A week from today, Barack Obama will take the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States, but I remain in awe of the election results of Nov. 4. I hadn’t seen its outcome coming, but maybe I should have, based on the events of one Friday in October nearly 50 years ago.
In the southwest Louisiana city of Lake Charles, population 63,000-plus, Friday, Oct. 7, 1960 was the end of another ordinary workweek, capped off with the television broadcast of the second of four Kennedy-Nixon debates. Issue No. 1 for Sen. John F. Kennedy had been the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Vice President Richard M. Nixon had made much of Kennedy’s youth and inexperience, insisting that the young senator could not be trusted.
Routine as it was, that day proved a defining moment for Mrs. Alce Nash, my mother, who early that morning had registered to vote for the first time. She was 33, a child of the Great Depression, daughter of a cotton farmer. A wife of a World War II veteran-turned-oil refinery worker, homeowner and stay-at-home mom of six. A born Catholic and Southerner—and an African American of Creole heritage.
Lake Charles, the bustling seat of Calcasieu Parish, about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, had turned into a petrochemical boomtown and an enticement to those in search of a better life. My parents laid down roots there after the war. For my mother, finally having the right to vote in the upcoming presidential election made her feel privileged; it meant that her family was moving closer to the American dream.
Getting there hadn’t been easy. Though the 15th and 19th amendments granting blacks and women voting rights had long been enacted, many Southern blacks, women especially, were reluctant to participate, leery of the process and afraid of repercussions, my mother had explained in later years. Mama died prematurely in 1982 at 55. She carried in her wallet the worn 1960 voter’s registration card until the day she passed away.
During Jim Crow in the Deep South, the poor were disqualified from registering because they couldn’t afford high poll taxes. Colored people and poor whites who couldn’t read, write and sign their name were barred. The few eligible Negroes who had the means and education to avoid the illegal disbarment were pressured by powerful whites, to vote the interests of those in control.
The deep distrust of the process “was all hush-hush, but it was there,’’ says my mother’s youngest sister, Emily Lawrence, 69, now a Californian. “I guess the thought was that your vote wouldn’t count, and even if it did, was it worth risking your life? At that time, there was talk about poll violence in other states.’’
Much of that sense of hopelessness changed with Kennedy, who seemed to represent a new spirit and new time. There was a greater urgency among black people to be part of the process as the country began to inch away from strict segregation. Ground was laid after President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1954, the high court under Warren had declared separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional under Brown v. Board of Education. In 1957, nine Little Rock students amid protesters boldly walked up the steps of all-white Central High, readying the path to school integration.
I was only 7 that morning in 1960, so my memory is not the most reliable chronicle, but according to family lore, Mama woke up at 5:30 a.m. and put on a pot of Seaport chicory coffee. Dad was due in from the graveyard shift at Cities Service Oil Refinery Co. in an hour, and her brood would be up for breakfast and the school day shortly.
After four of us left for school, my parents put on their Sunday best, traveled about 15 minutes with the two younger boys in the family’s '56 Chevy to the courthouse downtown. They entered through the “colored’’ entrance in the rear and registered to vote. By all accounts, Mama and Daddy played down the significance of the moment in the presence of white people they encountered. They returned home and a month later, on Nov. 8. 1960, voted for John Kennedy for president.
Black Americans were convinced that Kennedy’s youth and “Yankee’’ roots would better equip him to preside over the inevitable groundswell of civil rights activism. Older black women were reticent, Aunt Emily explains. “Women knew their place. It wasn't in the voting booth.’’ Staff from the parish registrar’s office and volunteers in the community worked hard to convince would-be voters that voting was a right and that women didn't need permission from their husbands, my aunt recalls.
It’s likely that my mother had been turned away in previous attempts to register when she had been unable to recite verbatim the Preamble to the Constitution. This only was hearsay, but I have a clear memory of being browbeaten into memorizing the Preamble and the Gettysburg Address, and to this day I can spout both at a moment’s notice.
Voting for the first time was sacred though anticlimactic, my mother once confessed. Conquering the registration hurdles had been the greater triumph and the Election Day result was even more exalting. Her vote had counted. Life magazine’s January ’61 issue heralding the Kennedy inauguration remained the centerpiece on the living room coffee table a year after the vote. The fire ignited by the Kennedy-Nixon race had a lasting effect on my mother's generation and on the future. After the 1960 vote and the passage of the voting rights bill in ‘65, my once-reserved parents became uncompromisingly active in the Democratic Party, volunteering to give voters rides on Election Day, canvassing neighborhoods to get out the vote, working the precincts and preaching the gospel, according to the founding fathers, of a most precious citizen’s right.
Much has changed since my mother’s Depression-era girlhood. She and my father and many other African Americans of the time helped redefine the once Jim Crow-influenced Democratic Party in the South. They have passed the baton, but the 2008 parallels to 1960 cannot be overlooked. Barack Obama’s candidacy fired up a new breed of citizen activists, dramatically similar to those inspired by JFK's 1960 campaign.
That my mother’s children and grandchildren in 2008 could choose to vote in primary elections for the first viable woman candidate for president, and on Nov. 4, could help to elect the first black U.S. president, has no doubt exceeded her dreams.
I should have seen it coming.
Jean Nash Johnson is a writer living in Dallas.