Terry Sanford and JFK
Published January 21, 2021
By Gary Pearce
Just before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, I wrote about Governor Terry Sanford’s inauguration speech in January 1961. He summoned North Carolinians to “give our children the quality of education which they need to keep up in this rapidly advancing, scientific, complex world.”
That speech 60 years ago was the subject of a recent column in The Washington Post by John Drescher, former executive editor at The News & Observer and now a national politics editor at the Post. His column was “How a Courageous Southern Governor Broke Ranks with Segregationists in 1961.”
“Sixty years ago, as Southern governors criticized civil rights protests and fought integration, one broke ranks and gave a remarkable inauguration address: He called for equal opportunities for all his state’s residents.
“North Carolina’s Terry Sanford, then 43 years old, was one of the first major Southern politicians to endorse John F. Kennedy for president. The two Democrats — energetic World War II veterans born three months apart — campaigned together across North Carolina in the fall of 1960. Sanford won the governor’s race and helped Kennedy carry the state in that nail-biting election.
“Eight weeks later, with Kennedy’s brother Robert in the audience, Sanford took to the stage of Raleigh’s crowded Memorial Auditorium, bedecked with red, white and blue bunting, and gave his first address as governor.”
Drescher noted that “Sanford spoke only a few sentences on issues of race.” But Sanford said more than any other Southern governor dared:
“We are not going to forget, as we move into the challenging and demanding years ahead, that no group of our citizens can be denied the right to participate in the opportunities of first-class citizenship,”
Drescher wrote a great book, “Triumph of Good Will: How Terry Sanford Beat a Champion of Segregation and Reshaped the South” (University Press of Mississippi, 2000). The book tells how Sanford won the 1960 election, prevailing in a Democratic runoff against I. Beverly Lake, who advocated shutting down schools instead of desegregating them.
The book is a must-read if you want to understand those times – and how Sanford made North Carolina different from much of the South.
Drescher’s column – and the photo that ran with it, posted here – recalls the dramatic change that Sanford and JFK embodied.
They were two young, vigorous new leaders. Both were 43 years old. Both were World War II veterans, wounded in battle and decorated for bravery. Both were challenging the state and the nation to change, do better and get moving again.
The photo shows how different they were from the generation before them, men who by contrast seemed old, gray and tired. Behind them are North Carolina’s Senators – Everett Jordan at left and Sam Ervin at right. In the middle is Luther Hodges, Sanford’s predecessor as Governor.
President Kennedy appointed Hodges U.S. Secretary of Commerce at Sanford’s request. Sanford had no love lost for Hodges, but Bert Bennett, Sanford’s 1960 campaign manager, told me once, “we wanted to get Hodges the hell out of North Carolina.”
Sanford had broken with Hodges and most Southern Democrats and endorsed Kennedy in 1960. It was a political risk. That’s why Robert Kennedy came to Sanford’s inauguration. The year before, RFK had come to Raleigh appealing for Sanford’s endorsement.
The Kennedys needed one Southerner to endorse the Massachusetts Catholic for President. They needed to show support in the South to beat Lyndon Johnson.
Sanford did it, and 12 of the North Carolina delegates joined him. “The Dirty Dozen,” they were dubbed. Sanford gave a seconding speech for Kennedy at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.
Harrison Hickman, who was the pollster for Sanford’s winning 1986 Senate race, recalls a story Sanford told: When Kennedy asked him to make the speech, Sanford said, “You just want somebody up there with a Southern accent.” Kennedy laughed, “No, I want somebody up there who’s younger than me.”
Kennedy was born in May 1917; Sanford, in August.
As Drescher noted, Sanford campaigned with Kennedy in North Carolina in September 1960. For some reason, the two candidates changed cars in Raleigh’s Glenwood Village before going to Reynolds Coliseum, where Kennedy spoke. My mother Becky took me, my younger brother Kevin and my baby brother Fred there. Somehow, she pushed our way to the cars, and I got to shake JFK’s hand.
Unlike Bill Clinton, I neglected to get a photo of that historic moment. But it’s imprinted in my memory. As are the hope and idealism that Kennedy and Sanford inspired when they were inaugurated 60 years ago this month.