Wednesday, April 15, 2020

JFK's Speech to the Northland Shows What Hibbing Was Like During Dylan's Youth

A couple weeks ago when Bob Dylan unexpectedly released his Murder Most Foul, I shared here some anecdotal information about John F. Kennedy's three visits to the Northland.

The aim of this recap of the Kennedy visit is to present a glimpse of the economic and political landscape of the Northland that young Bobby Zimmerman left behind when he left home to create the persona we know as Bob Dylan.

Shaking hands and warming hearts, JFK on the campaign trail in Hibbing.
The campaigning Kennedy opened his speech with these remarks, which show how staunchly devoted Hibbing and the Iron Range had been to the Democratic Party:  "I must say I would not have missed coming to the strongest Democratic area that I have seen in this campaign." [Applause] I used to think they were pretty good in South Boston, but we are going to send them out here for indoctrination." [Applause]

After the intro Mr. Kennedy demonstrates his awareness that the boom times that have been lifting the rest of the country in the 1950s during the Eisenhower-Nixon years had not helped the Iron Range all that much. Here in the Northland, during Dylan's youth, the Iron Range had struggled through three recessions in eight short years.

From here the presidential hopeful praised the enthusiasm of his hearers, then he gets right into the meat of his message.

Once the largest open pit mine in the world.
Here in 1960, after the recession of 1958, the steel strike of 1959, we see steel mills of the United States working 50 per cent of capacity. Steel is the basis of the industrial power. How can the United States meet its commitments around the world and to our own people if we use our capacity 50 per cent? And it isn't just the steel mills; it is the men. 100,000 steel workers are out of work in the steel mills, with others working part time, and you feel it back here where it all begins. This is the iron range and the iron range is the power of the United States.

Young Bobby Zimmerman saw what was happening. He was aware of the Hollis Browns who lived on the outside of town. That's the kind of thing that was going down, hence his identification with Woody Guthrie and the folk music folk with their calls for justice, voices raised for the downtrodden.

Kennedy's speech continued down this track with an interesting stat from the Gallup organization.

Our hope for winning the support of people around the world does not rest in great propaganda programs, however important they may be; does not rest in the great aid programs, however desirable they may be. It rests upon the power of the United States. The people of the world can make a judgment as to which way history is moving. A Gallup Poll taken in February among ten countries scattered around the world, was very revealing. It said to them which country do you think will be ahead by 1970 scientifically and militarily? And a majority of the people in every country, except Greece, said the Soviet Union will be first militarily and scientifically.

The Soviet Union had leveraged its Sputnik satellite launch to produce a compelling argument as regards who was winning the technology race. The U.S.A. had an image problem. No wonder JFK made NASA's Moon Program one of his major initiatives. Both ambitious and audacious, it captured the imaginations of a generation.

Kennedy continued:
Why should it be? The Soviet Union was the most backward country in Europe forty years ago. If they are able to convince the people of the world that they are going to be No. 1, that they are going to be the leader in 1970, what are the leaders of these under-developed countries going to say? Which way will they want to go? They want to tie in with the future, and if they think the future belongs to the Communists, they will move with them. If they think the Communists, they will move with them. If they think the future belongs with us, they will move with us. I think the future belongs to us. I think it can belong to us. But it can not belong to us possibly, and this we might just as well understand, because we will see it in the Sixties, it cannot possibly belong to us if we are content with being second in space, if we are content to turn out one half as many scientists and engineers as the Soviet Union, if we are content to use our steel capacity 50 per cent.

Notice that Iron Range tie-in. If you're a speechwriter, this is a good model. Note how this key idea from the intro has been woven into the body.

Ad for a living room suite at Abe Zimmerman's store.
Last week the Soviet Union produced more than we did in steel, not because we could not produce twice as much, but because we did not, because the economic and fiscal policies of this administration, because the leadership of this administration, because the vision of the Republican Party has put a damper on our energies at the one time that we need it. I do not say the future is easy, and I do not come to this community and say that if I am elected life will be easy and the problems solved. But I do say we can do better. 

Note the authenticity in the last part of this paragraph. He doesn't guarantee that everything is going to be solved, but he's noting their plight and the plight of America if things don't change.

After acknowledging the work of Democrats in Minnesota and the Northland, he begins his summing up.

A hard tough question for the next decade, for this or any other group of Americans, is whether free society, organized as ours is, can endure in the face of the Communist challenge. That is the question which we face as citizens. And we will mark that specially in those days when we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of the ore fields of this district.

Micka Electric, co-owned by the Zimmerman brothers.
These words were delivered 60 years ago. For most of this audience the history and significance of the Iron Range was fresh in their minds. 90% of the steel that went into building armaments and battleships during World War Two was made possible by the mines of the Iron Range. That was only 15-20 years earlier. The North Country made a major contribution to the war effort.

* * * *

For those unaware, Hibbing is more than the boyhood home of Bob Dylan. It was also where NBA basketball star Kevin McHale grew up as well as the birthplace of Roger Maris. By geographic area it is the largest city in Minnesota and the home of one of the largest open pit iron mines in the world, the Mahoning-Hull–Rust Open Pit Iron Mine.

* * * *
Times Have Changed
Over time the blue collar working class of the Iron Range has fallen upon harder times. According to an article in the Minnesapolis Star Tribune, "Rangers say the DFL Party has been co-opted by 'extreme greens' at the expense of Iron Range livelihoods. This longtime complaint rose to siren pitch last year when Rangers cast plentiful protest votes for the DFL’s anathema Donald Trump, with spillover losses of two “sure-bet” DFL legislators: Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township and Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids."

Ron Way's article is titled Iron Range: Conflict over future of mining is unearthing a new political force in Minnesota's north country. It offers details about the history of the Iron Range at its immigrant population and is worth reading.

When I moved to Duluth in 1986 I was told that there was really only one party up here, or so it seemed. The Democrats were so strong in the North Country that Republicans in some districts would try their luck getting endorsed as Democrats in order to fulfill their political ambitions.

But things have changed, and in the 2010 Congressional election a Republican, Chip Cravaack, was elected to serve in the 112th Congress for Minnesota's 8th District. Quickly booted two years later by the DFL's Rick Nolan, the GOP regained the seat once again in 2018 GOP Pete Stauber's election.

More to come.

Related Links
You can read the JFK speech in its entirety here in the JFK Library Archives
Here's What Politico Got Wrong About the Iron Range (by Iron Range blogger, journalist and historian Aaron Brown)
Latest Dylan Release Brings Back Memories of JFK's Three Visits to the Northland

No comments: