"Of course it was kind of a controversial year for Kennedy to be running in West Virginia, there were a lot of questions about him being Catholic. You know there's very few Catholics in Chapmanville."
On April 11, 1960, Kennedy spoke in Charleston at Morris Harvey College, which later became the University of Charleston.
"There is nothing in my religious faith that prevents me from executing my oath of office," he told the crowd.
But they were not entirely convinced.
In the next day's Charleston Gazette, Harry G. Hoffmann described the scene:
"Even at the college, Kennedy's Catholicism did not escape entirely as a campaign issue. Just before he arrived at the auditorium a slightly built, blond girl student left the building.
"'Where are you going?' asked a passing male student.
"'Anywhere but in there,' she replied.
"'Well,' said the girl, who appeared to be under voting age. 'I'm a Democrat but not a Catholic; does that answer your question?'"
Campaign themes still resonate
Kennedy, of course, eventually swayed enough of the skeptics, winning 61 percent of the vote. His opponent in the primary, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, dropped out of the race that day.
Kennedy won by speaking about what he saw in the state, issues important to West Virginians - coal, unemployment, inequality, hunger - issues that are just as resonant today as they were more than 50 years ago.
Much of what Kennedy said as he toured the state would fit perfectly in a modern stump speech. In other words: A lot hasn't changed.
Today West Virginia politicians of both parties denounce the "war on coal" that they see coming from the federal government, and the job losses that they say come with it.
It is not a new issue.
"Machines have been replacing men in the mines in recent years. Thousands are out of work and many of the older men among them do not see much hope of finding jobs," the Logan Banner wrote on April 26, 1960, the day after Kennedy's visit. "One of Kennedy's stops yesterday was at Rossmore, a little mining camp of a few dozen dwellings just outside Logan. A few years ago it was thriving, but now only three or four families remain. The other houses have boarded windows and are slowly falling into decay."
Kennedy called it "as distressed an area as I've ever seen," and his speech that night sounded a theme eerily familiar to today.
"There is no industry which has suffered more from government neglect in the last eight years than the coal industry," Kennedy told a crowd of 600 at the Logan courthouse. "And there is no industry which holds greater promise for the future. Eight years of short-sighted policies - of drift and indecision in Washington - have seen the gradual deterioration of a great industry."
Since 2009 and the beginning of the Great Recession, Republicans and Democrats have continually squabbled over unemployment benefits. How much, and for how long, should we help people who lose their jobs and can't find new ones?
It is not a new issue.
"We talk about new industries and new products for the future - and we must," Kennedy told a crowd of 1,500 in Clarksburg on April 18, 1960. "But we must also do something right now, before those new industries and jobs are here, about those who are unemployed now, who can't find a job and who can't get by on an average unemployment check of $23 a week...There are more than 60,000 of those men in West Virginia today and only half of them are drawing unemployment compensation. It is a double failure of our civilization if we cannot permit them to pay their bills and feed their families while looking for another job."
In 2011, a protest in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan jumpstarted a national conversation on economic inequality. "Occupy" demonstrations spread to hundreds of cities around the U.S. and the world. There was an Occupy Charleston and an Occupy Huntington, an Occupy Martinsburg and an Occupy Morgantown. Inequality became a major theme of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Income inequality has grown more extreme in recent years, but it is not a new issue.
"Today the United States is living better than ever before. We have more swimming pools, freezers, boats and air-conditioners than the world has ever seen," Kennedy told a crowd at Bethany College, on April 19, 1960. "'But the test of our progress,' said Franklin Roosevelt, 'is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.' By that test, the last several years have been years of economic failure."
One of the most dramatic bills to pass through the West Virginia Legislature in 2013 was one that attempts to provide better breakfasts for hungry school children. Several delegates were visibly emotional while discussing it, recalling a childhood growing up hungry.
One delegate said that perhaps school children should work to earn their meals. Other delegates looked aghast, one practically shouted at him.
Today, hunger is marked more by obesity than emaciation. The problem is no longer a persistent lack of calories, but a boom and bust cycle of not enough food, followed by too much of the wrong kind. Potato chips and Mountain Dew have replaced grains and powdered eggs as stigmatized foods.
But it is not a new issue.
"Thousands of your citizens -- 14,000 here in Mercer County alone -- are forced to struggle for subsistence on a diet which consists primarily of flour, rice and cornmeal," Kennedy said in Glenwood, on April 26, 1960. "A diet which does not permit a healthy, decent existence, a diet which is causing malnutrition, chronic diseases and physical handicaps, a diet which is a disgrace to a country which has the most abundant and richest food supply in the history of the world."
One year later, Alderson and Chloe Muncy, from Beartown in McDowell County, received $95 in food stamps, the first people in the country to get benefits from the new program. They spent $20 the first day, buying, among other things, a gallon of apple butter for their 15 children.
Today, one in five West Virginians and 35 percent of McDowell County participates in the SNAP program, as food stamps are now called. In early November, federal cuts reduced SNAP funding in West Virginia by $36 million. Both parties have proposed plans with further cuts in SNAP spending.
"The first thing he did when he got elected was he sent food to McDowell County," Cottone said. "He never forgot what West Virginia did for him."Reach David Gutman at david.gut...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.