For West Virginians old enough to remember, today is a tragic anniversary. It was on this day, November 22, 1963, that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Kennedy is more closely associated with West Virginia than any other President because of his famous 1960 campaign here. The young Senator from Massachusetts with the strange accent made the Mountain State a test for whether a Roman Catholic could win in a heavily Protestant state.
He traveled the hills and hollows of the state, shaking hands with coal miners as they changed shifts, greeting folks in diners and making multiple TV and radio appearances. The Kennedy campaign also showered money on southern West Virginia Democratic power brokers who ensured Kennedy was on the preferred slate of candidates.
Associated Press reporter Herb Little recounted that Kennedy used a speech the Sunday night before the Primary Election to reassure voters of his commitment to the separation of church and state.
“And if he breaks his oath,” Kennedy said of his pledge, “he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him—but he is committing a sin against God.”
The JFK Library describes Kennedy’s relationship with West Virginia: “He shone a national spotlight on their plight and detailed a plan for economic recovery. He commended their strength in the face of adversity. He affirmed the separation of church and state. And on May 10, 1960, the people of an economically distressed, overwhelmingly Protestant, hardscrabble state in Appalachia put their trust in the elegant, young Catholic senator, who spoke in a Boston accent about a brighter future.”
Kennedy was deeply impacted by the poverty he saw in West Virginia, and he followed through on his promises. The West Virginia Encyclopedia reports that he dramatically increased federal aid to the state, expanded welfare benefits to the poor, boosted federal defense contracts here and included a major interstate in the federal highway program.
Kennedy returned to the state on June 20, 1963, to participate in the state’s centennial celebration. On that rainy day, the President of the United States credited our state with his dramatic political ascension.
“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 said, referring to his Primary Election victory.
Five months later he was murdered.
The Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper ran a front page editorial mourning the President’s death. “Today there are no Republicans, no Democrats, no political friends or foes in the land—just a sorrowing and bewildering people whose sympathy goes out to the members of the Kennedy family, and who in their own right, mourn the tragic passing of a gallant leader and a beloved human being.”
Partisans and historians can argue over Kennedy’s legacy, but what is undeniable is that once there was an unlikely candidate for President who came to know West Virginia as well as we know ourselves. He never forgot our state during the few short years of his life after his election.
And sixty years after his death, West Virginia still remembers him fondly and mourns the loss.