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Brooke, Kennedy headline Civil Rights Hall inductees

Rachel Dolin

Forty-four years ago last Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed the Civil Rights Act by a 73-27 vote, signaling the beginning of an era devoted to legal protection of the rights of all American citizens.

Marking the important strides made since 1964, the New England Area Conference (NEAC) of the NAACP on Saturday launched the New England Civil Rights Hall of Fame with a ceremony and reception held at the Boston Marriott Newton Hotel in Newton.

The hall’s inaugural class included former Sen. Edward W. Brooke, R-Mass., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., as well as Kivie Kaplan and Ermino “Ed” Peter Lisbon, both lifetime NAACP leaders who were inducted posthumously.

While countless individuals have played a role in shaping the evolution of American civil rights over the last four decades, these four men represent an unsurpassed breed of leadership, according to NEAC President Juan Cofield.

“These leaders … really changed America and moved us closer to real democracy,” said Cofield.

Brooke became the first African American senator since Reconstruction when he defeated Democratic challenger Endicott Peabody in 1966. His two-term Senate stint included co-sponsoring the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly called the “Fair Housing Act,” intended to end discriminatory practices in the search for affordable housing.

Two years after joining the Senate to fill the vacancy created when his brother, John F. Kennedy, was elected president, Edward M. Kennedy delivered his first significant Senate floor speech, supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over his 46 years on Capitol Hill, he has worked to bridge partisan gaps and champion minority rights through civil rights legislation ranging from an overhaul of the immigration quota system to the No Child Left Behind law and the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007.

A white Jewish man from Boston, Kaplan joined the NAACP in 1932 and was elected to its national board in 1954. In 1966, he was elected the organization’s president, a post he held until his death in 1975.

Among many other civic and professional positions, Lisbon was the past president and a life member of the Newport, R.I., branch of the NAACP and of the New England Area Conference, as well as a member of the New Bedford and Cape Cod branches.

“It’s hard to name living people who surpass [Brooke and Kennedy] in terms of their contributions,” said Cofield. “Kivie Kaplan was absolutely one outstanding leader and made such an effort to bridge the gap between races. And Ed Lisbon was state conference president of the NAACP for several years and was one of the more outstanding NAACP leaders of the area.”

Neither Brooke nor Kennedy was able to attend the event. Cofield accepted the award on Brooke’s behalf, while Matthew Kennedy, the senator’s nephew, accepted the award for his uncle.

“The Civil Rights Hall of Fame will be a new inspiration to us all to carry on the great mission that is so important to my uncle and to the fundamental idea of America,” Matthew Kennedy said. “He certainly intends to be part of that battle in the years to come, and all of us in the Kennedy family are so grateful to you for honoring him.”

Edward Kaplan and Barbara Lisbon represented their fathers, respectively. The Rev. Charles Lee White Jr., deputy director of national field operations for the NAACP, delivered the keynote address following the induction ceremony.

Saturday’s dinner was the first step in a project that the NEAC hopes will eventually reach out to New England’s academic community. When the NEAC Executive Committee voted to create the Hall of Fame in late 2007, it envisioned establishing a partnership with a New England university that would, in turn, create a program devoted to teaching and researching the history and importance of civil rights in America.

Right now, however, the program is still in, what Cofield calls, its “virtual” stage.

“We don’t know how big it might grow,” Cofield said. “We can go back [in time] and [recognize] outstanding leaders in these movements in history; the heart of the abolitionist movement, for example, was from New England states. There are a number of people who should be inducted.”