A Fearless Commitment
By John Lewis | NEWSWEEK
Published Aug 29, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Sep 7, 2009
My dear friend and colleague ted Kennedy will forever be remembered
for his brilliant accomplishments, his compassion, and his humanity.
Certainly that is how I will remember him. But, with a secret smile,
I will also remain grateful to Teddy for something more prosaic: he
once helped me sell a lot of books.
Let me explain. In the summer of 1998 I wrote a memoir, Walking With
the Wind. Ted graciously insisted on hosting a book party for me in
Boston. When I arrived, the large room was packed with peopleno one,
especially in Massachusetts, refused an invitation from Senator
Kennedy. He took the microphone and said many warm things about me. I
was greatly moved. He was, of course, a brilliant orator, and to have
that voluminous baritone employed on my behalf was a delight. But it
turned out he was just getting started. After he finished his
remarks, he began working the room, shaking hands, grabbing
shoulders, enveloping the guests in his inescapable hugs. To each
one, he said the same thing: "You cannot leave without buying a copy
of John's book." He said it smiling, but no one walked away believing
he was kidding. I sold and signed many, many books that nightand
went home that evening with a far greater understanding of what has
been called the "Kennedy mystique."
This was the Ted Kennedy I had known for decades. We met in the
1960s, when we were both much younger men. At the time I was a social
activist pushing to advance the cause of civil rights. From his far
loftier perch in the United States Senate, that was Ted's goal, too.
Even thenmany years before he would win renown as the Senate's
greatest legislatorhe used his power and his skills to move others
in the right direction. He made a fearless commitment to carry on the
work of his two fallen brothers. It was never a matter of if a
civil-rights bill would be signed, but when. Never before and never
since have I known a man of privilege who so fully embraced and
embodied the cause of the poor and disenfranchised.
On any number of occasions, I can remember feeling myself losing
hope, only to hear Ted pushing harder. He had the audacity to believe
that people wanted to do the right thing, even if it meant sometimes
they needed to be given a push. "We will win this fight," he would
say. "We will end this injustice. Everyone will have the right to
vote." His resolve was not only inspiring, it was effective. It was
more than just words. Like his brother Bobby before him, he took his
cause on the road. He traveled to Mississippi and Georgia and all
across the South spreading the wordoften in places where neither he,
nor his message of freedom and equality, were welcome. In my times of
darkness and deepest despair, his resolve restored my own.
Years later, I had the pleasure of coming to Washington and working
alongside my friend in the Capitol. It was a true pleasure to watch
Ted negotiate a bill. He seemed to relish these closed-door sessions
most when the odds were against him. He knew what he wanted. He knew
how to get there. He knew when to press, and when to relent. And
always, he did it with good humor. In all the years I knew him, never
once did I see Ted lose his cool. When his voice rose, sometimes to
the point of trembling, it was because the moment called for it. In
persuading his colleagues to see things his way, he did not resort to
threats or arm-twisting. He never talked down to people but instead
raised them by appealing to their better nature. "It is the fair
thing to do," he would say. "It's the right thing to do."
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to work with him when the
Voting Rights Act came up for renewal. There were some who said that
its time had come and gone and that it should be allowed to expire.
Ted helped put together a group of senators and representatives from
both sides of the aisle to make sure that that did not happen. On the
day that the Senate voted to renew the act, he invited me into the
Senate chamber to witness the vote. It passed, of course, and he
proudly presented me with the Senate tally sheet of the vote. We then
walked together to a small room nearby, where he showed me the desk
where President Johnson had signed the original Voting Rights Act in
1965. He had a photographer waiting, and he took our picture at the desk.
That photograph has hung in my home ever since. When I look at him in
that picture, with that ruddy face and renowned Kennedy smile, I am
reminded how blessed I was to have had the pleasure and privilege of
Lewis is a 12-term congressman from Georgia and the former chairman
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On the Death of Ted Kennedy
Former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and
August 26, 200
In his final months, he became the progressive anchor of the Barack
Obama campaign. When I saw them together early in 2008, it was not
easy for Ted Kennedy to oppose the party's favorite, Hillary Clinton,
on behalf of a young tribune of hope. But he did. Ted Kennedy sailed
against the wind.
Were he alive today, we would have a better health care bill than
anything that will emerge from this Congress. Perhaps the Senate
could be shamed into voting for a bill worth of his name, but I am
doubtful. Were he alive today, he surely would have counseled the
president to extract our troops from Afghanistan as rapidly as
possible, just as his brother Robert in 1967 decided to separate
himself from his brother John's earliest Vietnam policy. The
president will miss Ted Kennedy's wisdom amidst all the current
preening and chattering in the newest ranks of the best and the brightest.
Were he alive today, Ted Kennedy would recommend diplomacy toward our
apparent adversaries, just as he supported a US visa to permit Gerry
Adams to enter America in search of an Irish peace. Kennedy favored
the visa against the counsel of the State Department and CIA at the time.
Were he alive today, the Democratic Party would be less likely to
drift away from its progressive legacy in the name of victory at any
price. He was too old and experienced, had suffered through too much,
to fall victim to the latest fads of the ambitious. He knew that the
winds of change always return, even in the slackest tides.
I first met Ted Kennedy in 1962, when he was the kid brother, yet
already a US senator. I hated the system of perks and privileges when
most young men of my generation were facing the grim reaper of the
draft. I thought his brothers were full of progressive possibility,
but too imprisoned in the Democratic machine, too ambitious for
technical fixes. All that began to change when they were deceived by
their own CIA and Joint Chiefs at the Bay of Pigs, and again in South
Vietnam, which led them to consider withdrawal from Southeast Asia
and the horrifying Cold War nuclear arms race. They awakened to the
spirit of the civil rights and student movements too. Then came the
Dallas assassination, then the King assassination, then Bobby's
assassination here in Los Angeles.
The utter madness of it all surely contributed to Teddy's spiral
downward. The miracle was his steady recovery and his eventual
restoration and extension of the Kennedy family legacy. When I last
saw him, during an informal get-together in his Senate office, it was
as if much of his youth, his ironic humor, his fighting spirit, and
his empathy for social movements, had returned.
If we understand Ted Kennedy as the most progressive and effective
member of the United States Senate, whose politics are echoed
generally across the whole Kennedy family, we must draw the
conclusion for our generation and the country as a whole. If either
of the earlier Kennedy brothers had not been murdered, the likelihood
is that American would have evolved steadily in a progressive
direction, without Vietnam, without the black uprisings and
repressions, without Nixon and Watergate, because that was the
trajectory where Ted Kennedy believed his brothers' legacy would be honored.
That is why, as Jack Newfield wrote in 1968, we would become not a
generation of has-beens, but a generation of might-have-beens, while
we were very young.
Ted Kennedy knew at the deepest level that only a new and hopeful
generation of activists might lift America from the life of sorrows
that he, and the rest of us, were forced to endure.
Civil rights heroes mourn Kennedy as one of theirs
By ERRIN HAINES Associated Press Writer
In the early hours before President Barack Obama's historic
inauguration, U.S. Rep. John Lewis' phone rang. It was Edward Kennedy.
"I'm thinking about you, of how proud you must be and how happy you
must be," Lewis, a lion of the civil rights movement, recalled
hearing the liberal lion of the Senate say on the other end. "I wish
that my brothers, Jack and Bobby, and Dr. King were here to observe
what we are about to observe."
For all the causes championed by Kennedy, who died Tuesday at 77
after nearly half a century in the Senate, he will be remembered in
the South almost exclusively as the man who, in the face of
resentment from many whites, delivered on the promises his brothers
made to help end segregation.
"Of the white Americans who did the most to help the advancement of
civil rights, Ted Kennedy would be on the short list. He may even be
at the top of it," said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice
University. "He wasn't just for civil rights in the sense of the
movement, but for dignity rights for all people."
And while John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had a tenuous
relationship with civil rights leaders _ particularly the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. _ Ted Kennedy was embraced by the civil rights
community, Brinkley said.
"He was our shepherd," Lewis said. "He was our fighter for social
justice, and not just in the traditional sense or for people of
color. He was a champion for those who were left out and left behind."
Barely four months after his oldest brother was assassinated, Edward
Kennedy, then a 32-year-old serving his first term, gave his first
major speech on the Senate floor. Until then, Kennedy had largely
been deferential to his senior colleagues. But after four weeks of
listening to them debate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he could be
silent no more.
"My brother was the first President of the United States to state
publicly that segregation was wrong," Kennedy said. "His heart and
soul are in this bill. If his life and death had a meaning, it was
that we should not hate but love one another; we should use our
powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence,
but conditions of freedom that lead to peace. It is in that spirit
that I hope the Senate will pass this bill."
It was the opening salvo of the youngest Kennedy son's career-long
efforts on behalf of blacks, which decades later would see him
deliver an endorsement that helped put the first black man in the Oval Office.
"It became clear by 1968 that this was somebody who was colorblind,"
Brinkley said. "He believed in his heart that prejudice was an
abomination. The African-American community fell in love with Ted Kennedy."
Of course, many Southern whites had the opposite reaction to the
Yankee senator, whom they saw as an ultra-leftist threat to their way
of life, Brinkley said.
"Ted Kennedy found the Jim Crow system abhorrent," he said. "He
almost became an ugly parlor joke with the mere mention of his name."
For Kennedy, the movement became personal. After King's assassination
in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy's slaying two months later, Edward
Kennedy remained close to King's widow, Coretta Scott King.
"He'd call her whenever he passed through town," said Andrew Young,
the former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
who worked alongside King and other civil rights leaders and knew
Kennedy for decades.
"And she didn't hesitate to call him when there was anything that the
government or that he, personally, could do. I think he became a
Young said Kennedy saw his mission as continuing the legacy not only
of his brothers, but of King. Long after the marches and freedom
rides stopped, Kennedy continued to work on issues of equality for
minorities and the poor, pushing for economic opportunity and a
national teachers' corps.
When Young needed support to create the Morehouse School of Medicine,
an institution dedicated to educating primary care physicians who
work in underserved communities, he turned to then-Sen. Herman
Talmadge of Georgia and Kennedy, who considered health care part of
the civil rights agenda.
"I knew if the two of them could agree on it, it would happen," Young
said. "It didn't take a half hour for them to say, 'OK, we can get that done.'"
Kennedy also worked with Coretta Scott King to get a federal holiday
established in her husband's honor.
Martin Luther King III called Kennedy the country's "greatest
statesman in modern times."
"Ted Kennedy was the epitome of a visionary, compassionate and
dedicated public servant who spoke up for those without a voice and
little hope," said King, whose organization, Realizing the Dream
Inc., honored Kennedy earlier this year.
"His life should serve as an example to each of us to reach beyond
our own selfish interests to serve the greater needs of all people," King said.
Charles Evers, who served as the NAACP's field secretary in
Mississippi and whose brother Medgar was killed by a white
supremacist in a slaying that galvanized the movement, said he stayed
in touch with Kennedy through the years.
Evers, now 86, said he took the senator on a tour of some of the
poorest areas of the state in the 1970s and 1980s, including the
Delta region and parts of Jackson.
"He just really wanted to see the ruins of black folk. He said this
is unnecessary, it's un-American because no one is supposed to live
like this," Evers said.
Lewis, D-Ga., worked with Kennedy for 22 years in the halls of
Congress. As he pondered the depth of the nation's loss, Lewis
recalled another personal moment he shared with his colleague.
As a representative with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, Lewis had worked for the passage of the Voting Rights Act
of 1965. When the bill was up for reauthorization in the Senate three
years ago, Kennedy invited Lewis to speak on the Senate floor ahead
of the vote.
Afterward, Kennedy took his friend around the corner to a room.
Inside was the desk President Lyndon Johnson used to sign the bill
four decades earlier.