Thursday, August 27, 2009
Teddy Passed the Torch
A Tribute to Teddy
America, in general, and Black America, in particular lost a true friend and advocate in the passing of Edward “Teddy” Moore Kennedy. He was the last of the Kennedy legacy. Jack, the older brother was elected president with strong support of the black community. During his campaign for the presidency, Senator Jack Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to console her relative to Martin’s being in jail. A presidential candidate expressing concern about “a Negro?” That was unprecedented. Every black minister across the nation told that story to their congregations on Sunday morning. Jack Kennedy was the first president to speak out forcefully about discrimination suffered by African Americans. He promoted a civil rights bill that had been encouraged by 250,000 people marching on Washington. He was assassinated. Malcolm was disciplined for a flip remark he made about assassination. Purportedly he was disciplined because President Jack Kennedy was loved by black America. (At least that was the reason given.)
Then came Bobby. Marian Wright Edleman, Charles Evers, and other activists in Mississippi introduced Bobby Kennedy to poverty. He had never known poverty. He was transformed from vengeful anti-labor, or at least anti-teamster, brute to a man of compassion who sought out justice for those who had been marginalized. By the time he got around to running for the presidency, he was passionate in his pursuit of justice and equality. It was Bobby Kennedy who informed the crowd in Indianapolis that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed by an assassin’s bullet. The news of King’s assassination led to violent eruptions in cities all across the nation but not Indianapolis. The sensitivity along with the importance of non-violence connected with the crowd. That speech by Bobby made it clear that he would be a stalwart on the issue of civil rights. With his nomination almost certain, he was assassinated. African Americans mourned.
This was the Kennedy legacy that was bestowed onto Teddy. His career in the Senate has been one of struggle for economic justice for the American citizenry. At the top of that list was health care for all, beginning with seniors. To a person labor leaders found a friend and advocate for their issues in Senator Kennedy, not the least of which was “Teddy’s” struggle to raise the minimum wage.
On the issue of civil rights, Kennedy was the lead voice. He consistently played a key role on all of the civil rights legislation. No other Senator comes close in terms of being either a fierce fighter for the cause or in terms of longevity. Liberal Senators came and went but Teddy was there for nearly a half century. In addition to his role on domestic civil rights issues, he sponsored the 1965 immigration bill that struck down “being white” as the primary criterion for immigration into the U.S. His work in this regard when it comes to people of color has changed the face of America.
He saved us from Robert Bork. And he tried his best to save us from Clarence Thomas.
Even though Senator Kennedy has been a “Lion” when it comes to civil rights, he made a clear but not always apparent line between the principle of compromise and the compromise of principle. There was a battle the “Lion” did not take on. The disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in 2000 was nothing less than fraud at the expense of black voters. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) challenged the certification of that election based upon the irregularities. They needed ONE Senator to side with them to open up an investigation. Not one Senator gave its support to the CBC, including Senator Kennedy. We must assume that for him that was the principle of compromise at work. To have supported the challenge would have destroyed his career. The "white nation" would have exploded. He would have been vilified, left, right and center. This would not have been in character for someone whose reputation was that he could work both sides of the aisle.
This incident does not take away from his life-long service and advocacy for just causes. He has no peer. There will be a major void. It is hard to imagine who will speak for progressive causes inside the Senate. It will be impossible to replace his collaborative bonds that have developed over decades of service. As far as the Senate is concerned, he cannot be replaced. His service to progressive causes and for the nation was bigger than the Senate and legislation.
In fact, Teddy passed on the legacy that began with Jack, on to Bobby and himself, to Barack Obama and a new generation. By endorsing Barack Obama for the presidency, he remained true to the Kennedy civil rights and economic justice legacies. He used the Kennedy legacy for change, not the status quo or centrist politics. In addition to raising the bar when it comes to civil rights, he took the legacy to a whole new level, being the key player in making history one more time by adding the first African American president to his long list of accomplishments. Obama’s candidacy was up against the Democratic party establishment that had lots of money and was willing to pull out all stops to win. Even so, the most important name in the party for the last half century has been Kennedy. The endorsement rally was unbelievable. Given the honor that this family’s name has in the Democratic party, Obama’s “inheritance,” or having that torch passed to him, may have been Teddy and the Kennedys’ grandest act. Thanks to Teddy for fighting the good fight. He will be missed. RGN