Wed 26 Aug, 2009
Tags: Civil rights, Disabilities, Immigration, Senator Ted Kennedy, U.S. Senate, Voting Rights Act, Women's rights
It was announced overnight that Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has died at the age of 77.
Much has been said about the legacy of Senator Kennedy, the “liberal lion of the Senate,” and much more will be said today and in the the future. As President Obama said in a statement released during the night, during his career “virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.”
Here, I want to briefly highlight some of the ways in which Senator Kennedy has been a leading voice on civil rights for the last 45 years, repeatedly helping to redefine our understanding of the meaning of equality in areas such as race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, and disabilities.
As a young senator in 1965, returning to the Senate following a six-month hospital stay after breaking his back in a plane crash, Kennedy fought and narrowly lost a battle to include a ban on poll taxes in the Voting Rights Act. Poll taxes, for those who aren’t aware, were widely used in the Jim Crow South to prevent blacks and others from voting.
That same year, Kennedy lead and won the fight to pass the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished immigration quotas and ended the 1924 prohibition on immigration from Asia.
In 1972, Kennedy played a key role in the passage of Title IX, which prohibits colleges and universities from discrimination in the funding of athletic programs for men and women.
In 1982, Kennedy fought to extend the Voting Rights Act, which the Reagan administration sought to weaken. In a move typical of Senator Kennedy, he forged a bipartisan alliance with Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. The effort was successful, and Kennedy directed most of the credit to Dole.
In 1990, Kennedy played a key role in the Americans with Disabilities Act, another piece of landmark legislation which required “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled in the workplace and in public facilities.
Kennedy’s influence as a figure in liberal politics can perhaps best be summed up with the words of his famous concession speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. After a lackluster campaign, Kennedy electrified the convention and brought the delegates to their feet, cheering, with his passionate call to arms:
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.