The New Social Mind


Immigration and Our National Identity Crisis

May/June 2008


"One can only face in others what one can face in oneself." —James Baldwin

Watch documentary footage of the 1960 Democratic Convention, which nominated John F. Kennedy—remembering that in 1960 many were troubled deeply that the Oval Office could be the prize of an upstart, rich, Catholic Irish American. Scan the 1960 convention floor: there are no women. Well, I didn't use a magnifying glass; there might be half a dozen, so amend that to read: there are nearly no women, and certainly no women with speaking parts (as Hollywood would say). The California and New York delegations may have harbored the odd Chinese or Japanese American, and the rare Jew (also with no speaking parts), but the 1960 Democratic convention was overwhelmingly WASP.

As for African Americans, aside from a few tokens, two had speaking parts: the Congressman from Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. When Davis took the stage to sing "God Bless America" with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, entire delegations of Southern Democrats walked out in protest—they didn't want blacks and whites to mix in any way what­soever, and certainly not at their ­convention.

The nomination and election of John F. Kennedy was, at the time, rightfully considered a significant expansion of the American identity. Still, in 1960, no one dreamed they'd live to see an African American or a woman nominated for the presidency. There were no phone messages back then, but if…

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