Many of us once joked that Bill Clinton was the “first black president” (which he wasn’t). We had it wrong. If such a title were to be given to any white man, that should have to be the late Senator Ted Kennedy. He was never president of the United States, but he was certainly one of the kings of his generation.
As a member of the Senate since 1962, Senator Kennedy had a long career fighting for those forced to live in the underbelly of a capitalist society. Over the last 47 years, he has done it better than nearly any politician in American history. African-Americans were among the many beneficiaries of his passionate life’s work, and for that, we will always be appreciative.
In a multitude of areas including housing, income, civil liberties, and equality, Ted Kennedy has been on the front lines. His brother John introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, considered to be one of the most impactful pieces of legislation ever produced by our government. After John’s death, Ted and his brother Robert were instrumental in seeing that the bill was passed.
Senator Ted Kennedy then went on to help pass one law after another to support the rights of the elderly, the sick, the poor and the incarcerated. He introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act, The Civil Rights Act of 1991, The Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, among others. He also helped to amend the Fair Housing Act, and has fought relentlessly for those who’ve never known the comfort of attending an Ivy League University.
Senator Kennedy’s political compassion, as well as his complicated coping mechanisms, may be linked to the tragedy he experienced during his life. As a young child, he watched his sister Rosemary endure a failed lobotomy, saw his brother Joseph die in World War II and then witnessed his older sister Kathleen’s death in a plane crash. This tragedy was compounded by the assassinations of his two brothers, Robert and John during the 1960s. This kind of pain doesn’t heal easily, and few families endure such an amazing amount of personal tragedy. It is quite possible that the weight of his psychological pain gave Senator Kennedy the ability to empathize with the struggles of others, as well as the strength to fight through hurdles presented by his adversaries.
In spite of his personal tragedies, Senator Kennedy was not a man without privilege. After being kicked out of Harvard for cheating on an exam, he was allowed back into school two years later. Additionally, there are persistent rumors regarding the ability of Kennedy family members to avoid paying social and legal costs for serious mistakes. While one might be tempted to say that it would be great to be a Kennedy, the truth is that this family is an almost mythical manifestation of wealth, power and privilege as well as cross-generational trauma.
Ted Kennedy will be missed, especially by African-Americans. In spite of his short-comings, he should have had the chance to become president. He certainly would not have been the most flawed human being to enter the White House and it’s clear that his strengths in life far outweighed his weaknesses. But even without entering the White House, Ted Kennedy has left his mark on our nation forever, and that fact simply cannot be denied.