It was a sunny, magnificent day as President John F. Kennedy smiled and waved to the crowds along the sidewalk. Riding in a convertible, the young president’s coppery hair shimmered in the sun as the final leg of the motorcade made its way down West End Avenue. People hung from office windows and waved as he passed.
Forty years agoon Saturday, May 18, 1963Nashville was a frenzy of activity because, for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, a sitting president was honoring the city with a visit. On that busy morning, Kennedy rode from the airport in a motorcade viewed by 150,000 people, spoke to a crowd of 33,000 at Vanderbilt Stadium and attended a lunch at the governor’s mansion.
The Banner, the conservative afternoon newspaper, wasn’t inclined to exaggerate on Kennedy’s behalf, so when it published an estimate of 150,000 spectators along the streets, plus the 5,000 or so at the airport and 33,000 in Vanderbilt Stadium, the staggering numbers were all that more believable. Nashville’s population in 1963 was 400,000, meaning that almost half of the city got a glimpse of the president that day.
JFK was in Nashville to observe the 90th anniversary of Vanderbilt University and the 30th anniversary of Tennessee Valley Authority’s founding. He also set off a dynamite charge by remote control that began construction of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Cordell Hull Dam.
But the young president did more than that. He offered a glimpse of the future that might have been, a hint of what his 1964 campaign and potential second term would have looked like.
“By 1963, Tennesseans, like the rest of the country, had gotten the message that his spirit was something specialthat he had charisma, intelligence and vision,” says John Jay Hooker, a friend of JFK’s who was on the platform for his speech that day. “By then, he and Jackie were the biggest celebrities in America.”
That day, Kennedy stood in a Southern city that was fighting to shed Jim Crow and nailed his banner to the progress of civil rights, urging all people of good will to march under that banner with him. When it was over, the words he spoke here topped front pages across the country.
For that one springtime Saturday, Nashville was the center of Camelot.
A banner headline in Saturday morning’s Nashville Tennessean blared, “Throngs to Cheer Kennedy,” and it was accompanied by a two-column head shot of Kennedy, labeled “Our Guest.” Inside were two more pages of coverage, along with an editorial welcoming the President to town. The previous evening’s Nashville Banner had also welcomed JFKalthough in a decidedly less boosterish way, in keeping with the rabidly anti-Kennedy stance of the paper.
Students at Saint Bernard’s Academy reported to their parents that the nuns were virtually giddy about the president coming to town, and were making plans to line the street near the school to wave as the first Catholic president in American history passed.
Families from all over Nashville turned out early to get a good seat at the stadium or a spot along the motorcade route. Those coming from counties to the west could drive in on Interstate 40, whose first leg, Memphis to Nashville, was completed just a few months earlier. It was much better than old Highway 70, though the entrance and exit ramps took some getting used to.
For the lady who wanted to look dashing for the president, Castner-Knott was advertising “A colorful basic dress, becoming to all, perfect for vacation, office, club or church” for $10.98. Men were content to sport white short-sleeve dress shirts, on sale at Harvey’s for $1.66. The skinny dark ties that were a men’s fashion staple were $2.50.
In the days before suburban malls, most of the serious shopping in Middle Tennessee happened in the two-block corridor of Church Street that housed Caster-Knott, Cain-Sloan and Harvey’s. At the time, nobody was much worried that developers in some parts of the country were singing the praises of a new type of shopping center, something called a “mall.”
In preparation for the presidential visit, parents saw to it that their children, who had been forced to go to bed early Friday night and miss the end of The Twilight Zone, were scrubbed, dressed and made presentable. Everybody piled into their Chevy Bel Airs, Ford Fairlanes or Plymouth Fury wagons with the kids in back. An oddball professor or two might have driven something obscure like a Volvo or Volkswagen, but it would be years before anybody in Nashville would hear of such a thing as a Toyota or Nissan.
To contemplate the distance between 1963 and today, consider this: The reason the crowds knew where to stand to see the president’s motorcade was that the route and his full itinerary had been printed in the newspapers. There was no doubt about what they would see; an article had assured them that “Kennedy will stand in an open convertible, his private limousine flown here for the occasion.”
The Friday before the president’s visit had been a day of intermittent showers, but preparations had forged ahead anyway. The U.S. Weather Bureau assured nervous officials that Saturday would be partly cloudy, dry and breezy, less humid than the previous few days had been, with a high of around 80 degrees.
That newspaper map of the presidential route had created a rush of activity along Woodmont Boulevard, the longest residential stretch of the motorcade. Normally, it might have been better to wait until Saturday and let the grass dry before mowing, but this was a special occasion. As dusk fell on the spring night, the sounds of lawn mowers and the smell of freshly cut grass were in the air along Woodmont, drifting through windows open to catch the breeze. (Air conditioners were on sale at Sears for $269, but most homes still were cooled with fans.) Homeowners unfurled flags from porches and suddenly eyed their peony and iris beds with a more critical eye.
Flags and greetings were in full deployment all over the city. Telephone linemen and city employees had dodged rain showers all day Friday to place 16 dozen flags, 300 blue and gold welcoming signs and thousands of yards of bunting along the motorcade route. The downtown post office hung a 32-foot “Welcome Mr. President” banner across its facade.
Now, with 24-hour television news and ease of travel, a president will never be as distant a figure as in 1963. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been in and out of Nashville several times without sparking even a fraction of the interest that JFK did that day in 1963. It’s likely no president ever will.
Air Force One touched down at Berry Field at 10:28 a.m. Several members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation joined the president on the flight, including U.S. Sens. Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore and U.S. Rep. Richard Fulton, who had only been serving in Congress about four months.
“I was very excited,” Fulton recalls. “I happened to be seated next to [Kennedy] when we landed in Nashville, and I stuck out my hand and said, 'Mr. President, I want to be the first one to welcome you to Nashville.’ ”
Fulton also remembers how his position on the plane assured that he would feature prominently in the photos of JFK’s arrival. “As we departed the plane, I was immediately behind him coming down the steps. Sen. Kefauver and Sen. Gore had to take a back seat,” he says, amused at the memory of one-upping his more experienced political colleagues.
At the foot of the stairs leading from the plane waited Gov. Frank Clement and Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley. They looked out over a crowd of about 5,000 people cheering behind security barricades. Briley welcomed JFK with a handshake and what one newspaper account called a “wide grin.”
“Thank you very much. I’m indeed happy to be here,” the president replied with a smile of his own. There was a quick round of handshaking with local dignitaries and, in the first of several incidents that led to consternation among the Secret Service detail, JFK strode to the security barricade and shook hands down the line.
Within about 10 minutes of touching down, the president’s 1962 Lincoln convertible pulled out toward Vanderbilt Stadium. Kennedy rode flanked by Clement, Briley and Sen. Kefauver perched on the jump seat to the side.
Fulton recalls the large, welcoming crowds along the route, which went from the airport to downtown on Murfreesboro Road, then down Broadway and West End to Vanderbilt Stadium. “The crowd was tremendous all the way from the airport, people standing and cheering,” Fulton says.
“There were Cub Scouts and students, groups of women and clusters of men, long lines of Negroes and much of the officialdom of local, state and national government,” the Tennessean wrote of the welcoming throng.
Not to be outdone, the Banner noted in its Saturday afternoon edition, “Many youngsters watching the president pass by held up their dogs so they also could see the chief executive,” and added that one woman ran out of a Lafayette Street beauty shop in the middle of a shampoo to wave at the passing limousine.
Planners had placed 40 high school bands from all over Davidson County at intervals along the route to serenade the motorcade as it passed. One of Kennedy’s off-the-cuff remarks was to note the welcome: “The musical future of this city and state is assured,” he said.
The story behind that 40-band serenade opens a window into the art of arranging a presidential visit. The planning and choreography required for JFK’s visit, a platform full of dignitaries and tens of thousands of spectators began long before, of course. The White House announced the visit in early April, and various tasks, large and small, had to be undertaken immediately. The Vanderbilt band had to learn “Hail to the Chief.” Workers filled in the sawdust pit used by the long jumpers at the Vanderbilt track team so none of the crowd milling around the field that day would topple in. The phone companythere only was one thenlaid new lines, both to assure the president’s constant communication with Washington and to allow the traveling press corps to file their stories. There was even a phone installed in the center of the football field beside the platform in case the need for instant communication arose.
John Seigenthaler, besides editing the Tennessean, was a friend of the Kennedy family. He had first met JFK in 1957 while covering the Senate Labor Rackets Committee’s organized crime hearings, and he had also worked in the Justice Department under Robert Kennedy. Kennedy advance man Jerry Bruno contacted Seigenthaler to get the lay of the land politically.
“Tennessee was still a one-party state,” Seigenthaler notes now.
The Democratic Party was divided into two factions, and the real elections were the Democratic primaries. The Tennessean was editorially allied with Sens. Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore and with most of the Middle Tennessee congressional delegation, including Joe L. Evins and Richard Fulton. On the other side and generally out of the newspaper’s favor were former Gov. Buford Ellington and then Gov. Frank Clement.
“I told [Bruno] very candidly about the split in the state,” Seigenthaler remembers. “It was not much different from the split in Texas between Ralph Yarbrough and John Connally, but a president’s visit is a unifying force, so it brought everybody together.”
It was, of course, that division in Texas politics that had brought Kennedy to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. But there was a differencewith Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy had carried Texas in 1960. But he had lost Tennessee badly to Richard Nixon, 53 percent to 46 percent. Political operatives said the anti-Catholic vote had swamped JFK in what was still an overwhelmingly Democratic state, and the effort to shore up support in Tennessee was an unstated reason for the visit.
Still, the stated reasonsVanderbilt’s 90th, TVA’s 30th and the beginning of dam constructionwere perfectly in line with good politics and public policy.
Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard, who delivered the welcoming remarks at the stadium, had served JFK as chairman of the President’s Commission on Campaign Costs. It was Heard who had invited Kennedy to speak at Vanderbilt, a bold move for a rookie chancellor who had started the new job only in February. To this day, now-Chancellor Emeritus Alexander Heard keeps in his office in Vanderbilt’s Kirkland Hall the chair in which JFK sat that day, marked with a brass plaque.
There was a lot going on on the Vanderbilt campus the weekend of the anniversary celebration. William H. Vanderbilt, the former Governor of Rhode Island and the great-great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose gift had founded the university, was on campus to take part in the celebration. It was his first visit to the university that bore the family name, and he sat on the platform with his wife and son for the president’s speech.
Despite the tacit blessing of Vanderbilt’s founding family, Heard had to have known that some of his Vanderbilt constituency would find Kennedy’s politics and presence unpalatable. One letter he received from a 1945 graduate of the school said, “I heartily disapprove of commemorating this anniversary of Vanderbilt’s founding with a blatant political maneuver. Mr. Kennedy has no interest in Vanderbilt, and I am extremely disappointed that you would allow him to use this anniversary of ours as an opportunity to try to gain approval of the present administration in Washington....”
Still, Kennedy knew that with Heard’s leadership he would be assured a friendly welcome on the Vanderbilt campus.
Dam construction in general and TVA in particular were wildly popular in Tennessee in 1963, so Kennedy’s aligning himself with the popular federal agency and a new dam were clearly savvy political moves.
But stillthis was a state that had rejected JFK in 1960, and there was tremendous controversy about the federal government’s role in the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws. Bruno had every reason to be concerned that people would stay away in droves or that there could be an unfriendly crowd. Seigenthaler hit on a partial solution.
“I sent [Bruno] to see the superintendent of schools, and the result was that every high school band in Nashville and Davidson County was established along the route from the airport and West End,” Seigenthaler recalls. “I don’t remember how far apart they put them, but they figured it out geometrically.”
And, of course, with the students came parents, grandparents and brothers and sisters. And that wasn’t all. The advance man instructed the lead driver of the motorcade to crawl along the route so that, as it passed, the students could be loaded up and quickly bused to the stadium to help fill the seats there too.
Vanderbilt had sent invitations with the cooperation of the White House planners, and so had Congressman Fulton.
“We had sent out 20,000 or more letters inviting the public to come to Vanderbilt Stadium and greet the president. I used my frank for that,” Fulton recalls.
As it turned out, the blizzard of invitations and the advance man sleight-of-hand wasn’t necessary.
The genteel anger of letter-writing Vanderbilt mossbacks was not the opposition that JFK’s planners and image-conscious city boosters feared. They feared ugliness in the streets. The civil rights struggle was at a flashpoint, and a pro-civil rights president was coming South.
Three years earlier in the spring of 1960, Nashville had been a hotbed of civil rights action, as the scene of some of the first lunch counter sit-ins in the South. At the time, then-Gov. Buford Ellington had announced his belief that the sit-ins at the Greyhound and Trailways bus terminals had been instigated by outside agitatorsspecifically, he said, a news crew from CBS. CBS denied the charges. Later that spring, a bomb destroyed the home of Alexander Looby, an attorney and Nashville’s first black city council member. In early May of that year, six lunch counters were integrated, putting Nashville at the forefront of civil rights change in the South.
By the spring of 1963, the civil rights spotlight had moved from Nashville to Alabama. Two weeks before Kennedy’s plane touched down in Nashville, Bull Connor’s goons had turned fire hoses and police dogs loose on civil rights marchers in Birmingham. Alabama Gov. George Wallace issued his threat to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to keep black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, a threat he made good on a few weeks later in June 1963. That same month, a bomb killed four schoolgirls in Birmingham.
“Some thought there would be something unfriendly to Kennedy because of civil rights,” Seigenthaler says.
“We wish, by every means at our command, to welcome the president with our traditional hospitality,” Mayor Briley told the Tennessean. “No demonstrations are expected by organized Negro groups, according to responsible leaders of these groups,” the newspaper added. For good measure, the paper also noted that “Presidents of 14 Nashville colleges, including four Negro institutions, have been invited to sit on the platform with the president.”
Civil rights was the big story of the time, but it wasn’t the only one. Gordon Cooper, an original Mercury 7 astronaut, had just returned from a breathtaking 34-hour mission in space. The flight was the last of the Mercury missions, the first steps in the march to the moon to which Kennedy had committed the country.
Another news item that day also hinted at a big story to come: Buried inside that day’s Banner was a story headlined, “40 Reds Killed in Viet Nam”; U.S. “advisors,” it seemed, were making progress in Southeast Asia.
Then there were things going on below the radar of the daily press. May 1963 was the month that Columbia Records released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the album that contained his version of the song that would become the anthem of the ’60s, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That same month, Decca records signed a scruffy British blues band called the Rolling Stones. Some label executives thought they might, with proper marketing, sell some records. And one Nashvillian who wasn’t in town to see President Kennedy was Roy Orbison. The night of May 18, he was beginning a tour of England sharing billing with a band unknown in the states: The Beatles.
Dallas police, meanwhile, were working on a disturbing case: About a month earlier, an unknown gunman had fired a rifle into the back of the house of local conservative political leader General Edwin Walker, narrowly missing him. The crime remained unsolved for several months. When Dallas police finally cracked it, it was only because the shooter, a 23-year-old ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald, had been picked up in connection with another investigation.
When it came time for him to speak, President Kennedy, hair blowing in the breeze, delivered a speech in praise of educationbut with a twist. He said it was the duty of educated people to take a stand, reject violence and lawlessness and show other citizens the way to a more just society. He had found a way to give a speech about education that was really a speech about civil rights.
“We live in an age of movement and change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, both good and evil,” he said. “[Vanderbilt] has an obligation to hold fast to the best of the past and move to the best of the future.
“If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it is not likely to be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to hamstring and hamper our education system.... They see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”
He went on: “A special burden rests on the educated men and women of our countryto reject the temptations of prejudice and violence, and to reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which our society depends.”
And then he was even more explicit: “[The educated citizen] knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and order. He knows, too, that every fellow man is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity.”
The words “civil rights” never passed his lips. They didn’t need to. There wasn’t a person within the sound of his voice who didn’t understand what he meant: The federal government had the right to enforce civil rights laws, and would do so in the name of freedom. The banner of dignity for all citizens was one under which all educated people should march and lead others. The fact that he was saying these words in honor of a Southern university that was taking its first halting steps toward integration was a powerful message. The speech was greeted with loud cheers and a lengthy standing ovation.
“The speech was classic Kennedy,” Seigenthaler says. Sen. Gore called the address “historic.” John Jay Hooker says the speech was nothing less than a window into a better future that never came to pass: “I’m convinced that this Nashville speech was a preamble to campaign speeches he would have made in 1964,” he says. “He was going to build a strong civil rights element into his campaign.”
The Tennessean reprinted the speech in its entirety the next day, as did the Sunday New York Times. “President Goes South, Urges a Rededication to Freedom and Law” was the headline on the front page of the next day’s Washington Post. Associated Press and other wire reports put the Nashville speech in every Sunday newspaper in America the next day.
Following the speech, Kennedy announced he was going to begin construction on the Cordell Hull Dam and flipped a switch installed on the platform. A microphone and phone piped in the sound of the actual explosion over loudspeakers. The president flashed a broad smile, and the crowd cheered.
“Really, it shows how easy it is to be president,” JFK quipped.
People on the platform rushed to shake the president’s hand, including Seigenthaler. “I remember he put his hand on my shoulder and shook hands and said, 'I’ll see you in a few minutes at lunch.’ ” Kennedy didn’t realize that Seigenthaler wasn’t on the guest list for the lunch, but the editor didn’t correct the chief executive. “I said, 'Fine.’ ”
It didn’t occur to Seigenthaler until much later that the offhand exchange on the platform was the last time he and JFK ever spoke.
The incident at the airport where Kennedy had rushed over to the rope line to shake hands wasn’t the only security concern in Nashville.
The most tense moment came when, immediately after the speech at Vanderbilt, the crowds attempting to get close to the president knocked over a glass water jug near the platform. The container crashed to the ground. “Kennedy was startled momentarily and then broke into a broad grin,” the Tennessean reported. The Secret Service immediately closed ranks around Kennedy, but twice more at the stadium he broke past his guards to shake hands with spectators, once ordering his departing limousine to stop so he could hop out and personally shake hands and visit with a group of disabled veterans, some in wheelchairs.
Observers said that JFK delighted in foiling his guards to get into the crowds.
There was one security arrangement that day that only Dr. John Sawyers, the chief of surgery at Nashville General Hospital, and a few others knew about. The advance team had contacted Sawyers weeks earlier and arranged for him to be on duty as the designated surgeon in case the president needed emergency surgery.
“[The Secret Service] named General the hospital he was to be taken to in case of illness or injury,” Sawyers says. “I had to stay in the E.R. at General until he was gone.”
Sawyers was in regular contact with the Secret Service for the time that JFK was in Nashville. “The Secret Service even plans the routes to the hospital,” he says. “ I had a very unexciting time, and that’s what I wanted.”
(Years later, when Sawyers was chairman of surgery at Vanderbilt, one of the surgeons in his department was Dr. Malcolm Perry, who, as a young physician in training at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas in 1963, was among those who tried to save Kennedy’s life on Nov. 22. Sawyers says the two men, who were colleagues for several years, never discussed JFK’s assassination.)
After the post-speech handshaking, the presidential limousine made its way down Hillsboro Road to the manicured lawns of Woodmont Boulevard, then to Franklin Road and on to the governor’s mansion on Curtiswood.
The stadium crowd began dispersing to the restaurants along West End for lunch: Candyland, the Krystal, Morrison’s Cafeteria, J.E.’s Steak House. Some families made a day of the outing, planning to head downtown to the Crescent Theater to see Mutiny on the Bounty (“in technicolor and cinerama”), or to catch the Nashville Vols-Knoxville Smokies baseball game at Sulphur Dell, the Civil War-era ball ground that, by 1963, was in its last season before demolition.
The governor’s mansion had been a frenzy of activity for days in preparation for lunch with Kennedy. Judge Frank Clement, the governor’s son, was then 13 years old and accustomed to the comings and goings of politicians and the entertaining requirements that went with his father’s job, but he had never seen anything like this.
“The security was exceptional,” he remembers. “A month or more before the president’s visit, there was a full inspection of the house and the property around it.”
Clement recalls that the Secret Service were concerned with certain trees with hollowed placesa curious preoccupation, it seems, given the open-top car ridesand that the trees had the holes filled in advance of the Kennedy luncheon.
When the president came into the house and greeted the family, young Clement was left with one enduring impression. “He was very nice, very handsome, very courteous, [but] the main thing I remember is that he had very long eyelashes,” he says.
This closed-door luncheon featured most of the major Democratic politicians in the stateClement, of course, along with Gore, Kefauver and some of the other members of the Tennessee congressional delegation.
One newspaper report said the group was dining in an upstairs room. What wasn’t reported at the time, and which 13-year-old Frank Clement knew because it was, after all, his house, was that the group was eating in his parents’ bedroom, transformed into a formal dining room for the occasion.
“My parents emptied out the master bedroom and put in a number of dining room tables,” he says. He speculates that the group may have wanted to close the doors and talk privately, a logistical option the open dining room downstairs wouldn’t have offered. One of the topics of discussion was almost certainly strategy to keep the party unified through the coming elections.
Then, less than four hours after Air Force One touched down, Kennedy was gone. After the lunch, he rode to the front lawn of John Overton High School on Franklin Road and boarded a helicopter for the second leg of his trip that day, south to Muscle Shoals, Ala., for another TVA anniversary event, and on to Huntsville to recognize that city’s role in the race to the moon. Though he was in the state that was the epicenter of the civil rights struggle, neither speech in Alabama dealt with civil rights. Except for a formal but distant welcome from Gov. George Wallace, warm greetings from large crowds filled the rest of JFK’s Saturday.
The Banner had a custom of publishing a daily Bible verse on its editorial page. Later, some people who had saved the newspaper noticed that the passage that ran alongside the welcome to president Kennedy was Matthew 24:42: “Watch therefore: For ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”
Another small item in the newspaper that Saturday was about a group called “Citizens for TVA” urging residents of the Tennessee Valley to turn on all their lights at nightfall to coincide with Kennedy’s plane passing over the valley on his return trip to Washington. It’s a nice mental picture, the idea that the young president might have looked down onto a blaze of lights scattered across the darkening valley floor, knowing that it was a salute to him.
JFK arrived back in Washington that night at about 8 p.m. to little fanfare. Nothing like his internationally televised return, accompanied by his blood-spattered widow and new President Lyndon Johnson, on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, after another motorcade, before another cheering throng, on another bright day, in another Southern city.
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