“The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”
CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – Those were the words spoken by President John F. Kennedy 60 years ago on his second trip to the Mountain State. Just months before his tragic death, Kennedy joined West Virginians at the State Capitol Complex to mark the state’s centennial birthday on June 20, 1963.
Kennedy’s speech was cut short – from 20 minutes planned, down to just under three and a half minutes – due to the stormy weather that day, according to the West Virginia Culture Center.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917, Kennedy was a graduate of Harvard and Navy veteran. He began his political career as a U.S. House of Representatives member from Massachusetts’ 11th district in 1947, and was elected to represent the Bay State in the U.S. Senate in 1953.
In January 1960, launched a bid for the country’s top office, running on a Democratic campaign against Republican challenger Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy also visited the Mountain State came that year in an attempt to win the hearts and votes of the people of West Virginia.
According to the West Virginia Archives, Kennedy’s first recorded trip to the Mountain State was in June of 1958 when he met with other politicians, including Robert C. Byrd, in Morgantown for the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. The Archives state that there was such a large demand to hear Kennedy speak that an impromptu radio broadcast included into his schedule for all of West Virginia to hear.
The Archives also state Kennedy made two trips to West Virginia in 1959 prior to officially launching his presidential campaign in 1960. On Saturday, May 9, 1959, Kennedy went to Welch Elementary School in McDowell County to speak to a crowd of 600 people for the Harry S. Truman birthday dinner. He also met with local politicians and went to Davy for a tour of U.S. Steel. Kennedy returned to the Mountain State in October 1959 along with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy for a meeting with Democratic leaders and a luncheon.
The presidential hopeful would return to West Virginia briefly in February 1960 to file the paperwork to run in the state’s primary election. Ahead of that May 10, 1960, election, he and his opponent for the primary bid, Hubert H. Humphrey, as well as their relatives and staff members, would spend a large part of that April traveling across the state in attempt to win over the crowds.
During the campaign for West Virginia’s primary election Kennedy and Humphrey met in Charleston on May 4, 1960. The broadcast aired across multiple television stations throughout the Mountain State, and is believed to be the first-ever televised debate between two U.S. presidential candidates.
According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, one of the biggest challenges Kennedy faced in winning West Virginia was his Catholic religion and background. The JFK Library’s website says that when he arrived for the campaign battle in April 1960, he learned his previous lead in the state had vanished, and he was trailing Humphrey by 20 points. According to the website, one of his advisors told him the change was because in December of 1959, no one knew he was Catholic, but by April 1960, they knew. At that time, the state’s population was only 5% Catholic.
Kennedy, with help on the campaign trail from Jacqueline and his brothers Ted and Robert, won over the state by meeting with voters, listening to them and taking their needs and issues seriously. He also brought a national spotlight to the economic troubles facing the poor coal towns as the people of West Virginia also won over Kennedy.
Kennedy would go on to win the state over Humphrey with more than 60% of the vote in the Primary. He would return to the Mountain State Sept. 19, 1960 as part of his campaign trail for the General Election. He and Nixon would square off in a televised debate from Charleston on Sept. 20.
According to the Archives, Kennedy pulled ahead in the General Election, winning West Virginia with 52.7% of the vote over Nixon. He also, just barely, secured the national vote, with 49.72% of the vote compared to Nixon’s 49.55%.
Following the Primary Election, Kennedy had promised never to forget the debt he owed West Virginians for putting their trust in him as the Democratic candidate for the General Election. During his time in office, Kennedy kept that promise. The Archives say he put millions of federal dollars toward West Virginia for roads, federal projects and other necessary programs to help the Mountain State.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was on the campaign trail for his second term during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Around 12:30 p.m., he and Texas Governor John Connally were shot in the vehicle. The two were driven to a nearby hospital, but at 1 p.m. Kennedy was pronounced dead from the gunshot wounds to his head and neck, according to the JFK Library. Connally, though seriously wounded from the gunshot wound to his back, recovered after the attack.
Kennedy’s death shook the country, including West Virginia, where he had spoken on the Capitol Building steps only months earlier for the state’s 100th birthday. Mourners from the Mountain State remembered Kennedy for his legacy and advocacy for the state.
November 2023 marks 60 years since Kennedy’s tragic assassination rocked America. In honor of the late president, we’re looking for stories of those who remember his campaign trail through the state or his iconic centennial speech.