U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (left) and his sons Patrick (center) and Ted Jr. offer Christmas presents to children during a visit to the Roxbury Family and Children’s Services in Boston on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 1985. Throughout his career in the Senate, Kennedy has been a staunch supporter of minority advancement and the continued march of civil rights. (AP photo/Charles A. Krupa)
When the Civil Rights Bill reached the U.S. Senate on March 30, 1964, it was met by a group of Southern senators determined to prevent it from hitting the desk of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
An 83-day filibuster followed, significantly weakening the bill before it passed through the Senate in mid-June. Despite the delay, it did, finally, land in the Oval Office. When it was signed on July 2, 1964, it marked the culmination of a movement that had seen its legal foundation cemented in 1954, when the Supreme Court overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
Though the bill was diluted, the fact that it reached Johnson at all was, in part, the result of the persuasive speaking and adamant beliefs of a freshman senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts named Edward M. Kennedy.
Just two years after joining the Senate to fill the vacancy left when his brother, John F. Kennedy, was elected president, Kennedy addressed the chamber on April 9, 1964, delivering a speech that — in terms of political and moral gravity — set the stage for the next 40 years of his career in public service.
“This is not a political issue,” Kennedy said in his address. “It is a moral issue, to be resolved through political means. Religious leaders can preach, they can advise, they can lead movements of social action. But there comes a point when persuasion must be backed up by law to be effective. In the field of civil rights, that point has been reached.”
Such sentiments have formed the backbone of Kennedy’s political ideology. The third longest-serving senator in history, Kennedy has authored or sponsored more than 2,500 bills, several hundred of which have become law, impacting not only the general populace, but also historically under-recognized groups across the nation.
On June 21, Kennedy became one of the first four leaders inducted into the Civil Rights Hall of Fame, started by the New England Area Conference (NEAC) of the NAACP.
“Kennedy has the ability to look beyond race, look beyond gender and recognize where this country is today — the need for change and who could most effectively bring about that change,” said NEAC President Juan Cofield.
From his first bill, an overhaul of the American immigration system in 1965, through his most recent advocacy for No Child Left Behind and the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, Kennedy has made it his duty to protect and promote minority rights.
“He’s so proud that he gave his maiden speech in the Senate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and for more than four decades, civil rights has always been one of his very highest priorities,” Matthew Kennedy, the senator’s nephew, said in an address on his uncle’s behalf at the Civil Rights Hall of Fame ceremony. “Because of his dedication and the dedication of so many other great leaders, my generation has grown up in a stronger and fairer America than the one our parents knew.”(p2)
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