When the stars align
In every person’s life, there are times of bliss when the toils and tribulations of everyday existence are momentarily displaced by joy and celebration. It is important to cherish these occasions, because the remembrance of them will sustain us through the dark days of our lives. I have always believed that one of these blissful moments occurred in my father’s life on Wednesday, November 8, 1960.
By 1960, my father had many reasons to be satisfied with his life. He had distinguished himself in combat with the Marine Corps in World War II. He was assuming greater and greater responsibilities as the junior partner in his uncle’s wholesale business in Mt. Olive. The oldest of his seven children was a senior in high school and the youngest was in the first grade. While it was too early to tell with the younger children, the academic achievement of his three oldest, Gwin Lee, Betsy, and Laviece, was so exceptional, that he must have felt that confident that the others would fall in line. The pronouncement of his great-aunt, “Seven children and nary a simpleton in the bunch!” was a modest affirmation of his and Mary Gwin’s child rearing abilities.
However, the major source of my father’s satisfaction on November 8, 1960, derived from two men: Terry Sanford and John F. Kennedy and a new age of tolerance and hope they represented..
The South of the 1950's was a dangerous place to be if you were black. The resistance to granting equality to blacks in the South stemmed from two sources. First, there were outright racists who simply could not tolerate the idea of equality for blacks. Second, there were many more who, while not virulent racists, could not stand the idea of Yankees telling them how they should live. Only time and experience could cure the first category of persons, but a progressive leader could usher the second category forward into a future where they need not fear sharing economic prosperity with their black neighbors.
Such a leader arose in North Carolina and declared his candidacy for governor. He was Terry Sanford. The fact that Terry Sanford was a fellow veteran of World War II was probably enough to secure my father’s support. But the additional fact that he was a progressive who understood that true political leadership involved appealing to people’s better instincts rather than catering to their worst fears transformed my father into an active campaign worker. And work he did. Dad campaigned tirelessly for Terry Sanford–putting up posters, driving around with a placard atop his car, convincing people to cast their votes based on hope for the future rather than fears from the past, and even enlisting his children in the campaign.
But Dad had to work hard, because there was a powerful conservative also running for governor, I. Beverly Lake, Sr. Mr. Lake was a politician who followed the same path of exploiting racial divisiveness and catering to people’s worst fears as had been earlier blazed by Willis Smith and was to be so masterfully trod by Jesse Helms years later.
However, due to the efforts of my father and others like him throughout North Carolina, Terry Sanford finished first in the North Carolina Democratic Primary. In those days winning the Democratic Primary was tantamount to winning the election because the Republican Party was so weak in North Carolina. However, under the primary election rules, if the leading candidate did not collect an absolute majority, the next closest candidate was entitled to call for a run-off. The usual practice was for this next closest candidate to approach the leading candidate and attempt to cut a deal in exchange for not calling for a runoff. However, either Terry Sanford refused to promise a post-election appointment to Mr. Lake or they were so ideologically opposed that a deal was never considered. Either way, Lake called for a runoff. Sanford handily won the runoff in June of 1960 and coasted to victory in November.
With Terry Sanford assured of election, my father could turn his full attention to John F. Kennedy. The Sanford signs came down and the Kennedy signs went up. While my father had been less active in the Kennedy campaign while Sanford’s nomination was in doubt, in truth, a blow struck for Sanford was also one struck for Kennedy due to their similar progressive outlooks. However, the basic conservatism of the South made Kennedy a hard sell. But through the efforts of my father and many others like him throughout the state, the people of North Carolina were convinced to put their faith in the future and voted for Kennedy and Sanford. Kennedy carried North Carolina and the nation by the slimmest of margins. Dad stayed up all night listening to the radio as the returns came in. It wasn’t until the next day at noon that Dad had any confidence that Kennedy had beaten Richard M. Nixon.
So, at midday on Wednesday, November 8, 1960, Dad must have felt an enormous sense of personal satisfaction and an unbounded optimism for the future. North Carolina had turned its back on its racist past and elected a progressive governor. The United States had closed the books on the 1950's and had embraced a young president whose ideas and vision would soon electrify the country. North Carolina’s return to conservatism in 1964 and Kennedy’s forthcoming debacles in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam were not even clouds on the horizon that grand November morning.
I cannot even imagine the feelings of pride my father must have had at that moment when he thought about his role in the elections of Kennedy and Sanford, his role in World War II, his role in running the wholesale business, and his role in raising seven children. At that one instant of time, all the stars in heaven were aligned for my father.