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

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

Yet, to my adolescent eyes, JFK fused two concepts that were to become the foundation of the political consciousness I was then forging for myself. One was the idealism of the civil rights movement — that sense of the need for individuals to act heroically in pursuit of their rights as Americans, and to stand with those less fortunate and under siege. The second was the lofty, centuries-old Boston ideal that exalted public service over private-sector gain.

In that regard, how fortunate I, he and white America as a whole were to have in African Americans a people committed, despite three and a half centuries of brutal oppression, to the pursuit of their rights by any peaceful means necessary. Blacks’ choice of nonviolent reform over violence gave America, and, in that moment, JFK, time to better understand what democracy means. Systemically speaking, then, JFK was the perfect complement to his other brother-under-the-skin, Martin Luther King Jr.

Bobby’s transformation after JFK’s assassination and his heartfelt speech to an anguished, predominantly black throng in Indianapolis on the night King was murdered in April 1968 sealed his place in my pantheon of heroes — a decision that was to be underscored in the unbelievably tragic moment of his assassination little more than a month later.

It was left to Teddy, as it turned out, to both provide a moral center for, and lead the legislative nuts-and-bolts effort of, the ongoing campaign to retrieve America’s promise from the dustbin of its history. His extraordinarily substantive record in that regard speaks volumes about the work that was needed — and still is needed — to make America a more perfect union.

I can and do look at the Kennedy brothers in national, even cosmic terms. Their contributions to the betterment of humankind will stand the test of time. But I also remember them with what for me is a deep pride of place.

They were Boston boys, and they were my brothers.

Lee A. Daniels is director of communications for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.