroyd said. “We met, but it probably wasn’t something he would have remembered. Later, after his election and during his inaugural speech, he said ‘the torch of freedom has been passed to a new generation.’ He was the first president who was born in the 20th Century.”

While Holroyd was a summer assistant in the 1950s, by 1960, he was Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney — a Democratic Party leader in Mercer County at a time when Democrats held most key local government positions in the southern coalfields. The Republicans held power in West Virginia roughly from the time of statehood until the Great Depression. Democrats gained power in the coalfields in 1933 with the election President Franklin D. Roosevelt who gave the coalfields the right to organize with the United Mine Workers of America.

While the state was solidly Democratic, the conservative nature of Mountain State voters provided the Kennedy camp with a test case for his southern electability even though West Virginia was perhaps not as rigid as other southern states.

“It was obvious from the very beginning that the Kennedy camp was serious about West Virginia,” Holroyd said. “Jack visited several times. His brothers, Bobby and Teddy were here. Jackie visited here and so did Ted Sorensen (JFK’s speech writer). In Mercer County, my law partner, Ron Johnston along with Laurence Tierney from Bluefield and Sidney L. Christie in McDowell County, were heavily involved in the campaign.

“I was the old Southern Baptist county prosecutor who got to introduce senator Kennedy,” Holroyd said.

Both Humphrey and Kennedy maintained a healthy public campaign schedule that has been well documented by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History as part of the West Virginia Archives and History Online exhibit, but according to Holroyd, President Kennedy made more visits than the extensive April 1960 timeline indicates.

“On the Thursday before the election, (April 28, 1960) he called us from Charleston at 9 a.m., and said he wanted to give a speech at the Mercer County Courthouse at 11 a.m. and wanted to see if we could get him a crowd,” Holroyd said. “We hit the phones and started calling everyone we knew. By 11 a.m., the courthouse was packed and there was the biggest crowd the county had ever seen around the courthouse.

“We used one of the courtrooms and members of the Mercer County bar filled in the jury box,” Holroyd said. “He looked over at the jury box and said: ‘Let me make my case to you to be your president,’ and by golly, he did just that.”

Kennedy, his family, and associates traveled to every corner of the coalfields to shake hands with voters and make a personal appeal for their support. On Tuesday, April 26, 1960, while Humphrey was courting voters in the northern part of the state, Kennedy famously made a southern swing through Humphrey country in Logan, Mingo, Wyoming, McDowell and Mercer counties. During that trip, he met with coal miners in Itmann, spoke to a huge crowd at the Municipal Parking Lot in Welch, dropped Jackie off at the WHIS-TV studio on the third floor of the former Bluefield Municipal Building for an appearance with Jackie Oblinger on her show, “A Woman’s Whirl,” and capped off the night with a Democratic Party Bean Dinner at the Mercer County 4-H Camp at Glenwood Park.

After spending the night with the Tierney family, Kennedy started off the next day, April 27, visiting with students at Bluefield State College, traveled to Concord (then) College to visit with students, then went to Hinton. During the campaign, Kennedy found time to visit Kimball, Eureka Hollow near Eckman, Bramwell, Montcalm and even Goodwill Hollow.

“When he and Humphrey appeared together at the National Guard Armory in Brushfork, Humphrey went first and mentioned that he was happy to be in Virginia,” Holroyd said. “He was a little stiff anyway, and when the crowd started yelling out ‘West Virginia!’ West Virginia!’ he just continued his speech.

“When Kennedy got up to address the crowd, he said: ‘I am delighted to be here in West Virginia,’ and went on from there,” Holroyd said. “He said that he had been meeting with people from Lamar to Matoaka and said he knew the way from Lashmeet to Rock. I have seen pictures of him sitting on a porch with people in Goodwill Hollow. There weren’t but a few houses up there, but he had been there.

“We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were witnessing history,” Holroyd said. “He had gone to so many houses and visited with so many people, that he won the primary election and earned the loyalty of the people.”

Kennedy won the primary on May 10, 1960.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com