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 family friend.”
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.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.