A Generational Narrative by a Black Woman on the Life and Legacy of Senator Edward Kennedy
August 2009

This morning, I awoke to the sound of news reporters telling the world that Ted Kennedy died, just as the night turned into morning. As I heard Senator Edward Kennedy’s voice booming from the television, the words “for those whose cares have been our concern… the hope still lives, the dream shall never die", coming from when he lost his bid for president in 1980, my eyes filled with tears that carried with them the hopes and dreams of a generation and community of people of all colors, who imagined a new day in America and worked hard to achieve it. As I thought about this man who lived a life committed to “making a better world,” it touched the grief and celebration that has run throughout the lives of my generation, who rode, and still ride, a long train towards justice. In many ways, his life reflects the hills and valleys of our lives... our “victories and our defeats.”

This morning, in a very special way, I remembered my young brothers and sisters in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and local communities throughout the South, who worked unrelentingly to advance democracy during the heat and violence of white supremacy, without thinking in terms of money or benefits. We lived in and worked from freedom houses that lacked hot water, inside bathrooms, and sturdy foundations to protect us from the violence and terror of white night riders. Most of us were young. We were idealistic. We were black, white and brown. We were determined. Despite generations of America’s broken promises of democracy, we still passionately believed in the dreams of our mothers and fathers: that America was large enough for everyone, regardless of race, sex, class, color, or creed.

Believing this, we put our youth on the line to make real their dream. We were wounded at the core of our young selves under the weight of white lies, white racism, and white violence. America's bad faith, violence and oppression fractured us into tiny, unclaimed bits, which lay on the road from Mississippi to Alabama to Washington to New York to Los Angeles. Yet, like Ted Kennedy, many of us did not die or lose our will to struggle. We kept on believing, working, and struggling, despite hearts that were broken by white men who killed our relatives and murdered our friends. I admit that sometimes we did not always carry our grief well or wisely. However, unlike the trumpet blowers of white supremacy and injustice, we harmed ourselves more often than we did others. Unlike them, love, rather than hate, stirred our passions and ignited our imaginations. Even as we watched right-wing communities vigorously and intentionally roll back the gains of the Southern Freedom/Civil Rights Movement, like Senator Kennedy, we “kept the faith” and found it over and over again, despite the hopeless despair that the right-wing communities spread throughout America like a dirty blanket. Because their language and ideals lacked hope, moral authority, and meaning, they stole our freedom language. They called death squads in Nicaragua "freedom fighters". Even in the midst of this grand theft, we knew, like Senator Kennedy, that they might steal our language and images, but they could not kill this dream that still burns in us.

My reaction to Senator Kennedy’s life and death this morning caused me to reflect on my own life. It moved me to ask what is it about a white, upper-class senator’s life that touches me, as a southern black woman who grew up during segregation and economic exploitation, and who came into radical adulthood at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, on the bloody fields of Lowndes County, Alabama, where my young, white seminarian friend Jonathan Daniels saved my life, as he stepped in front of a bullet aimed at me by a Klansman.

I am moved by how Senator Kennedy, as other freedom workers, refused to be broken or incapacitated by slander, or even by personal struggles. In the face of much pounding and demonization by members of right-wing communities, Senator Kennedy carried the banner for ordinary people who faced the fires of injustice in America. He stood up for immigrants, people of color, workers, lesbians and gays, women, and youth. He stood up in the raging storm of neo-conservatives and right-wingers who distorted the people’s struggle for justice, and used it to inflame passionate resentment and rage in many whites and their allies of color. He stood firm as a liberal, as members of right-wing communities decried liberalism as a big sore that contaminated the federal government and oozed pus throughout America, one that ruined, destroyed, and betrayed the lives of ordinary white people, by giving handouts to undeserving colored peoples. He stood firm as the right-wing community demonized him and used his name and image to stir up hatred in people, while feeding on this hate and resentment to move forward their own careers and their rigid ideological positions. The great irony is that Ted Kennedy fought more vigorously for the rights and welfare of ordinary white people than these right-wing preachers, politicians, news pundits, and their allies ever did.

As I survey the American landscape that is raging with racism, economic injustice, and cries of some white Americans that they want their country back, I hear the voice of our dear brother, uncle, father, Senator Kennedy’s peer and long-distance runner for justice, Vincent Harding, reminding us that “there in Ohio, and in here in D.C., it can be our statement, our announcement, that we refuse to be overcome by the difficulties of the current moment. It is our way of declaring that we've come too far to turn back from this peace-making path. Surrounded as we are by a host of ancestors who have gone before us -- including our ancestor, Jesus -- we will continue to sing. We will continue to build. We will continue to believe. We will continue to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We will continue to love. We will continue to run. We will continue to hope, continue to dream. For we believe, with Langston (Hughes), that we were not meant to be broken-winged birds. As a matter of fact, when we are at our best, we believe that we were meant to rise up on wings, like eagles.”

This morning, as I placed Senator Kennedy’s life and legacy within a history and context, I salute this powerful and compassionate eagle, who flew above the constraints of class to connect with ordinary people, who flew above the constraints of heterosexuality to connect with lesbians and gays, who flew above the constraints of whiteness to connect with people of color, and who flew above the constraints of his own individual challenges to strive to become more fully human. We salute you, Senator Edward Kennedy, not because you were perfect, and not because we always agreed with you, but because you tried to treat others right on this journey, even in the face of great personal hardship and travail. We salute you, Senator Kennedy, because you stood with us when standing with us was a liability.

Fly on, Senator Kennedy, as you join that mighty cloud of witnesses/ancestors whose lives lift us and remind us that we are not alone -- that we are passengers on a long train moving towards justice. For those of us who remain as remnants of Movements for Justice in the 20th century, let the words uttered at the 2008 Democratic Convention by our brother, senator, and long-distance worker for justice, Senator Edward Kennedy, resonate and hold us through this unsteady leg of our journey. He said, “I have come here tonight to stand with you - to change America, and to restore its future. To rise to our best ideals, and to elect Barack Obama President of the United States... Together, we have known success and seen setbacks - victory and defeat - but we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world.”

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