Ted Kennedy, a champion of justice


 It was deeply moving to see 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- holding placards, waving American flags, saluting; each with her or his own story of being touched by Senator Edward Kennedy’s vision, spirit and love.
People came because they appreciated his courageous stances on international human rights, civil rights, health care, minimum wage, support in multiple forms for the oppressed and dispossessed. And mostly because they knew he loved people -- not the people, but actual, living, breathing human beings.    

Uncle 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.
Teddy took our family to Poland in 1986. Lech Walesa had been organising strikes in the Gdansk shipyards, martial law had been declared, and tension was high.
We were to present the Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award to Solidarity leaders Adam Michnik and Zbigniew Bujak. 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 lead 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 Wojciech Jaruzelski, pressing him on basic rights to form a union, free expression, 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.

 When asylum seekers were denied legal standing, Teddy authored and engineered the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, helping to create a legal right to asylum.
 When the United States government turned a blind eye to South Africa’s state of emergency and torture of young children, Teddy led the fight to pass the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985, bringing American policy into alignment with the country’s 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, Teddy was their drum major for justice.
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.

 Heraldo Munoz told me how, as a young dissident in Chile under dictator Augusto 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 Teddy Kennedy in Washington. He will save my life.”
 Today, Heraldo Munoz is the Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations.
I was not expecting such a dramatic response when I asked a couple what brought them to a fundraising event for President Obama at my family’s home.
They said they’d met in Washington, DC as college students. At the time, militants went on a rampage in Ethiopia and slaughtered every member of both of their families.

The Immigration Service 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 organiser for Obama in northern Virginia, and they came that night to Hickory Hill, to express their gratitude to Teddy Kennedy. I love Teddy, and I will miss him with all my heart.

IPS
(The author is President of the Robert F Kennedy Foundation of Europe)

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