On this day in 1960: JFK lands in metro Detroit ahead of Labor Day parade 

By: - September 4, 2022 4:02 am

U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in Detroit on Labor Day in 1960 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina Collection

On Sept. 4, 1960, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) arrived in metro Detroit to participate in the city’s annual Labor Day that was held the following day.

After his flight arrived at Metro Airport in Romulus, he was greeted by Democratic Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams.

“… Tonight we are in Detroit. We did not make that trip for pleasure,” said Kennedy. “We made it because we believe it is vitally important that the Democratic Party win this election. This country cannot afford, nor can the whole free world afford, four more years of a do-nothing Republican leadership.”

On Sept. 5, Kennedy appeared in downtown Detroit at the Labor Day parade and addressed thousands during a rally held at Cadillac Square.

In November 1960, Kennedy narrowly defeated GOP Vice President Richard Nixon by two percentage points, carrying Michigan and winning its 20 electoral votes. Kennedy’s overall national margin of victory was even smaller.

U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in Detroit on Labor Day in 1960 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina Collection

Michigan Black voters helped to play key role in Kennedy win

Both Kennedy and Nixon made a strong play for Michigan’s Black vote. At that time, African Americans were active members of both parties. 

Detroit’s Black population doubled between 1940 and 1950 and African Americans were demonstrating their collective political muscle by the 1950s and were winning more elections. 

Michigan’s first Black state House member was Wiilliam Ferguson who was elected in 1892 as a Republican. The state’s first Black senator was Detroit attorney Charles Roxborough, a Republican who was elected in 1930. Charles Diggs Sr., a Democrat, was first elected to the state House in 1936.

Charline White of Detroit became the first Black woman elected to the state House in 1950. Cora Mae Brown of Detroit became the first Black woman elected to the state Senate in 1952.

In addition, Democrat Charles Diggs Jr. became Michigan’s first Black U.S. House member in 1955. William Patrick Jr., another Democrat, became Detroit’s first African American common council member since Samuel Watson was elected in the 1880s.

Some Detroiters point to a little known June 1960 private meeting that pushed Kennedy over the top with the growing African American demographic in Michigan and throughout the Midwest.

A group of Detroit Black Democratic leaders that included UAW official Horace Sheffield Jr., business owner Forrest Green, longtime Democratic stalwart Joseph Coles and Detroit Common Council member William Patrick Jr. met with Kennedy at his home. The event was set up by Williams, Michigan’s popular governor.

Kennedy flew the party on a private plane, according to Saul Green, Forrest’s son and future U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District.

“[Kennedy] had an opportunity to gather these respected Black thought leaders to help make his case [for the presidency],” recalled Green, who was a 12-year-old Tappan Junior High student at the time.

There, they urged the Massachusetts U.S senator to adopt a stronger civil rights platform.The Rev. Horace Sheffield III said his father made the case

“What are you going to do for Black folks?” said Sheffield III about the question that his father likely had for Kennedy.

Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Lt. Gov. John Swainson in Detroit on Labor Day. 1960 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina Collection

Ultimately, Kennedy won the Democratic nomination three weeks later at the party’s convention held in Los Angeles. And in November, he did well with Black voters in states like Michigan and Illinois. 

Williams, who was white and a progressive, became Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Kennedy also tapped several Detroit African Americans to serve in his administration such as lawyers Hobart Taylor Jr. and Kermit Bailer. He also appointed Wade McCree to a federal judgeship. 

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 in Dallas. 

In 1964, a public meeting place only 500 feet from where he spoke in Detroit on Labor Day 1960, was dedicated as Kennedy Square. Several Michigan public schools are named after John F. Kennedy. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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