The Catholic University of America

Timothy Meagher, associate professor of history and university archivist, was quoted in a Nov. 2 Toronto Star article about a 1964 Treasure Chest comic book story line about Timothy Pettigrew, a fictional African-American who wins the Democratic Party's nomination to be its presidential candidate. The comic book is stored in CUA's Archives. See the article below.



A picture and a thousand words
How a black candidate for the U.S. presidency came to be the star of a Catholic comic book - published in 1964

From: Toronto Star
Date: Nov. 2, 2008
Author: Leslie Scrivener

Who is Pettigrew? In the pages of Treasure Chest comics, young Catholic readers knew him as the youthful, charismatic governor of New York - though his face was always in shadows or obscured by a campaign sign - seeking his party's nomination for president of the United States.

It was a bold story for the mid-1960s, a bitter, hate-fuelled time in American history. President John F. Kennedy, who called racism America's "moral crisis," was assassinated in November 1963. Medgar Evers, an NAACP leader, was murdered outside his home in June the same year. That September, four girls were killed when Klansmen bombed a church in Birmingham. In the summer of 1963, a crowd estimated by police to be 200,000 strong marched in Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I had a dream" speech.

In 1964, the year Pettigrew for President was serialized, three civil-rights workers were murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi. That same year, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was only on the final page in the series (pictured above), which ran from January to June, that the candidate's features and race were revealed - he is black.

In a brutish time, when blacks were battling for the right to sit at the same lunch counter as whites, the thought of a black presidential candidate seemed unthinkable. Images that linger are of blacks being beaten, firehoses and snarling dogs turned on civil rights activists, and the ugly face of bigotry.

"The irony was thinking about a black president when people are resisting, not just a black candidate, but black voters," says Timothy Meagher, a history professor at Catholic University of America in Washington.

It was a tiny opening that showed America still had a capacity for hope in a terrible time.

It was also in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act, born from the lunch counter demonstrations in North Carolina, made discrimination in places such as restaurants and theatres illegal and barred unequal voter registration requirements.

Pettigrew for President was written by Berry Reece, an editor for Treasure Chest, one of a series of educational books and magazines written for American Catholic students to encourage responsible citizenship. (More on that later.)

Reece was a southerner, raised in Mississippi, but he left to attend the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He returned home a changed man. "When I took the train north, it was an intellectual and ideological transformation," says Reece, 76.

He could no longer even talk politics with his friends and family. "I had to keep it to myself."

As a reporter for the UPI news service, he covered the civil rights demonstrations of the late-'50s, and knew Evers. He was 32 when he wrote Pettigrew for President. The story was set 12 years in the future, in 1976, the year of America's bicentennial and a time, Reece had hoped, when the country would be ready for change.

"Racism had long been America's biggest burden and shame," says Reece. "...As I saw it, it is America's longest lasting hypocrisy and failure to live by the ideals of the Constitution and Bill of Rights."

Thinking back on the assassinations - Kennedy was killed while Reece was writing the strip - and on the turmoil of the early '60s, he says, he concluded that it would take a remarkable president to bring peace to the United States. (With Kennedy's assassination on his mind, his Pettigrew survives a gunman's attack.)

"The best president I could imagine who could do that would be a serious thinker of the Afro-American race.

"It was young man's dream."

The decision to withhold the candidate's identity was more than a dramatic device. "I wanted to hook young readers with the integrity, charm and intellectuality of Tim Pettigrew ... before they would pre-judge him on the basis of race."

Still, he had to sell the story to the editors of Treasure Chest. "They were a little tentative, not because they were hyper conservative - they were deeply religious people."

Joe Sinnott, the illustrator who drew Pettigrew for President, says it was difficult to hide the candidate's face through dozens of pages. He used word balloons, placards and plants. Says Sinnott, 82 - who for decades drew Marvel Comics superheroes, including the Fantastic Four, The Hulk and X-Men, and continues to do the inking for Spider-man strips - "It was a great story and shocked a lot of readers. I was amazed that they would even write that story back then."

A little background: In the first half of the 20th century, American Catholics were struggling to define themselves and the role of their church. Among educated, upwardly mobile laymen and women, there evolved a spirit that was "patriotically American, but militantly Catholic," Meagher wrote in an essay in Religions of the United States in Practice, Volume 2.

Debates about the role of African-Americans in the Catholic Church ranged from progressive liberals who believed in colour-blind integration to African-Americans arguing for solidarity of their own, says Meagher, who is also an archivist at Catholic University.

Alarmed by rising Nazism and "dangerous theories" - Communism, no doubt - Pope Pius XI wrote a letter in 1938 to the American bishops urging a program of social action to effect a "salutary Christian influence" on contemporary society.

Responding to the Pope's letter, the bishops created a Commission on American Citizenship, with the goal of educating Catholics in the "true nature of Christian democracy ... They must be held to the conviction that love of country is a virtue and that disloyalty is a sin."

Published by the George Pflaum company, Treasure Chest was in part a response to the popular fare of the Batman and Tomb of Terror comics, but also a way of fulfilling the bishops' goal of creating an enlightened, conscientious American citizenship. Some issues bore the imprint of the commission.

Forty-four years later, along comes Senator Barack Obama - a "giant of a man," says Reece. "I had completely forgotten about the strip until Obama brought it to the very edge of reality.

"From the very beginning, Obama has rocked my soul. He's a person of serious intellect and integrity, a complex thinker who graduated near the top of his class."

He adds: "To have a man of Obama's stature running against a man who graduated close to the bottom of his class - I would never demean Senator McCain, he is a great war hero - but the issues are far too complex."

Reece's dream of 44 years ago has already been realized in Obama's candidacy. Just as Pettigrew for President did, it suggests, says Meagher, an optimism and sense of promise for America.

"Whatever happens on Tuesday, it is stirring and interesting and exciting that people were looking forward to this that long ago."