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The Kennedy brothers and me: Seemingly so different, but brothers under the skin

Lee A. Daniels | 9/1/2009, 10:07 a.m.

The Kennedy brothers and me: Seemingly so different, but brothers under the skin

Outwardly, in 1960 there could hardly have been any greater distance between John, Robert and Edward Kennedy and me. Outwardly, we could hardly be having more disparate experiences.

They, with their whiteness and wealth and lives at the very top of America’s racially stratified society. Me, a black working-class boy of 12, growing up in one of Boston’s two black “red light” districts and seemingly facing a future that — by dint of poverty and race — was, at best, cloudy.

Yet within the decade, the transformation of American society that the Kennedy brothers were both a product of and helped further would find me traversing on my own some of their old college trails — living first in Jack’s freshman dormitory, then Jack and Teddy’s upper-class dormitory, and joining Jack and Bobby’s undergraduate club. I felt about my attendance there as they must have felt: that it was my destiny.

But long before then, I had felt the Kennedy brothers and I had two powerful things in common.

The first was Boston. Not just the Boston of the shiny American-war-of-independence myths, nor the Boston whose world-renowned colleges, universities and hospitals lent the city a glossy patina. Most of all, I felt we were connected via the other, grittier Boston: the working-class city of old-fashioned, deeply entrenched mores — and prejudices.

Although the Kennedy brothers and their sisters had in fact grown up everywhere but Boston — Hyannisport, Bronxville and Palm Beach, among other places — the Kennedy family was straight up from that Irish Catholic immigrant mass that began collecting in Boston before the Civil War.

In 1960, in the last months of JFK’s (barely) successful campaign for the presidency, I entered the seventh grade of the same public secondary school that Joseph P. Kennedy, the family’s patriarch, had navigated to great success nearly 60 years before. I’ve always believed one can’t underestimate the impact that campaign and victory had on an entire generation of Boston youth. I began to feel its impact on me almost immediately — beginning with a surge of pride in a school I wasn’t then sure I liked, because the school band was subsequently invited to march in JFK’s inaugural parade.

It would be more than two decades before I felt I had plumbed all the facets of my connection with those three Kennedy brothers. Two decades before I fully understood how important it had been in helping me, a Chicago-born black boy, come to a consider myself a Bostonian.

And a black Bostonian. The second reason I came to feel so close to the Kennedy boys was their involvement in the civil rights movement exploding across the nation — and in Boston, too, via the school desegregation struggle that led to the 1974 federal court school desegregation order.

To be sure, JFK’s involvement was at first as distant as he could make it. Personally, he barely knew any blacks, and the increasing intensity of civil rights activism during the first two years of his presidency exasperated him. It enormously complicated his trying to move his political agenda through a Congress in which the Southern segregationist bloc was still powerful.