In Newark, JFK’s Visits Remembered Wistfully

By David Cruz

It’s hard to imagine today, but back in 1962, New Jersey was not quite so blue a state, and John F. Kennedy had to make an appearance here days before Election Day to secure the vote. Assemblyman Tom Giblin recalled the visit.

“I remember the street was closed at Broad and West Kinney and the crowds were really overwhelming and you could sense that he was going to be president of the United States,” he said. “I was still in the eighth grade, but it’s an experience I remember.”

Kennedy only won New Jersey by 22,000 votes of almost 3 million cast. Today — 50 years after his assassination — some long-time Newarkers gathered to remember Kennedy and his second visit to the city: speaking on the steps of city hall on Columbus Day, 1962.

“It speaks to Newark’s importance in New Jersey and New Jersey’s significance in that race that candidate John Kennedy chose to spend the campaign’s final moments here, and it paid off for him,” said Guy Sterling, who hosted today’s remembrance.

Just over a year later, it was all over.

“To a 14-year-old who grew up in the Eisenhower ’50s, the idea that a president of the United States could be shot dead on the streets of an American city was totally inconceivable,” recalls former Star-Ledger reporter Michael Redmond, “and I think that was true for everybody in the United States.”

Newarker JoAnn Sims was in kindergarten back then. “I remember coming home and my mother was crying,” she said. “I remember my grandmother was crying. It was just a terrible day.”

In the years since, Kennedy has become an icon to blacks and Latinos in this city. For them, the establishment’s acceptance of civil rights as a concept began under Kennedy and many point to him as an inspiration, among those Mayor Luis Quintana, who says he is living proof of the Kennedy legacy.

“That’s right, because if not for him, the doors of the future would’ve been shut,” he said.

Fifty years after his death, JFK’s impact on this community is still remembered with fondness, and the hope that he inspired is something that many here wish we could find again.