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Kennedy’s Senate career full of civil rights history

Rachel Dolin

For Kennedy, 1964 was more a launching point than a culmination of the fight for widespread equality under the law. Just a year later, the Massachusetts senator led the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which echoed the Fifteenth Amendment, outlawing discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans. He enforced that by becoming a chief sponsor of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982 and the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act of 1992.

When it came to restoring the full application of laws fighting discrimination, Kennedy refused to take no for an answer. Though the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 was initially met with a presidential veto, Kennedy still steered it through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Three years later, he further cemented legal equality for all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability or age when he sponsored the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which specifically aimed to remedy discrimination and harassment in the workplace — legislation of a piece with his sponsorship of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Advocates for civil rights knew Kennedy would always be there,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which awarded Kennedy its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. “It’s easy to take him for granted, but in reality, there are few leaders like that.

“Ted Kennedy understood that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights apply equally to all people,” she continued. “America is only as strong as the way in which we ensure that every individual’s rights are protected.”

Kennedy’s domestic political impact has extended beyond merely the protection of natural constitutional rights. Access to education and health care — especially for minority groups — have become flagship areas in which the senator has sought to improve.

“He has been there and supported and sponsored,” said Jackie Jenkins-Scott, president of Wheelock College, who served as president and CEO of the Dimock Community Health Center from 1983 to 2004. “And in education and health care areas, he has cared deeply, and it shows in what’s available for children and families in this country.”

In addition to civil rights, 1964 also marked the beginning of his influence on education reform. His     support of the Economic Opportunity Act that year laid the groundwork for the Head Start Program, which provides comprehensive childhood development and social services to low-income preschoolers. The program currently serves 1 million children, including 13,000 from Massachusetts.

Kennedy’s interest in improving the nation’s education system has extended across the board, from early education programs like Head Start through collegiate and job-training legislation, starting with the Higher Education Act of 1965.

“He has been the strongest advocate of access to education,” Jenkins-Scott said. “Grants, scholarship money, support for historically black colleges — these are all pieces of important education legislation authored by Ted Kennedy. Thousands have been able to get access to education because of [him].”

As is the case with education, Kennedy’s emphasis on reducing disparities in health care and health outcomes continues to impact low-income minority groups.

“When it comes to health care, [he has taken] a very personal view,” Jenkins-Scott said. “He has spoken frequently and publically that everyone should have the same access to health care he has had access to. And he has taken this personally when it comes to children … There is no senator who advocates for community health like Sen. Kennedy.”

When Kennedy delivered that first floor speech in April 1964, he was fighting for the inalienable rights of a body of citizens that had been denied constitutional freedoms for too long. For him, close observers say, it was about choosing the morally correct path rather than, perhaps, the politically adventageous one.

“Sen. Kennedy, throughout his career, has shown remarkable courage to do the right thing rather than the politically expedient thing,” said Rose of the ACLU. “Most recently, on immigration reform, he has shown himself to be a man that stands by principles rather than the political expediency of the day. He works at these issues not for one vote but for years, recognizing that true social justice change can take years to achieve.”

“He will probably go down as the greatest senator in the history of the country, because virtually every piece of legislation that has impacted citizens in the last 45 years, he’s had his fingerprints on,” Jenkins-Scott said. “We have the kind of nation we have because of him.”

Though he has made countless changes to the country, Kennedy continues to carry the same work-hard attitude that has carried him for the last 40 years, believing there’s still work to be done.

“Civil rights is still the nation’s unfinished business,” Kennedy said in a speech delivered Nov. 8, 2007 in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. “…. When we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and then the Fair Housing Act of 1960, we took courageous steps, and we were proud that the Senate did the right thing each time. We must also do the right thing — the courageous thing — today.”