The Kennedys’ enduring legacy
Fighting for equality was part of the family business
Of all the political families throughout American history, none have been as faithful to the cause of civil rights as the Kennedys.
Not the Adamses. Not the Harrisons or the Roosevelts. And certainly not the Bushes.
And if their support didn’t always come for the right reasons — if it came, say, for political expediency — then at least it could be argued that their very public embrace of the U.S. Constitution’s highest ideals was always for the greater good; the sense that equal rights, particularly for African Americans, was not just a campaign slogan, but rather a critical part of American democracy.
It was more than a theoretical exercise for the Kennedys. If it wasn’t personal to them, it was made personal by the reactions they received from their enemies across the nation and around the world. Ted Kennedy saw that during Boston’s busing crisis in the early ’70s.
Almost 35 years ago, on Sept. 9, 1974, a crowd of about 10,000 anti-busers congregated on Boston Common and marched down to City Hall to protest Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s desegregation orders. Kennedy had already agreed to meet with some of the protestors in his office, but he decided to attend the rally.
That was a mistake, according to published reports. Ugly jeers greeted Kennedy as he took the podium, followed by shouting and screaming. Then, almost on cue, the entire crowd began to turn their backs on the speaker. Shouted off the stage, Kennedy tried to leave, only to find himself the target of eggs, tomatoes and curses.
Before he made it to safety — and even then, protestors shattered a large pane of a glass on the entranceway door of the nearby federal building — he heard the worst of America.
“You’re a disgrace to the Irish,” said one protester.
“Why don’t you put your one-legged son on a bus for Roxbury?” said another.
“Why don’t you let them shoot you like they shot your two brothers?” asked another.
It was personal and ugly, but it was not enough to deter Ted Kennedy. At another speaking event, this time in April 1975 at Quincy High School, Kennedy was mobbed again by members of Restore Our Alienated Rights, a virulent anti-busing group.
Author Ronald Formisano described the harrowing scene in “Boston Against Busing”:
“[They were] … jostling him, trying to jab him with small flags, slashing the tires of his car, and placing small children under its wheels, forcing Kennedy to flee with a police escort to a subway station.”
Still, Kennedy never wavered, even despite the costs. His steadfast support of equal education during the busing crisis showed.
“The rage against Kennedy,” Formisano concluded, “reached such a torrent because of the feeling, especially among Irish Catholics, that Kennedy, one of theirs, had betrayed them … [It was] symbolic of the white backlash that transformed Kennedy Democrats into anti-liberals who voted for George Wallace and Richard Nixon.”
Years later, after the busing crisis had subsided, Kennedy spoke at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury about his commitment.
“The history of black people in America,” Kennedy said in 1985, “has been an unyielding — and unfinished — crusade across the centuries for social justice, for economic progress, and above all for full freedom and true equality. … I have been proud to stand with many of you in working toward these great goals, which define the meaning of freedom in our society …”
Kennedy didn’t just stand; he marched as well, as he reminded the Twelfth Baptist Church parishioners, many of whom had listened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach from the same pulpit.
“We have marched together for justice in the past,” Kennedy said, “and we shall continue to march together in the future — however difficult the road, however long the journey — until every child born in this land, regardless of the color of his skin, is free at last, free to enjoy the blessings of America, free from the shackles of prejudice and discrimination.”
Part of Kennedy’s racial DNA came from his grandfather John F. Fitzgerald, a Massachusetts Democrat who went by the nickname “Honey Fitz.”
A congressman at the time of the Spanish American War, Fitzgerald stood on the floor of the U.S. Congress and gave credit to Negro soldiers. He delivered the speech in 1901, during the second session of the 56th Congress — and at a time for blacks that was considered to be the nadir of race relations in American history.
Lynching was common and Jim Crow was seemingly everywhere, prohibiting equality in voting rights, education and public accommodations — all cloaked in scientific rubbish that considered blacks less than whites. It also came at a time when white military leaders questioned the bravery of black soldiers, even though blacks had nobly served in every war — particularly the Spanish American War, where American leaders were exercising their hypocritical “white man’s burden” of helping other races in other countries build democratic governments.
The issue was voting rights here in America — something Southern legislators didn’t want to hear — and Fitzgerald put it on the line.
“We are all proud of the record of the black regiments in the Spanish American War,” Fitzgerald said, “and if the white soldier boys whose lives were saved on San Juan Hill and at El Chaney by the heroic and daredevil work of the black-skinned men who … rushed to the assistance of the Rough Riders were here to speak, I think they would protest with mighty vigor against the disfranchisement of a race that produced such brave and noble
The racial DNA can also be traced through Kennedy’s older brothers, John and Robert. It was personal for them, too, so much so that even after John’s assassination in 1963, Robert carried the torch — to the chagrin of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
As Robert Kennedy told historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “My brother barely had a chance to get started — and there is so much now to be done — for the negroes and the unemployed and the school kids and everyone else who is not getting a decent break in our society … The new fellow [Johnson] doesn’t get this. He knows all about politics and nothing about human beings.”
It was particularly personal for Bobby Kennedy when it appeared that Johnson was taking credit for the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 that had been introduced by his brother, then-President Kennedy, a year earlier. According to Nicholas Lemann in the Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kennedy sent one of his aides a photograph of the bill-signing ceremony, along with a pen that Johnson used to sign the bill into law.
Kennedy also included this inscription: “Pen used to sign President Kennedy’s civil rights bill.”
It was personal. “Just as it was instinctive for Johnson to think of racial problems in political terms,” Lemann wrote, “it was instinctive for Kennedy to believe that a deep-dyed politician like Johnson was incapable of truly confronting racial problems. Much more than most people in government, Kennedy saw life as a morality play, and he came increasingly to reject the New Deal and the flabby, talky, deal-making politicians who were its legatees in the Democratic Party.”
Unlike his three older brothers, Ted Kennedy lived long enough to transform personal feelings into actual legislation and laws. He was at his fiery best when he addressed a civil rights conference in Boston on Oct. 16, 1989.
“… We must wage war on bigotry on every front,” Kennedy said. “To succeed, we will need more than new legislation or stronger law enforcement. Tolerance begins at home and in the schools and in the workplace. We must demonstrate through words and deeds that discrimination has no place in society …”
Kennedy lived those words until the day he died.