The Lasting Work of West Virginia’s Quiet Senator

Fifty years after passage of the 26th Amendment, we pause to remember Jennings Randolph

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age. — 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph

SALEM, W.Va. — On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States. FDR, however, was not the only history-maker inaugurated that day. Joining FDR in Washington was Jennings Randolph, then generally unknown outside of North Central West Virginia.

Randolph turned 31 four days later. Though he may have been unknown outside of his hometown then in the rolling hills of the Allegheny Plateau, by the time he retired from Congress as a U.S. Senator in 1985 — the last surviving legislator to be in office during the beginning of FDR’s presidency — his legacy was lasting and expansive.

Today, 50 years later, Randolph is known as the Father of the 26th Amendment, allowing 18-year-olds to vote. But that moniker wasn’t earned easily. He introduced the bill 11 times before it became law. Though the 26th Amendment granting that right was not ratified until July 1, 1971, Randolph had first broached the idea as a House member in the early days of World War II. His logic: anyone required to go to war should have the right to vote.

He never wavered from that commitment and his perseverance paid off. Just a couple of years after passage of the 26th Amendment, I cast my first vote as an 18-year-old. Sadly, not many of my contemporaries did. That has not changed. Such apathy is an insult to people like Sen. Randolph who devoted their lives to ensuring that our most basic liberty — voting — was available to as many citizens as possible.

For Randolph, this was not a political gimmick. He sincerely cared about young adults. I know, because I met him on multiple occasions while in high school in Clarksburg, West Virginia. I was part of several like-minded friends and one insane adult who agreed to be our advisor who decided to start an Explorer Scout Search & Rescue Post.

Audaciously, we reached out to Senator Randolph’s office about getting some funding for relevant equipment, such as first aid supplies, stretchers, maps, compasses, CB components, and equipment for spelunking, climbing and rappelling. We also asked for a helicopter. I learned young to ask for more than you want. Turns out we got everything — except the helicopter.

Joint Resolution proposing the 26th Amendment for consideration by the states

Randolph was an incredible host. He arranged for our Post to fly out of Charleston on a military cargo plane to Washington. He introduced us to the giants of the Senate. He arranged for tours of intelligence and military installations in and around Washington. And, he invited us to what turned out to be one of the most memorable evenings of my life — the inauguration of Gerald Ford as the new Vice President for Richard Nixon. From the Gallery of the House chamber, I heard Gerald Ford’s famous first words after the applause had subsided  — “Remember, I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

Randolph shared Ford’s humility. He was determined though, and the following year I cast my first vote.

So, go vote the next time you get a chance.

Still, do not think you have finished helping fulfill Randolph’s legacy by doing so. For though he is rightfully known as a champion of civil rights, he was also a determined, relentless champion of peace.

Though his time in Congress was interrupted by a re-election loss in 1946, he returned as a U.S. Senator following a special election in 1958 and remained in office until his retirement in 1985. However, before leaving the U.S. House, Randolph introduced legislation in 1946 that called for the establishment of a  Department of Peace.

Though a cabinet level department was never made to promote peace, Randolph didn’t give up. Upon joining the Senate, he worked with like-minded colleagues. In the year of his retirement, Congress passed legislation creating the U.S. Institute of Peace. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, creating — for the first time — a department of the U.S. government dedicated solely “ …. to help prevent, mitigate and resolve conflict abroad.” It does so by training and working with diplomats, journalists, policymakers, NGOs and others both here and abroad.

In May 1998, Randolph died at the age of 96. He is buried in his hometown. But, he is not gone — so long as we vote and work for peace.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2021. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of Grassroots Appalachia.

2 comments

    • You’ve got it backwards. Remember, it was 1973. THEN you were the insane adult. Of course, half a century later, you could be considered nothing but a sagacious (is that Latin for ancient?) mentor.

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