“President Kennedy has been shot.” The voice crackled over the loudspeaker of Mary-Clare O’Toole’s eighth grade art class at St. Jerome’s Catholic School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Immediately, many of her girlfriends burst into tears. President Kennedy was a symbol of victory and triumph for all Irish Catholics. To lose him would be an unthinkable tragedy. The nuns, having dropped to their knees, led a school wide praying of rosary. Twenty minutes later, the voice of Mother Superior roared over the loudspeaker; “President Kennedy has died.” A moan echoed throughout the classroom. While most girls cried or continued their prayers, Mary-Clare just felt complete and utter shock and devastation.
The day John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected to office was a red letter day for many Americans, with the O’Toole family as no exception. Mary-Clare remembers her father waking her and her brothers from a deep sleep to blare Ireland’s patriotic song “A Nation Once Again” the night the polls were confirmed. To their second generation immigrant family, Kennedy’s election was monumental. It marked their imprint on America’s history and the hope for future contributions and impressions on society. To America, and especially the Catholic community, Kennedy was a beacon of light for mankind. He represented idealism, youth, reform, optimism, and equality for all. Kennedy was a pioneer for immigrants and ground breaking for many. While his legacy was later questioned and criticized, to many, including Mary-Clare, his presidency and role in change is untouchable.
While Mary-Clare couldn’t identify the exact impact that President Kennedy’s assassination would have on her life, she remembers a distinct feeling of something gone awry. Walking home that afternoon from school, she passed by the same small houses in her working class white neighborhood, yet something was different. That night, she and her family stayed glued to the television where they relived the nightmare over and over. After November 22, 1963, Mary-Clare continued her life in Philadelphia, playing king of the mountain and tag with her neighborhood friends, watching American Bandstand with her sister, attending church every Sunday, and doing her homework, yet something was uniquely different. Mark Hamilton Lytle noted, “Kennedy’s death did not cause the ensuing turmoil so much as it eroded faith in traditional politics.”1 This proved true for Mary-Clare for all her teachers and leaders. What she didn’t realize until later in life, was that her trust in the world and her confidence in her authority figures, such as her parents, the nuns who taught her, and her local priest, and politics as a whole was forever shattered.
However what differentiated Mary-Clare from the massive number of rebellious and defiant peers was her tenacity for following the rules and her loyalty the foundations on which she was raised as engrained in her by her Catholic teachings. Mary-Clare, like her contemporaries, felt a strong desire to reform and revolutionize society. However, Mary-Clare struggled to completely liberate herself from her Catholic religion and her parent’s strict guidelines and conservative beliefs. Mary-Clare grappled with this contentious relationship for much of her teenage years which resulted in her passive participation in the revolutionary movements during the 1960s. While the death of President Kennedy changed her, it did not utterly transform her actions.
The delicate relationship between her indoctrinated belief system and her newly founded feelings of discontent in American society affected all aspects in her life. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, Mary-Clare was not exposed to many black people. Her Catholic school and neighborhood church activities were single race phenomena. In high school, there were a few black students. Even so, Mary-Clare dated a black boy. However, while her father was a proponent of civil rights for all, he would never have allowed his daughter to have a black boyfriend. Because of this, the two were only able to spend time together at school sponsored events like dances, and when he visited her at her job at a local restaurant. However, in her own peaceful way, Mary-Clare fought against the racial equality issues by breaking social norms. It shocked a large number of people to see a white Irish teenager dating a large black football player. She managed to jointly live up to her father’s expectations while challenging racial tensions and suppositions.
At her Catholic all-girls college in Erie, Pennsylvania called Mercyherst College, there were a small number of black students. Mary-Clare befriended them and believed they were due and deserved social and legal equality. However, her Catholic tradition of being obedient and passive barred her from participating in the sit-ins, marches, and protests. Mary-Clare felt impassioned about black issues but feared action on those feelings.
The same theme rang true for the feminist movement. Being a woman, Mary-Clare obviously felt strongly about women’s rights and their political, professional, and economic equality. However, her involvement with the movement was limited. She connected the women’s liberation movement very strongly with pro abortionists. Having been raised a Catholic and attending a Catholic college, Mary-Clare felt she disagreed with a fundamental portion of the movement. She therefore felt morally bound to not associate herself with the group.
Even so, in her own quiet way, Mary-Clare fought for women’s equality. When she arrived at Mercyherst, it was made very clear to her that there were three options for female careers: a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Since Mary-Clare was a poor typist and the sight of blood made her queasy, she was somehow destined to be a teacher. However, soon she realized teaching young children was not her true calling and received advanced degrees in Linguistics and Bilingual Education. In the same vein, her college frowned on study abroad programs because they believed them to be dangerous for young women. Mary-Clare’s passion was foreign language, culture, and travel. She wrote petitions to the Mother Superior and applied for financial awards from different outlets. She became one of the first students at her college to study abroad in Spain and stayed for an entire year. After her experience, the college allowed for greater leniency and flexibility in their study abroad programs. So while Mary-Clare wasn’t experimenting with sexual liberation or signing petitions and demanding abortion rights, she was participating in the women’s movement in as more subtle, yet equally important way.
The one movement that Mary-Clare did more actively participate in was the war movement. This is mainly because it so directly and undeniably affected her and it did not violate any of the traditions and foundations on which she grew up. The Catholic Church is never a proponent of war. Even more so, she saw her very best friends and brothers living in fear of being drafted to the army because of conscription. However, her response to this tension took on a conservative and traditional approach. Mary-Clare attended rallies and sang songs with her peers in place of burning the American flag or attacking police officers. To protest, Mary-Clare and her fellow classmates donned their black dresses furnished by Mercyherst for religious ceremonies and held a demonstration in the town center, as one united front. Mary Clare remembers being in her male friends’ apartments when they were waiting to hear the draft numbers and the feeling of unbearable tension. When their number wasn’t called, everyone rejoiced and cheered with their beers. However, if one of their numbers was called, the community in which they grew up couldn’t fathom deserting the army or fleeing to Canada as other young activists did. Instead, they consoled the unlucky man and while they believed the practice to be unjust, assumed and commanded that he live up to his duty as a citizen.
The underlying message of this interview is how the involvement in the culture of the Sixties in reality had a broad definition. The media portrays the sixties as a time of “drugs, sex, and rock and roll.” We imagine massive sit-ins, protests, marches, flag burnings, violence, and mayhem. However, while this interpretation holds true to some people who lived in the sixties, it does not incorporate the entire population into its definition. It leaves out the simple fact that many people are a product of their environment, especially the interviewee in this case. Mary-Clare didn’t experiment with drug usage, wasn’t active in the sexual liberation movement, didn’t march on Washington, or attend Woodstock. While she considered the belief system behind these radical movements as valid and important, she didn’t play the role that pop culture wants us to believe that all young college student activists did. Mary-Clare grew up in an ultra religious Catholic community. She wasn’t exposed to blacks, gays, or minorities in her everyday life growing up in her section of Philadelphia. Her parents and the priests and nuns at her Catholic church made a profound impact on her life and while she desired to challenge their conservative thoughts and views, the doctrines and principles on which she was raised forbade radical action. Mary-Clare was therefore a part of the movement which didn’t publicly display and act on their beliefs and attitudes, but in their own subtle ways, helped to change and reform society. While pop culture likes to minimize the importance of the silent majority as they are insignificant in record, apparel, and clothing sales, it is important that we study and acknowledge the different aspects and personas of the 1960s. We should not attribute the successes and failures of the 1960s to a small number of people who made large and flamboyant contributions but rather to the large number of people who daily, in small acts, helped to transform the society.
1 Lytle, Mark Hamilton. America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon. Oxford University Press. New York: 2006, 138.