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Ted Kennedy's Legacy in the Black Community

The Loop 21, Commentary, Marvin King Posted: Aug 26, 2009

I was deeply saddened upon hearing that Ted Kennedy, the Lion of the Senate, had died due to a brain tumor. I was sad because the Kennedy clan lost another of its leaders, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, just two weeks ago. But even more so because I really believe that Kennedy represents the last of a breed, and Im afraid my daughter will grow up in a world where people like Kennedy, who actually serve the people, are no more.

Kennedy was special because of his tireless work for the dispossessed, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, the poor, the everyman and every woman that makes America great.

As a man of privilege, Kennedy did not know poverty, but as he came from a family of immigrants, he recognized that if we could establish a level playing field, anyone in America can succeed. Given the proper tools and sufficient opportunity, Kennedy believed all Americans could reach loftier perches.

And for that purpose he worked. For more than 40 years, he worked in the Senate to provide us with that opportunity. As a staunch supporter of President Johnsons Great Society, Kennedy made sure segregationist congressmen did not water down critical legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. His first piece of legislation, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, opened up American immigration policy to be more inclusive of immigrants from places other than Europe. His vision, one of pragmatic fairness for all Americans, will not and cannot be easily replaced.

Massachusetts has a relatively small black population, just 7 percent, yet he acted as if winning the black vote was the key to electoral success. Like his brother John F. Kennedy, who submitted the original Civil Rights Act, Ted realized that America could not fulfill its promise as long as it treated Blacks as second-class citizens. It was extra meaningful then when Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama early in the primary season, despite his longstanding friendship with the Clintons. Kennedy understood before most of us what the symbolic benefit of an Obama presidency would mean.

Kennedy was always a proud liberal and never compromised his beliefs, even though he occasionally sought political compromise. This was most evident in 2001 when he reached across the aisle to work with Republicans in crafting No Child Left Behind, because he believed we must do something to improve our schools. Yet, he always remained a true Democrat; he bitterly complained when those same Republicans failed to adequately fund NCLB.

Kennedy was at his best in 1980 when he challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. In an America moving to the right, Kennedy called for a more liberal platform. Although his bid to unseat Carter failed, Kennedy shined a bright light on the issues he believed Congress and the president had neglected, most notably assistance for the poor in fighting nasty rates of inflation and unemployment.

His loss will be, and already is, greatly felt in the great health care debate. The Senate could use his calming influence during the greatest domestic policy debate in a generation. Hopefully, congressional Democrats can summon Kennedys courage and vision and pass meaningful reform that would make him proud.

Marvin King is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi and writes the blog King Politics.

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