When I grew up in the 1970s in McDonough, GA (near Atlanta) I was immersed in the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. I heard countless stories of the giants of the movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, etc. Although I knew of Ted Kennedy I never heard his name mentioned in the same breath as those whose fundamentally changed the landscape of civil rights in the U.S.
Kennedy, fondly known as the Lion of the Senate, should be considered one of the lions of the movement to secure civil rights in the U.S. Although less visible than his African American contemporaries, his legacy on this issue is on par with that of the most influential change agents of our times.
The most comprehensive and significant civil rights act in our history was passed in 1964. On the heels of his brother John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Ted urged his colleagues in the Senate and in the House to pass this monumental act. He solemnly stated that it was the most pressing moral issue of the day.
Blacks in the south always had a deep respect and affection for the Kennedys. As I was growing up and visiting family members in Georgia, Mississippi, or Alabama, it was not strange to see portraits of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy (occasionally Bobby) on living room walls. The Kennedys represented the most prominent and boisterous white voices that advocated for social justice since that of the courageous whites who spoke out after the Civil War during the period known as Radical Reconstruction. The Kennedy’s legacy and connection with blacks has been fortified with various watershed events.
Out of all of the battles that Ted Kennedy fought on behalf of the underprivileged in the U.S. his most significant contribution to blacks and to social justice might be his enthusiastic endorsement of Barack Obama for president. The noble senator’s endorsement should not be trivialized. It was the single most important endorsement in U.S. presidential politics. Kennedy’s endorsement gave Obama the legitimacy that he needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary and become the nation’s first black president. Kennedy’s endorsement also showed us a conspicuous bond and family-like relationship that he shared with Obama. Indeed Obama, in more ways than one, seems to be a Kennedy.
Our collective question now is how do we honor the spirit of the great dealmaker—the person who fought tirelessly for universal health care in this nation. Kennedy leaves us in a time when we are fiercely debating the “great cause of his public life.”
In the wake of Kennedy’s passing, President Obama stated, “Everyday that I was with him he restored my sense of idealism of what this country could do.” Senator Kennedy displayed the courage to consistently stand up for his principles but yet reached across the political aisle when he thought it was right for the American people. Kennedy leaves us in a time when our nation is ideologically bifurcated and hostile–lacking the can-do idealism that he embraced all of his public life.
We have lost a magnificent public servant and political icon. Politicians should use this moment in history to dedicate themselves to the spirit of Kennedy by pledging to embrace a new spirit of bipartisanship, compromise, dealmaking, and reconciliation. They should pledge to have the Ted Kennedy-like courage to fight for social justice and for the least advantage of us. And finally, politicians from Sacramento to Washington D.C. should always govern by Kennedy’s Golden Rule of politics: Always put the people first.
–Renford Reese, Ph.D., is a professor in the political science department and director of the Colorful Flags program at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of American Bravado (2008) and the widely discussed American Paradox: Young Black Men (2004). He is currently a Fulbright Fellow lecturing at the University of Hong Kong. See his work at http://www.RenfordReese.com