When John F. Kennedy flew from Washington to Texas on Nov. 21, 1963, he crossed a divided America.
To some, the young president embodied hope. To others, he manifested a threat to national security, fiscal solvency or simply their way of life.
The Texas trip, of course, would earn a notorious place in history. Kennedy’s assassination would rock our nation’s sense of stability, raise fears of nuclear war and spark questions about the circumstances of the shooting that continue to this day.
But in 1963, it was just a peacemaking trip in a politically charged atmosphere.
Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, took off from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington late in the morning of Nov. 21, bound for San Antonio and a five-city swing through Texas that would be followed by a weekend stay at his vice president’s ranch. It was partly a fundraising and campaigning trip, but it had another purpose: The president wanted to smooth over factional infighting in the Texas Democratic Party, a group critical to his re-election hopes.
The fighting pitted a liberal branch of the party, headed by Sen. Ralph Yarborough, against a more conservative faction that included Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Texas Gov. John Connally. The dispute was heated and personal, so the president brought along his stylish young wife in the hope she would disarm the combatants and keep them on their best behavior.
Journalist Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News doubted the strategy would work.
“Even Jackie’s Charm Can’t Sweeten Sour Texas Dems,” pronounced the Beacon Journal’s headline on a story by Lisagor that ran on the Akron paper’s front page the day the Kennedys traveled to Texas. The story noted that some Texans resented Kennedy’s civil rights agenda and that Republicans were gaining ground in the state. “And the last thing the President needs is a party riven by ideological differences and petty personal feuds,” Lisagor wrote.
Of political interest
The story might have been front-page news in Akron just because it was a slow news day, but the story’s play also indicated Kennedy’s trip was of interest at least to people who followed politics, said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. Texas was seen as a pivotal state, he said, and Kennedy’s visit there would have been watched closely by the politically astute.
Even the menu for a lunch planned for the following day with Dallas civic leaders made the news. Steak was to be served, prompting a special dispensation from the diocese for Catholics in the crowd who at the time were prohibited by church law from eating meat on Fridays, United Press International reported.
News in Akron that day
The Kennedy trip may have made Page One, but it wasn’t a matter of pressing concern in Akron. The day’s big news was a murder trial in Canton, where defendant Robert Domer had just taken the witness stand and described burning the body of a dead drifter in a botched attempt to fake his own suicide. Wreckage of a U-2 spy plane had been found in the Gulf of Mexico, apparently after a mission over Cuba. The main picture on the front page showed Los Angeles dentist Joseph P. Clark, a smiling wife identified only as “Mrs.” and the couple’s 10 biological children and adopted son. The caption didn’t hint at what made the Clark family newsworthy in Ohio.
Even the “Today’s Chuckle” reflected the tenor of the times: “A man no more than gets his daughter off his hands than he has to help her husband get on his feet.”
Most likely, Akron residents were more wrapped up in the coming Thanksgiving holiday than in the Kennedys’ trip. Acme and A&P were advertising turkey for 33 cents a pound. Gray Rexall Drug was pushing its Christmas layaway plans. And in downtown Barberton, plans were underway to welcome TV’s Ghoulardi that weekend in a joint appearance with Santa.
But all was not simple and sweet. The Bliss Institute’s Green noted that the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, splitting the country between those who pushed for equality and those who wanted to maintain a segregated society. It even divided civil rights advocates between those who, like Kennedy, favored a cautious approach and those who were tired of waiting for change.
The Cold War was escalating, Green noted, and the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban missile crisis had left some skeptical of Kennedy’s foreign policy and his ability to deal effectively with the Soviets.
What’s more, Kennedy was continuing to move forward with his New Frontier policy, which proposed expanding federal spending on areas such as education, medical care, housing and transportation. It was a direction that Green said disturbed many conservatives.
On a national level, Green said, those political rifts were probably no worse than the divisions surrounding any presidency. But they were acute in Dallas.
Dallas was a big city set in a largely rural South, a place where sophisticated thinking clashed with racial hatred and paranoia about communism. Dallas “might have been an unusually tense place for the president to go,” Green said.
Yet Dallas, like all of America, was also filled with people who considered Kennedy a rock star, who were smitten by the vibrant war hero with the quick wit, warm smile and looks the TV cameras embraced. He and his wife were icons of popular culture. Their clothing was imitated, their cultural taste admired and their young family idolized.
So when the Kennedys arrived in Dallas late on the morning of Nov. 22, they were greeted by both adoring crowds and vitriolic protests.
What they didn’t know is that they were also being greeted by destiny.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.