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VOL. 128 | NO. 229 | Friday, November 22, 2013

Kennedy’s Memphis Presence Felt 50 Years Later

By Bill Dries

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There once was a monument in a Memphis park that marked the spot where President John F. Kennedy had stood during a visit to the city in 1960 as he campaigned for the presidency.

John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for the presidency and his presidency, which ended with his assassination 50 years ago Friday, Nov. 22, changed Memphis politics and influenced the events that shaped the region.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

By the marker were two distinct shoeprints that Memphians took their children to for them to stand in the slain president’s footsteps on Memphis soil.

Over time and the elements of Memphis winters and summers they almost certainly had ceased to be the president’s footsteps probably well before his death 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963.

What is left of the memory of a young president and his impact on Memphis specifically is more than a trace, but in other ways even more elusive than those shoeprints.

The centerpiece of Kennedy’s campaign stop was a speech at the foot of Court Avenue at Riverside Drive, looking east up the hill. It was a common stop of the time for presidential contenders in both parties that now seem like part of another era, another generation.

But there were other connections and glimpses that emerge and connect to the present.

Old black-and-white photos of Kennedy’s arrival at what was then Memphis Metropolitan Airport seem to be a campaign landscape showing lots of enthusiastic supporters.

A closer look shows a bit of stage and crowd managing by local Kennedy supporters not uncommon in past or present presidential campaigns for other contenders. In this case, it almost, but not completely, blocked out some homemade signs toward the back of the crowd questioning how committed Kennedy would be as president on the issue of civil rights.

Those holding the signs were part of the emerging vanguard of the city’s civil rights movement, which was dominated by the NAACP but also incorporating elements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

And their questions would endure throughout his administration, even as their support of Kennedy in the 1960 election changed the politics of Memphis.

Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon carried Shelby County, which is probably all that mattered to the Kennedy campaign’s national outlook.

African-American voters in Memphis, who up until 1960 had voted Republican, switched parties for Kennedy and have been the major part of the largest block of Democratic votes in the state ever since.

From the side of the road on Union Avenue near Cooper Street, future U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen snapped a picture of Kennedy in the back of a convertible. Today, the snapshot is a picture on the wall of his Washington office surrounded by enough other Kennedy memorabilia that he and his staffers call it the Kennedy wall.

Cohen still remembers that Kennedy campaign headquarters in Memphis was at Main Street and Madison Avenue, an intersection also known in an earlier era of Memphis politics as the place where E.H. Crump launched his campaign for mayor in 1909.

“I got my father to take me to the headquarters and I got a poster and a pin,” said Cohen, who has a large collection of such political memorabilia that began with that experience. “That was my first pin that evolved into a room.”

“American Insurrection,” William Doyle’s account of the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith, details the role of Memphis as a staging area for Meredith and his legal team in the integration.

Memphis was also where Kennedy staged and personally gave orders to the federal forces he would send into the violent Oxford siege – “the first regular American combat troops to enter Mississippi in action status since the last Union troops withdrew in 1877,” wrote Doyle.

Those waiting on his word at the Millington Naval Air Station got a full view of an administration that lurched from crisis to crisis. It was a peak behind the façade of what would later become known as Camelot.

Kennedy talked directly by radio with Army Operations Chief Major General Creighton Abrams in Memphis.

“People are dying in Oxford,” Doyle’s definitive account quotes Kennedy as telling Abrams in Memphis. “This is the worst thing I’ve seen in 45 years. I want the military police battalion to enter the action. … You are to proceed to the campus forthwith.”

By November 1963, Cohen was a ninth-grader in Coral Gables, Fla., when the school’s principal told students on the school intercom that Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

“My first thoughts weren’t very coherent,” he said. “I had visions of something happening like in a western. I didn’t conceptualize the idea that he was in a city.”

Cohen still finds reminders of Kennedy’s Washington in his daily travels in the capital. He remembers going to Andrews Air Force base for a trip to Iraq and slowly putting together the terrain with watching on television as the fallen president’s body returned to Washington.

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