Chief In State
When Kennedy visited
A friend who was in a high school band the day President John Kennedy came to New Orleans (May 4, 1962) recalled the excitement. As the motorcade wound its way up St. Charles Avenue, the band director looked over his shoulder to check on the progress of the procession. Seeing that the President’s limousine was nearing, the director was overcome with anticipation and ran to join the crowd so that he could wave at Kennedy, momentarily leaving his band to play on its own.
Kennedy has been in office for nearly a year and four months and there was still a lot of thrill about him. He was young, witty, had a beautiful family and represented a fresh face in American politics.
He was in town to dedicate the new wharf at Nashville Avenue. Back then practically every elected local politician was a Democrat. They were Southern Democrats, which meant they were more conservative than the Bostonian JFK, but at least they were united behind one party. So, Governor Jimmie Davis and Mayor Vic Schiro joined the procession. That same day, the President had spoken from the balcony at City Hall to a large crowd gathered at Duncan Plaza. It would be a busy day. His Nashville Wharf speech was scheduled for 10:30 that morning. By 1:15 that afternoon he was scheduled to be at Eglin Airforce base in Florida to witness a military fire power demonstration.
Presidential election years bring to mind stories of the times that the presidency touched our town. There are many such stories (Including Bill Clinton’s first trip as President, which was to address a convention in New Orleans), but the Kennedy legend is always intermingled with glamor and pathos.
In October 1959, Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts but close to becoming a presidential candidate, visited, along with wife Jackie, the Crowley Rice Festival. The candidate had a friend in Crowley, Judge Edmund Reggie, who made the stopover possible. That visit is still talked about today, especially when Jackie addressed the crowd in French telling the folks that her father had always told her that Louisiana was another part of France.
There was good politics behind the visit. At the time Kennedy’s Catholicism was still an issue; southwest Louisiana was one of the most Catholic areas of the country. The visit helped galvanize support within the sizable Catholic constituency.
On the day before, Kennedy had spoken at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge and then that night was the guest of honor at a fundraiser at The Roosevelt Hotel. The next morning the Kennedys flew to Lafayette before joining a procession of white Cadillacs for a motorcade to Crowley. The day ended with a speech in Lake Charles before flying home. The Crowley stop would be the best remembered.
One of Kennedy’s biggest supporters was New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison. The mayor was very interested in Latin America, as President Kennedy appointed Morrison, who was then in his fourth term, to be Ambassador to the Organization of American States. Vic Schiro, at the time a councilman at large, became interim mayor and then was elected to two full terms. The Kennedy presidency had an influence on New Orleans politics.
There is, of course a tragic element to the Kennedy/New Orleans story. Lee Harvey Oswald was born and raised here. Carlos Marcello, the local mafia boss, was linked to the assassination in some conspiracy theories, though nothing has been proven. Jim Garrison, the former district attorney, painted a far-flung assassination plot theory that got global attention and was the subject of an Oliver Stone movie. Once again, there was no proof and the case fell apart. Nevertheless, New Orleans became the home of the assassin and the epicenter for assassination theories.
It is better to remember the happier times: May 4, 1962, the President of the United States is seeing St. Charles Avenue from beneath the canopy of moss draped oak trees. The crowd is excited, and the band plays on.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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