Kerry Kennedy: On Losing a Human Rights Icon and a Beloved Uncle

2.9.09

Senator Edward Kennedy served on the Board of Directors of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights from 1968 until his passing last week. Witnessing the outpouring of love for him over the past week has been deeply moving and a source of strength and inspiration.
It was heartrending seeing those crowds lining the streets from Hyannis Port to Boston, from the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to Hanscom Field, and from Andrews Air Force Base to Arlington Cemetery -- often ten deep. People held placards, waved American flags, and saluted. I shook hands with several thousand of the 50,000 mourners who came to the viewing at the JFK Library, each with her or his own story of being touched by Teddy's vision, spirit, and love. People came because they appreciated his courageous stances on civil rights, health care, minimum wage, his support in multiple forms for the oppressed and dispossessed, and more. But most didn't know his record on these issues. They came because they knew he loved people -- not the people, but actual, living, human beings.

Teddy called every one of my cousins, each of their spouses, and their kids, 119 of us in all, on every birthday and anniversary. He regularly rented a bus and took us on trips to visit battlefields with the greatest historians in the country. He took us skiing, rafting, and sailing. Every time he won a race and received a trophy, he had a replica of the trophy made and sent to every member of his crew.

He made politics come alive, not with esoteric policy discussions, but by telling wonderfully engaging stories about the senators with whom he worked -- their bravery, their foibles, and, to our great delight, always, their accents.

Sailing on the Mya last summer, he talked about his first days as a senator. He watched in awe as an impassioned colleague from Virginia railed against the evils of a particular bill and then saw that very same senator vote yea at roll call. When Teddy expressed his bewilderment, the senator explained "Well son, it's like this, to those who are for the bill, I send my vote, and to those against, I send my speech." Teddy roared with laughter and shook his head.

One of the most memorable trips I took with Teddy was a family visit to Poland in 1986. Lech Walesa had been organizing strikes in the Gdansk shipyards, martial law had been declared, and tension was high. We had gone to Poland to present the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to Adam Michnik -- known as the intellectual force behind Solidarity -- and Zbigniew Bujak, the leader of the Warsaw underground. The night we arrived, Teddy hosted a dinner, and it was the first time the Solidarity activists were able to communicate openly and in person. That, in and of itself, was a major victory. Formal greetings led to intense discussions, and those in turn gave way to stories, laughter, and a rousing exchange of Polish and Irish folk songs. The next morning came far too early, and I sat in awe at a conference table as Teddy dueled with General Jaruzelski, pressing him on basic rights -- to form a union, free expression, and democratic elections. Watching Teddy assert moral authority with such a depth of emotion and intellectual might was a breathtaking experience. I learned a lot from him on that trip about advancing the cause of human rights and loving democracy.

My work means spending time urging lawmakers to do the right thing on human rights issues. But Teddy is the person I always called not to seek support but to help formulate our political strategy and to find out what he was already doing. He was my "go to" guy. I'm not alone, and it wasn't just about being family.

For 30 years, Senator Kennedy was the human rights movement's strongest ally and its soul on Capitol Hill.

When Haitian refugees were being detained and deported, Ted Kennedy stood with us and with Haitian activists like Ray Joseph to demand an end to arbitrary detentions and sham legal proceedings. Ray, whose life was literally saved by Teddy, is now Haiti's Ambassador to the United States.

When asylum seekers were denied legal standing, Ted Kennedy authored and engineered the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, helping to create a legal right to asylum.
When the U.S. government turned a blind eye to South Africa's State of Emergency and torture of young children, Ted Kennedy led the fight to pass the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985, bringing U.S. policy into alignment with our values.

Wherever freedom's sons and daughters have been on the march for liberty -- from the Soviet Gulag to the streets of Central America, from Marcos' Philippines to the killing fields of Cambodia, Uganda, and now Darfur, Senator Ted Kennedy was their drum major for justice.
Here in the United States, he inspired, guided, and most importantly helped us provide protection and relief to some of the most vulnerable people on this planet. There is simply no one else like him.

Throughout my life, strangers have told me how Teddy was there when a child was diagnosed with cancer, when a father lost a job or had a blow to his reputation, when a wedding was to be celebrated. Over the last year, particularly these past few days, everywhere I have gone, people told stories about how Teddy changed their lives.

Heraldo Munoz told me how, as a young dissident in Chile under Pinochet, one night visiting his mother's house he heard sirens.

He looked out the window and saw a military battalion blocking the street. There was no escape. He saw his two best friends having already been captured, in the back of a pick up, blind folded and manacled. He turned to his wife and said, "They are coming to take me. Just be sure to call Ted Kennedy in Washington. He will save my life."

Today, Heraldo Munoz is the Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations.
Last June, I was at a fundraiser at Hickory Hill for major supporters of the Obama campaign. There was a couple with a distinctive accent, and I was not expecting such a dramatic response when I asked what brought them to the event that evening.

They said they'd met in Washington, D.C. as college students at American University. At the time, militants went on a rampage in Ethiopia and slaughtered every member of both of their families.

The I.N.S. denied their asylum claims, saying there was no evidence that this young couple was at risk should they attempt to return home.

Desperate, they went to the Senate, found Teddy's office, told him their story, and he went to work. They received asylum, started a business, and raised a son. Their son became the field organizer for Obama in northern Virginia, and they came that night to Hickory Hill, to express their gratitude to Ted Kennedy.

When Teddy saw an injustice happening in Guantanamo, he demanded an investigation.
In the fall of 2003, James Yee was known as the Muslim chaplain who had betrayed America. Accused of espionage, Army Captain James Yee saw his notoriety bloom overnight. According to USA Today, "He was vilified on the airwaves and on the Internet as an operative in a supposed spy ring that aimed to pass secrets to al-Qaeda from suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Yee ministered to them. After his arrest, Yee was blindfolded, placed in manacles and taken to a Navy brig, where he spent 76 days in solitary confinement." Meanwhile, his name was released to the press and became synonymous with traitor.

Eight months later, thanks to Teddy's demands for justice, the criminal charges against the 36-year-old West Point graduate melted away. A subsequent reprimand was removed from his record, and he left the military with an honorable discharge in January 2005.
I love Teddy, and I will miss him with all my heart. He was truly great.
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