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.
Both were big-deal jobs for a black person in that era. A deputy campaign manager doesn’t run a campaign, but Brown’s involvement at that level set the stage for Donna Brazile to direct Al Gore’s campaign 20 years later. Being the top lawyer on the Senate Judiciary Committee would have meant Brown played a major role in screening nominees to the Supreme Court—had Republicans not taken control of the Senate in the 1980 election.
By appointing Brown to both positions, Kennedy showed enormous confidence in him, an expression of faith that party insiders noticed. When Brown ran for the Democratic Party chairmanship, he did so with Kennedy's stamp of approval.
Brown’s leadership made party insiders of that time, and their successors, more open to the possibility of following an African American as a presidential nominee. That was even more the case because Brown’s chairmanship led to a unified party and deliverance from a dozen years of GOP control of the White House. Who knows what might have been ahead politically for Brown, whom Clinton named commerce secretary, had he not died in a plane crash in 1996?
Anyone who doubts the significance of Brown’s chairmanship to Obama’s triumph should recall the first move Republicans made after his victory in November. They elected that party’s first black chairman, Michael Steele, in what was interpreted as a signal to voters of the party’s racial openness.
There was also an internal message, for Republicans only. The party apparatus had to accept black leadership in the chairmanship before Republicans could ever conceive of nominating an African American for president.
It took 20 years, but that’s how the Democrats did it: first Chairman Brown, then President Obama. Kennedy had a lot to do with the ascension of both.
So as I look out my window in Boston across an ocean inlet and a narrow peninsula at the black and white mid-rise towers of the John F. Kennedy Library, where the president’s youngest brother will lie in state for two days, I am thinking of a senator so secure in himself he was comfortable with African Americans holding power, big power. That part of his legacy is not to be found in long legislative record.
I can be seen, though, in the choice of Obama to give Kennedy’s eulogy. Aptly, he will pay tribute to the senator at a Catholic church in Roxbury, the heart of Boston’s black community.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.