Friday, February 27, 2009

FLASHBACK: 1972. More presidential politicking in the Panhandle

THE DEATH OF John Lindsay in December 2000 at age 79, and Shirley Chisholm in January 2005 at age 80, evoked memories of the 1972 Democratic presidential race, when these high-profile candidates came to Panama City a-courtin' Panhandle voters.

At the time, any visit from a presidential wanna-be was big news. Not since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson, Estes Kefauver, and Richard Russell brought their campaigns to Bay County, had major candidates stumped the Panhandle. 

Lindsay, you'll recall, was New York's dashing, debonair mayor during the turbulent 1960s. His February 1972 visit just happened to coincide with the first binding presidential primary in Florida history, held March 14. At stake: the Democratic nomination and the right to face President Richard Nixon in the fall.

The field of candidates included George Wallace, Henry Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Lindsay. All but McGovern visited Bay County. The front-runner was clearly Wallace; when he spoke at Panama City's Municipal Auditorium on Feb. 4, a standing-room crowd of 4,000 cheered his law-and-order, anti-busing platform with near religious fervor.

Lindsay arrived the next day, and several hundred people gathered at Panama Plaza on 15th Street to glimpse the 51-year-old, Kennedyesque mayor. Lindsay's platform--anti-war, pro-busing--attracted mostly students and youthful supporters. After all, a new law had just granted 18-to-21-year-olds the right to vote; for these young Bay Countians, this represented a first electoral opportunity.

Lindsay spoke to the crowd, vowing to change the Panhandle from a "low wage area...(where) the man at the bottom ranks of labor is just as bad off as ever." He argued for tighter pollution-controls: "Unless we change things," he said, "these magnificent beaches will be ruined forever." Then Lindsay removed his jacket and worked the crowd.The candidate made a final stop in Bay County, at Jinks Middle School, where he handed out basketball trophies before heading to Pensacola.

Come election night, however, Lindsay's Florida politicking had failed miserably; Wallace won handily and Lindsay finished fifth. Among Bay voters Wallace received 11,000 votes (66%) to Lindsay's 420 (1%).

Within days Lindsay announced his withdrawal from the race and the nomination eventually went to McGovern.The campaign would be John Lindsay's final fling at national politics.

AMERICA CELEBRATED ITS first-ever Black History Month in 1976. Four years earlier, Shirley Chisholm transcended black history and entered mainstream American history as the first African-American woman to run for president.

Chisholm--then a New York Democratic Congress-woman--brought her historic campaign to Bay County on March 11, 1972. Local resident Myrtle Rhodes recalls Chisholm's appearance at the Safari Restaurant on 11th Street. "There was standing room only," Rhodes recalls, "and everyone was excited. We knew this was history-making."

Rhodes remembers Chisholm, the self-proclaimed champion of the poor and disenfranchised, declaring herself the only candidate in the field who was "unbought and unbossed"--a reference to Chisholm's fierce independence. The phrase became Chisholm's campaign slogan. She finished her speech with this admonition: "If you people don't get out and vote, I'm coming back to Panama City and bawl you out." The crowd stood and cheered, and afterwards Rhodes made her way to the front of the room and shook Chisholm's hand. 

Rhodes could identify with Chisholm's experiences as the first of her race and sex to serve in the House of Representatives and the first to run for president. When Rhodes joined the local Navy Base in 1966, she was the only African-American professional employed there.She retired in 1997 as head of the Technical Library.

In Bay County on primary election day, Chisholm received 841 votes, finishing third behind Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Sen. Scoop Jackson of Washington. Chisholm left politics in 1982 and retired to Williamsville, N.Y. Her pioneering presidential campaign is recalled today as an important step forward in America's march toward equal opportunities for all.

FLORIDA'S FIRST-EVER binding primary brought two other Democratic heavyweights to town in the spring of '72: former veep Hubert H. Humphrey and Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson.

Humphrey's arrival, the evening of January 21, 1972, brought 3,000 folks to Panama City's Municipal Auditorium, attracted by free bar-b-que and as powerful a dias as had ever assembled in town: HHH supporters State Senator Dempsey Barron, Gov. Reuben Askew, and U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles--in jeans, boots, and cowboy hat, no less.

Humphrey, who had contested unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination twice before, addressed the crowd: "To those who say my time has passed, I say: 'You're looking at the wrong clock!' "He promised to "pull our troops out of Vietnam," and proclaimed Florida's March 14 primary "the most important in the nation because it represents people from all over America."

Humphrey exited the building surrounded by fans. City cops cleared a path to his limo and Humphrey--ever the "Happy Warrior"--waded into the crowd, shaking hands and speaking personally to as many folks as time allowed.

SCOOP JACKSON ARRIVED the evening of March 2 accompanied by two heavy hitters of his own: Legendary long-time Congressman Bob "He-Coon" Sikes and local business leader Charles Whitehead.

Dawn the following day found Jackson greeting workers at the paper mill, then on to Gulf Coast Community College to talk with students. At noon Jackson spoke to 200 members of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. "Jackson covered military spending, crime, amnesty for draft dodgers," reported the News Herald, "with the biggest applause for his stand against forced busing."

Despite their efforts, neither Humphrey nor Jackson were able to sufficiently stir voters. Humphrey finished a dismal fifth locally and would never again seek the nomination. He retired to Waverly, Minnesota and died in January 1978 at age 66. 

Jackson managed 2,400 votes in the March 14 primary, still a far cry from George Wallace's winning total of 10,700. Jackson would serve in the Senate until his death in Septmeber 1983 at age 71.

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