Teddy the Radical

Sen. Kennedy was a white liberal who believed in black power.

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Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is being lionized as an extraordinary legislator, a champion of civil rights, health care and education, and the caring patriarch of America’s royal family. He was all that.

For African Americans, however, he was even more. Ted Kennedy was a white liberal who believed in black power, black political power, and he worked to make it happen. He was not one of those white liberals who looked down on African Americans and see a people ever in need of help, not to be trusted to take charge of anything of consequence.

Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama in late January 2008, when the Democratic presidential nomination was still in contention, surely made a difference in the outcome. For primary voters who doubted Obama had the experience, the heft and the skill to take command of the White House, here was his party’s icon saying, yes, he does. Kennedy’s praise gave Obama the kind of credibility that few other political endorsements could have conferred.

That was a recent demonstration of Kennedy acting on his belief in sharing political power with African Americans. It was not a one-time thing.

Thirty years ago, Kennedy helped lay the groundwork for the first African-American president by contributing significantly to the rise of Ron Brown as the first African American to chair a major political party. Without Ron Brown, or another African American as chairman of the Democratic Party, there would be no President Obama.

Brown possessed immense political skills and assiduously applied them to win election as party chairman in 1989. Then he healed a broken party over the next four years, which concluded with Bill Clinton’s first victory.

Kennedy positioned Brown for those opportunities inside the party, first by naming him a deputy campaign manager in his unsuccessful challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980. Afterwards, Kennedy hired Brown as chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee.