Today with the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, our nation lost an extraordinary champion of equal justice. His leadership on civil rights issues during nearly five decades of service in the United States Senate is unprecedented and incomparable. Beginning his Senate career at the dawn of the civil rights movement, he was at the helm during passage of all of the important federal civil rights laws—laws ensuring full participation in the political process, opportunity in employment, access to public accommodations, fairness in housing and equal opportunity in education. In subsequent years, he worked to strengthen these laws and to pass new laws protecting victims of injustice. Without his unyielding voice, the nation would be a very different place. Indeed, the historic election of our current president would not have been possible without these earlier milestones.
Senator Kennedy possessed a rare combination of qualities that allowed him to carry the torch on civil rights in the U.S. Senate. He had an unwavering commitment to ensuring equal opportunity, the courage to fight the hard battles, the optimism to lead others, and the perseverance and statesmanship that ensured victory after victory. Above all, what we will remember is his fearlessness. When doubt or cynicism or the prospect of defeat was injected into the debate, Senator Kennedy inspired us to continue the struggle for a fairer and more just society. In addition to inspiring us, it was Senator Kennedy who often crafted the legislative plan leading to success in that struggle. Simply put, Senator Kennedy was always on our side, and, on many occasions, this made the difference to the cause for justice.
Founded by Thurgood Marshall in 1940, LDF is the nation’s oldest civil rights legal organization. Throughout our history, only six individuals have led the organization. Remarkably, Senator Kennedy’s service in the Senate has coincided with the tenures of five of our six leaders. Last year, these past and present leaders of LDF joined in a letter to Senator Kennedy expressing gratitude for his many contributions to equal justice. They acknowledged that “[w]hile we have passed the torch to one another, you have held onto the same light—all the while burning bright—as the preeminent civil rights champion in Congress…. No one fights as hard as you do or with more courage and moral conviction that the right thing must be done. We are eternally indebted to you for opening the doors of opportunity to millions of people.” (A PDF copy of that letter is linked here, as is Senator Kennedy’s gracious reply.)
LDF is deeply saddened by the passing of our colleague, friend and hero in the Senate—a voice once thunderous in the cause for justice is now silenced forever. At the same time, we are heartened by reflecting on the grand legacy of his life’s work, and the vision and hope he left us for a more just society.