If I Could Have Voted At 16: A 1940s “war baby” champions the H.R. 1 Amendment lowering the voting age.
For many people of my generation, the “war babies” born during World War-II between 1939 and 1945, the recent discussion of lowering the federal voting age to 16 brings music to our collective ears. For me personally, having been born in 1943 and unable to vote until 1971, I am wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the possibility. Just witnessing the way in which so many young people in our country today have galvanized and by necessity, taken matters into their own clearly capable hands in response to violent school shootings. Demanding gun control laws. Holding politicians and their congressional representatives as well as the killers accountable.
What my generation witnessed or went through several decades ago pales in comparison, but during that coming-of-age period of our lives, there were events that certainly left a lasting impact. The Polio epidemic claimed childhood friends, the grotesque Emmett Till murder cast a dark shadow on our lives, and the Cold War was a constant presence. So, by the time we reached the age of political awareness, we were well informed and capable of engaging in the political discourse, and we were well versed in our history.
Winds of War and Babies
In the Fall of 1939, as the United States continued its struggle to right itself from the devastating effects of the Great Depression, daily radio broadcasts disturbed the nation with news and ominous forecasts of threatening storms of war in Europe and the Pacific. But from across the Atlantic, the strong and reassuring voice of Winston Churchill inspired hope and lifted spirits all around the world. The strong words and determined sound of the voice of one of the greatest orators of the 20th Century populated radio networks and entered American homes on a regular basis. And with his powerful “…the storms of war may blow…” oratory on September 3, 1939, he captured and stirred the imagination of millions, and brought comfort to expectant mothers all over the world.
For parents who began married life at the height of the Depression, the memory of intense deprivation and struggle remained with them. And with war waging in Europe and intensifying, demands for sacrificing on behalf of the war effort, as well as limited resources was all too familiar. But waves of “blessed events” from 1939 to 1945 brought joy into many homes and was the beginning of a new generation.
SOME FAMOUS WAR BABIES: All Grown Up, Making Their Marks and Transforming American Culture and Politics
“…born in this Century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage…”
We are the War Babies. The children of Pearl Harbor, the Polio epidemic, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights struggle, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis; and tragically, the Kennedy Assassination, which brought an abrupt end to our innocence.
The Dawn of the Sixties
With unique experiences and values formed in the ’40s and ’50s, we were ushered into the 1960s by a refreshingly new and compelling presence on the political scene, and with the promise of “A New Frontier”.
At that time, I had never heard of the young Senator from Massachusetts. But his arrival was accompanied by a whirlwind of promise and further enhanced by an avalanche of publicity about his political career as well as his family. He was young and charismatic and energetic, vibrant of spirit, and unlike anything we had ever seen in politics. I was a 16-year-old high school student living in Detroit at the time. But from the moment Kennedy burst onto the national scene I was inspired by his intellect, his energy, and his youthful optimism. And like millions of other young Americans who were galvanized by his promise of “a new frontier”, I was among those who believed that our generation would change the world. The fact that he shared my Catholic faith was an additional bonus, and I campaigned vigorously and enthusiastically for his election.
Previously, as a child growing up in Montgomery, Alabama during the Eisenhower administration, in a household with two politically active parents who were staunch Democrats, my limited awareness of politics was derived mostly through osmosis. From parental guidance and dinner table discussions. Radio and print media coverage revealed political ideologies espoused by national figures and trumpeted the Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower occupancy of the White House to be the so-called American ideal. However, I heard enough to understand that it was also an administration that was racially insensitive and indifferent about the oppression Negroes were living under in the deep south. At the age of nine, my only real interest in politics had been rooting for Adlai Stevenson and creating my own campaign sign in support of his run for the presidency. In response to the ubiquitous “I LIKE IKE” signs I was seeing, I wrote: ‘I Can’t Vote Yet. But I DON’T LIKE IKE!’. I was devastated when Stevenson lost, and I joined my parents in their grief over the Eisenhower landslide victory.
Then Came Kennedy and The New Frontier
With few exceptions, my classmates and fellow students and I worked tirelessly, doing our own version of campaigning for Kennedy. Even though we would not be able to vote in the coming November 8, 1960 election. We made campaign buttons and signs and carried placards on the bus rides to and from school. Surprisingly, our school principal bent the rules slightly, allowing brief breaks between classes to allow us students to march in front of the school building with our campaign signs and slogans. And, admittedly, for my own enjoyment as much as for extra credit in my U.S. Government class, I created an expansive Kennedy photo-essay that endeared me to the similarly devoted nuns on the faculty. It was placed on display in the school library where it remained archived for several years after I graduated.
Remembering the 1960 election, I am struck by how well informed and politically aware we students were. We were familiar with the issues and made sound decisions about which candidate was paying attention to the needs of the voters. With the Cold War a reality, and world leaders like Khrushchev and Castro at opposing helms, we were selective about whom we should place our trust in to keep our country safe.
The peaceful calm and complacency of the 1950s was enhanced and invigorated by the arrival of this new charismatic young leader. It felt right to hope and dream and the promise of tomorrow seemed real. Although we could not participate in the election or be counted among those Americans who cast the minuscule 49.72 percentage of the popular vote that helped to win John Fitzgerald Kennedy the presidency in 1960, we did indeed participate spectacularly and in our own way. And on that bitterly cold January morning in the nation’s capital, speaking confidently and in stentorian tones, he sounded a clarion call to my generation.
The Generation That Changed America
Without knowing it at the time, we were reshaping 20th-century pop culture. With the arrival of irreverent and unapologetic political satirists and activists, iconic filmmakers, authors, and television legends, we were doing so with a barrage of rock and folk musicians and singers providing the soundtrack.
In today’s world, we live in a culture in which every generation seemingly has its own title. “Millennials”, “Generation X”, “Baby Boomers”, “The Silent Generation” and “The Lost Generation”. Some are even nicknamed in more elaborate terms, e.g., as Tom Brokaw chose to do in titling his 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation”, which chronicles the lives of Americans who lived through the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II. I’ve always felt that my own generation was misnamed as well as chronologically misplaced. We were not “silent” and we were born too early to be considered “Baby Boomers”. We were War Babies. Either conceived and born at the height of World War II or shortly thereafter.
Moreover, ours was also the luckiest generation. During a period of time when one of the greatest social movements in modern history was capturing national attention and demanding civil rights for Negroes in the Deep South, the Vietnam war was also escalating. And at the height of the war, it was the nation-wide protests that brought about the lowering of the voting age in 1971. Young Americans were being drafted and sent off to fight and possibly die in an unpopular war, but not allowed to vote here at home. Massive numbers of War Babies and Baby Boomers galvanized and began taking their united protests to the streets. After refusing the draft, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing license and passport and deprived of nearly four years of his boxing career. But change was blowing in the wind, as many singers and musicians and poets forecast.
Millions of voices of protest were also heard in music and political activism and in relevant filmmaking. Thus leading to the end of the Vietnam conflict in 1975 and bringing our service men home. As with the ongoing struggle for civil rights, the time had come and changes were beginning to be made.
Almost 60 Years Later: Another New Young Leader From Massachusetts Arrives on the Political Scene
Tuesday, March 5, 2019 was another memorable day for freshman U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). In addition to a list of remarkable firsts in her impressive political trajectory, which includes being the first African-American woman elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and where she holds the same seat once held by a young John F. Kennedy (1947–1953), the recently elected Freshman Congresswoman confidently took command of the microphone at a podium in the United States House of Representatives, and introduced her very first Amendment to H.R. 1, the For The People Act, which would lower the federal election voting age from 18 to 16. This amendment would ensure that people as young as 16-years of age can participate in voting to elect members of Congress as well as the President of the United States.
As I watched the C-Span coverage of Freshman Representative Ayanna Pressley’s House floor remarks, I was naturally and instantly transported back to my own teen years in the early 1960s. When my political awakening began with the arrival of that young Senator from Massachusetts. I’m certain that there are many young people today, who feel as I did, that they possess the maturity to fully participate in the political process. They may be short on life experience, in terms of longevity, but considering this world they’ve been born into, and the current state of our country, this generation of teenagers has been well-seasoned has earned the right to vote.
Representative Pressley stated the following as her reasons for introducing her amendment:
· “Some have questioned the maturity of our youth. I don’t.
· A sixteen-year-old in 2019 possesses a wisdom and a maturity that comes from 2019 challenges, hardships, and threats.
· At the age of sixteen, young people are contributing to both the labor force and their local economies by paying income taxes, and yet they are deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
· My amendment would allow young people to have a say in our federal elections.
· Ensuring that those who have a stake in our democracy will also have a say in our democracy.
· A sixteen-year-old in 2019 possesses a wisdom and a maturity that comes from 2019 challenges, hardships, and threats.
· A sixteen-year-old will bring with them the 2019 fears that their father’s insulin will run out before the next paycheck.
· A seventeen-year-old will bring with them the 2019 hopes to be the first in their family to earn a college degree.
· A sixteen-year-old will bring with them the 2019 lessons they learned picking up shifts waiting tables to support their family while their mother was deployed.
· A seventeen-year-old will bring with them a 2019 solemn vow to honor the lives of their classmates stolen by a gunman.
· And now is the time for us to demonstrate 2019 courage that matches the challenges of the modern-day sixteen and seventeen-year-old.”