Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Requiem for a Lion

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. Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Soon after Walter Cronkite announced the news to the nation, my third grade teacher tearfully passed the information along to us; classes were dismissed and we went home to our parents where most of us continued to watch the tragedy unfold on our black and white television sets. For almost three days, bleak, heartbreaking images became imbedded in our memories – a young widow kneeling to kiss her husband’s casket, a tiny son saluting his father, a saddled horse with no rider and two men in morning coats following behind the casket of their slain brother, the President of the United States. Sitting beside my sisters and me on the couch, my mother and father put aside their own grief to help us understand the pivotal events that were taking place before our eyes. They pointed to the television set and attached names to the two men who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy. One was attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; the other the youngest brother of the Kennedy family, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who was only thirty years old at the time of his brother’s death.

As a devoted follower of politics and current events, I would see and hear Senator Edward Kennedy many more times in my lifetime. I watched him as he eulogized his brother, Bobby (who, like Jack, was felled by an assassin). I listened to him deliver keynote speeches at political conventions, question Supreme Court nominees on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and debate issues on the Senate floor. I followed him as he ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1980 and then continued on as an active, outspoken and productive Senator.
Senator Kennedy is being heralded today as one of the greatest senators of modern America and of that I have no doubts. During his forty seven years in the Senate he played a key role in over 2500 pieces of legislation – and many of those were pivotal. Many of those impacted my life directly. As a child of the segregated south, I appreciated Kennedy as a champion of civil rights and human equality. He spoke out passionately for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and an end to segregation. As a girl and young woman, I was unable to participate in school sports or to have access to scholarships to college sports. But, Ted Kennedy’s enthusiastic participation in the passage of Title IX helped to provide those opportunities for future generations of girls and women. As one who grew up in one of the poorest states in this country (Arkansas), I saw people with inadequate nutrition and healthcare. Ted Kennedy was an early and strong advocate of the WIC program (providing food and support for women and children), as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Indeed, Senator Kennedy is one of our country’s most vocal spokesmen for the position that health care is a basic right. Speaking as a person who is disabled, I owe Senator Kennedy a great deal of gratitude for his passionate sponsorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. He helped to de-stigmatize mental illness by supporting inclusion of mental illness in the ADA. As one who has lost friends to AIDS, and served as a volunteer in AIDS service organizations, I remember that Ted Kennedy was a force behind the passage of the Ryan White Act, which provided emergency funding for many of those affected by HIV/AIDS, at a time in this country when anti-viral drugs like AZT were often unavailable due to high cost. There simply isn’t the space here to enumerate his many acts on behalf of our country, but you can read about his remarkable record here

In short, it’s quite likely that your life was made better now, or in the future, because of the hard work of Senator Kennedy. The Kennedy legacy - the dream of human equality and freedom – will never die. When he “passed the torch to a new generation” by endorsing Barack Obama for President, he called us all to join the fight to fulfill this great dream. It is incumbent on all of who would like to see that legacy brought to fruition to do everything we can at the present to bring about health care for all Americans. There could be no greater tribute to the “lion” of the Senate and no greater contribution to our fellow Americans.