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Ted Kennedy and the Fight for Civil Rights

Civil rights constituted Senator Kennedy’s defining legislative issue. From the outset of his Senate career, fighting for equality was on the very top of Kennedy’s agenda. He delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor on the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, passed 52 years ago today, and in his first legislative initiative, Kennedy challenged his party leadership to strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act by abolishing the poll tax which prevented thousands of African-Americans from exercising their right to vote in the South.

Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights was shaped by his Catholic faith, his early experiences in school and the army, and his family’s Irish immigrant roots. His grandfather, “Honey Fitz,” taught Kennedy early lessons about discrimination based on religion and national origin, and his brothers, Jack and Bobby, would become ardent supporters of the civil rights movement. All of these influences broadened the way Kennedy defined civil rights. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, language, gender, sexual orientation, mental illness, and physical and mental disabilities, all fell within Kennedy’s civil rights rubric. No cause moved Kennedy more the need to help any disadvantaged group whose rights were systematically denied.

Kennedy particularly embraced the cause of individuals denied equal access to health care, education, jobs, and housing—four issues he focused on while serving in the Senate with his brother, Bobby, for three years. After Bobby’s assassination in 1968, Kennedy continued championing traditional civil rights, while expanding equality to encompass more contemporary issues, such as gay marriage and military service.

In addition to his work at home, Kennedy fought to protect civil rights overseas. Nowhere were his efforts defending civil rights abroad more visible and effective than in South Africa. Continuing Bobby’s work there from the 1960s, Teddy led the fight in 1986 to pass, and then overturn President Reagan’s veto of, the Anti-Apartheid Act.

Often speaking of the slow march for progress, Kennedy understood all too well that crafting and passing legislation took time. Never lacking perseverance, he tried no fewer than four times in the 1980s to pass the Civil Rights Restoration Act, only succeeding after overriding President Reagan’s veto in 1987.

Kennedy also understood the importance of reaching across the aisle to work for compromise reform. His first collaboration came in the 1960s in working with Senator Howard Baker on “one man, one vote,” ensuring equally apportioned voting districts. Over the years he would toil with many other prominent Republicans on civil rights legislation, including Senators Robert Dole, Orrin Hatch, John Danforth, Charles Mathias, and Jacob Javits. The 1982 Voting Rights Act extension, the 1988 Fair Housing Amendments, and the 1991 Civil Rights Act served as testaments to these bipartisan alliances. Cooperating with Republican colleagues to pass landmark legislation would, in fact, become one of the hallmarks of Kennedy’s Senate career.

Here are some excerpts from our Edward M. Kennedy Oral History interviews:

Representative John Lewis (D-GA): Teddy, on a stop, I’m talking about when he’s at a rally—it’s the best. He reminds me of the fire and the passion that Hubert Humphrey had. You talk about the politics of hope, optimism, and when Teddy gets wound up, he’s really at his best. When you see him speaking to a hall full of union members, human rights, civil rights types, he’d come there with fire. From time to time in the early years, he would have a manuscript. Now you see him from time to time, it’s two or three cards. Sometimes he puts those cards away and just goes for it, and he’s good.

Robert Bates (Kennedy staffer): I get to Memphis, all alone. My job was to be in touch with the chief of police and the city officials. The Senator was coming in on a private plane [to speak on the one-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death], and I was supposed to be in contact and let him know when to come into downtown Memphis. There were street demonstrations. Kennedy’s address was outdoors, in the street, and so there were folks out in the street waiting for his appearance. I get this phone call, and he’s at the airport. I’m in the street with the crowds, and there are gunshots. Folks start shooting. I don’t know who was shooting or who were the targets. Not only that, there was a black person who took me around, and this person introduced me to the chief of police. The chief refused to shake my hand. I thought to myself, Wow, this is a nice how-do-you-do.
Paul Martin: Was he a white chief?
Bates: White chief of police, right. But there was so much energy and so much electricity and so much excitement that I didn’t have time to be afraid. I just had to go along with what was going on. And it was my job to let the Senator know when to come in town. “You should be here now,” or “They’re expecting you at such-and-such time, and so come on in,” or, “I think you should—” So there I am trying to make these judgments in the midst of this chaotic stuff that was going on. But I finally said, “Hey, look, come on; bring it on. If we’re going to do this, if you’re here, let’s do it.” And he came in. The big concern, of course, once Dave Burke and the other guys showed up, was his safety, having heard these gunshots. Who the hell had guns? Here we are dealing with a police force that wasn’t happy about having this thing going on anyway. Would they do their job in trying to protect him? Of course, as it happened he gave a rousing speech. The crowd was overwhelmed. They just loved him. It was terrific, and everybody loved it. He got through, we left, and we got on the airplane and came back home...

I also went on a trip with Bob Hunter, who was Kennedy’s foreign policy guy. He and I went on a trip, just the two of us, to South Africa. We were met at the airport, and we had a little press conference. I was the militant one. Bob was scholarly and diplomatic. I was going to change apartheid. He was educated at the London School of Economics, Ph.D. [Doctor of Philosophy], very erudite, a very smooth guy. After this interview, he said, “Now, Bob, when you’re in a host country, you must be courteous. You don’t go into a country and talk about their policies like that. You have to recognize—” So we were there maybe four days. When we got ready to leave, they had another press conference at the airport. I had to tone him down. After having been there for four days and his seeing what the conditions actually were, he became the militant one. He said he had been to Russia and had seen conditions there, and he complained that South Africa was much worse than Russia.

James Young: What was the biggest disappointment you think he had?
Carolyn Osolinik (Kennedy staffer): The amount of time it took to overturn the Grove City College decision was a very big disappointment. He was disappointed about some of the compromises that were made with respect to gender discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1990. It was something that had the potential to divide the civil rights community, because that was something of an omnibus bill. There was, of course, a concern that it was in some ways a zero-sum game, and if Senator Kennedy held fast on one issue, he was going to have to find somewhere else to compromise. It was those kinds of things.

Sheila Burke (chief of staff to Robert Dole): [Regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act,] Dole’s view is you have to give people the right tools, and you have to give them an environment in which they can function. Most people want to become productive human beings. I think that’s how he approached that question. His was perhaps a little more skeptical view of these issues but at the end of the day, he wanted to do the right thing. So it was a combination of Kennedy instinctively wanting to help the population and Dole’s somewhat more jaded view of some of these issues that combined to find a middle ground.

Young: Kennedy didn’t start out with a track record—and you didn’t either—with the disability community… At what point did he get to the point of being their main person?
Osolinik: By the time the new Congress started. Very quickly… He was recruited by the disability community to become part of the leadership of this. The reason he was recruited was because he was so effective—so effective in the arena of civil rights. Although this was a very different subject, and a very complicated subject, he had an outstanding, proven track record, he had the seniority, and he had the passion. The disability community was not—and I think Pat Wright would agree with this—nearly as sophisticated as the other civil rights communities at that point. There was an education process going on within that community about what was doable and what made sense and was why Kennedy’s judgment was so valuable. You could take it to the bank. If he thought he could do it, he’d do it. The decisions he was making were strategic and tactical decisions to get this done.

Date edited: 07/14/2016 (11:51AM)


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