During the summer of 1963, the Democratic National Committee scheduled their next National Convention for August 24 -August 27, 1964 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The theme of that convention was to be a celebration of the Camelot that was the administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States.
The prospects for JFK’s reelection were excellent. He had proven his foreign policy mettle in the Berlin and Cuban missile crises. After sluggish growth in the late 1950s, the economy had entered into a period of solid prosperity. With Barry Goldwater as the likely JFK 1964 opponent, the Kennedy forces looked forward to a landslide victory.
Most significant of all in both policy and political terms, JFK had forged a partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The goal of this partnership was the passage of legislation that would desegregate public accommodations and housing, end job discrimination based on race, and guarantee voting rights.
Then came that fateful trip to Dallas in November, 1963….
On November 22, 1963, my fourteenth birthday, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. His vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States.
At the Atlantic City Convention the following August, LBJ announced his selection of Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minnesota) for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. The convention was a gigantic pep rally for the Johnson-Humphrey ticket.
For New Jersey, that convention of 1964 was a major embarrassment. Television coverage revealed the decline of the once great resort that was Atlantic City and the pitiful inadequacy of food and lodging for the delegates. In his book, The Making of the President 1964, Theodore H. White wrote, “Of Atlantic City, it may be written: better it shouldn’t have happened.” Yet the embarrassment of that convention would spark the local campaign that would succeed a decade later in the legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended that convention also, but without his deceased partner, John F. Kennedy. Dr. King was there in support of the seating of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation in place of the all-white regular Democratic delegation. His efforts achieved a compromise that would eventually result in all bars against the seating of African-American delegates from Mississippi being lifted by the time of the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
For the Kennedy family, the Democratic National Convention of 1964 in Atlantic City was a time and venue of the deepest mourning for JFK. Yet it was the scene of an unforgettable memorial tribute to the martyred president. On the last night of the convention, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy walked to the podium to introduce a tribute to his brother, he was cheered passionately for 22 minutes and could not begin his speech. The following video gives you a sense of the intensity and drama of that moment:
How ironic that the same Atlantic City which was the scene of heart-rending Kennedy family mourning in 1964 may well have a place in Kennedy family history as a scene of political rebirth in 2020.
On Monday night, January 20, 2020, on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the largely African-American Atlantic City Democratic Committee unanimously gave its endorsement for the New Jersey Second District Democratic Party Congressional Nomination to Amy Kennedy, the niece of Bobby and Jack and the daughter-in-law of Senator Ted Kennedy. This endorsement was made within city blocks of the Convention Hall where Bobby walked onto a fire escape and cried after he gave the above-mentioned speech in tribute to his brother at Convention 1964.
It is too early to give a definitive conclusive forecast of this Congressional primary and the outcome of the November general election contest against incumbent Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew. There is, however, one conclusion about the Democratic primary that can already be drawn.
The Atlantic City Democratic Committee endorsement has effectively reduced the primary to a two-person contest between Amy and Montclair State Professor Brigid Harrison, who has the endorsement of six of the eight Democratic County Chairs from within the district. Money and message will determine the outcome of the Kennedy-Harrison primary.
This Atlantic City endorsement will doubtless have a galvanizing effect on the Amy Kennedy campaign in terms of fundraising and volunteer recruitment. I fully expect that other luminaries from the women of the Kennedy family will come into the district to campaign for Amy, including former Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, journalist Maria Shriver, and former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
The history of renowned American political families often provides a most significant prologue to the present. If Amy Kennedy goes on to win victory in the race for Congressional Representative from New Jersey District Two, it will be accurately stated that she began her march to the US House of Representatives in 2020 in Atlantic City, the city of Bobby’s mournful cri de coeur for Jack in 1964.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.