JFK assassination's impact on Chicago Catholics, 50 years later

November 22, 2013

AP/file
File: A portrait of President John F. Kennedy hanging in the main foyer of the White House.

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy, the first Irish-Catholic American president of the United States, was gunned down in Dallas. The assassination delivered a devastating blow to Irish-Catholic and political communities in Chicago. A loss that younger Irish-Americans, like myself, struggled to understand.

My full name is Catherine Mary O’Brien.

I am the daughter of William Peter O’Brien and Catherine Marie Donegan.

I am a fourth generation Irish-American. I was born decades after President Kennedy’s assassination—so the significance of an Irish-Catholic holding the highest office in the land was somewhat lost on me.

But in trying to understand the impact, I was reminded that just three years before the world was shocked by his death, it was stunned that an Irish-Catholic had been elected president of the United States.

Mary Pat Kelly grew up on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

“When he was killed, it was as if, in some ways, we’d been living in a dream that this wasn’t what life was like, that there was real evil in the world and it was arbitrary and would come out of nowhere…” she recalled.

Like millions of Irish-Americans, her family came to this country to escape oppression and famine before the turn of the 20th century. For families like hers, Kennedy’s ascension was paramount.

“They had just witnessed a million people dying, starving to death because they had no voice. Catholics [in Ireland] were not allowed to vote, they couldn’t hold office. So when they came to this country and realized it was possible to have a voice, that you could vote and you could organize people to vote, they really understood it was a life and death matter,” Kelly explained.

Her family certainly understood the power of politics. Her great uncle, Ed Kelly, became mayor of Chicago in 1933. And he remained on the 5th floor of City Hall for 14 years.

Kelly was a junior at Marywood High School in Evanston when Senator John F. Kennedy came to Chicago for the first televised presidential debates in September of 1960. She got to attend the after party at the Glenview Palladium—which was really the gym at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. But because it was Chicago, and because her father knew some of the politicians there, a teenage Kelly got to stand right up front when Kennedy took the stage.

It was like she was front row at an Elvis Presley concert. She said she kept her arm stretched out so she could touch the tip of his shoe while he addressed the crowd of adoring Chicagoans.

“On the stage was Mayor Daley, all the whole panoply of Chicago aldermen and they were just beaming. And I thought, these are the men who had seen Al Smith go down in flames and of course, for the millions of Irish Americans, here was someone who could validate who they were as Americans and as Irish people.” Kelly remembered.

Al Smith was the only other Catholic who made a run at the presidency for a major party. And he faced extreme anti-Catholic sentiment during the 1928 election.

In Kennedy, Irish Americans had found their prince. The country was captivated by his charisma.

Like his father before him, Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Kogan has spent his career sharing stories of Chicago life as a newspaperman.  Kogan’s mother, Marilew Cavanagh Kogan, was an Irish-Catholic girl from Rogers Park.

“My mother, I think, was terribly proud that a Catholic had been elected president. And I’m sure, that as sophisticated as my parents were, they fell under the strange spell of the Kennedys, if not Camelot,” Kogan said.  

Kogan believed Kennedy’s election was euphoric for many Chicagoans.

“This is a town with a huge Irish-Catholic base, a huge Irish-Catholic voting block. And as a result, it was transformative. That’s why 10, 15, 20 years ago, you would go in a number of houses in Bridgeport and Beverly and Sauganash and literally see framed pictures of JFK,” he explained.

The ties that bound the first Irish-Catholic president to Chicago were much stronger than a shared history. As a major party boss and a family friend, Mayor Richard J. Daley helped Kennedy get elected. The Daleys were the first guests to stay over at the Kennedy White House. His election was a dream come true for Daley and his fellow Irishmen. But the dream soon turned into a nightmare.

Longtime Chicago Alderman Ed Burke was driving with DePaul University classmates on the afternoon of November 22, 1963.

“It was about 12:35 when the first reports came over the radio...In the car with me, in the backseat was my long-time friend and college classmate Mike Casey. And seated next to me in the front seat was Richard M. Daley, who was at that time, also a student at DePaul University,” Burke remembered.

Daley’s father, the mayor, stumbled as he eulogized the president before City Council; he said that Kennedy, “personified the American Dream, being a descendant of Irish Americans who came to our shores in the early 1850s.” And added, “The free world has lost a great leader, our country has lost a great president...I’ve lost a personal friend.”

For Kelly, it was the broadcast of the funeral that made it all real; it felt intimate and familiar.

“It was a tribal thing and now we were kind of putting our chieftain to rest with all the rituals and ceremony of the Catholic church that of course were so familiar to all of us from our own families,” Kelly said.  

Kogan said, soon after the assassination, families looked less familiar to one another.

“I think what happened in ‘63, was my father’s generation, who were still young men, they sort of instantly became old...the world changed in that moment from hopeful to maybe cynical, to bright-eyed to maybe scared,” Kogan explained.

That air of post-war prosperity and optimism that knighted Kennedy, that anointed his clan royals of Camelot, that had made the parish the centerpiece of Chicago neighborhoods...the aspirations and ideas that America could go to the moon and beyond, Kelly said, were sucked from every family room, every sock hop and every parish.

“America as this city on a hill, the shining place where the Irish that had gone through so much and been so discriminated against could rise to the top...they were a sign to other ethnic groups and other groups in the country that you too can rise and then it was all taken away in that instant,” Kelly said.

And the what-ifs, Kogan said, haunt many to this day.

“Who knows how it would’ve turned out? Who knows what happens in Vietnam? Who knows if they find Sam Giancana’s girlfriend dead in the swimming pool of the White House or something...you can’t predict that. But I think when he died, there was a huge amount of hope stolen from people; it robbed people of a  certain hope for the future. And as a result, I think for most people, especially give the last few years, it’s become sort of a struggle,” said Kogan.

What if Kennedy knew his fate?

When he was a young senator in 1956, he visited Chicago to address the Irish Fellowship Club on St. Patrick’s Day. During his remarks, he read from a Thomas Davis poem about the assassination of Irish Chieftain Owen Roe O’Neill. I wish there was audio from that day.

The poem reads, in part:

Your troubles are all over, you’re at rest with God on high:

But we’re slaves, and we’re orphans, Owen! why did you die?

We’re sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky—

Oh! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?

Kennedy told the crowd that all the classic weapons of oppression had been employed to break the will of the Irish but still, they endured.

He closed his toast by saying quote “‘Let us not leave them to be sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts the sky.’ Let us show them we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope - of the Irish.”

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter and producer. Follow her @katieobez.