King Center salutes Edward Kennedy for his civil rights efforts
ATLANTA — The King Center honored the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts yesterday for his work on civil rights, presenting a posthumous award to the senator’s widow, Victoria Kennedy.
“Edward Kennedy’s maiden speech as a young United States senator was a demand to make real the ideal of America and secure the civil rights of every American,’’ his wife told the crowd. “And nearly a half-century later, the last speech of his life was the call to complete the journey.’’
The senator died in 2009 at age 77 following a battle with brain cancer.
Also at yesterday’s annual event, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. said that the recent shootings in Arizona that killed six and left a congresswoman critically wounded show the work of his father must continue.
Although the dinner was a celebration, King’s children and sister were mindful of the Jan. 8 assassination attempt on Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head suffered at an outdoor gathering. King’s son said the shootings underscore his father’s message of nonviolence.
“Ugliness rears its head,’’ said Martin Luther King III, who was a boy when his father was slain in Memphis in April, 1968. “And that tragic incident in a real sense should say to us all that the work of Martin Luther King Jr. is nowhere near finished because he tried to teach us how to live in a nation and world without destroying either person or property.’’
“And so the message of nonviolence resonates strongly, particularly this year after that great tragedy,’’ King said.
The Kennedy and King families have been touched by political violence. President John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and King and Senator Robert Kennedy were slain months apart in 1968.
If they shared a destiny, it was not always as allies. Civil rights leaders were frustrated that the Kennedy administration did not move faster on the issue, and as attorney general, Robert Kennedy authorized the wiretapping of King.
Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation following President Kennedy’s assassination, and Robert Kennedy and King championed liberal causes over the next four years. After King was killed on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy, campaigning for president in Indianapolis, broke the news to a mostly black crowd. He quoted the Greek tragedian Aeschylus.
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until,’’ Kennedy said, “in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’’
Edward and Robert Kennedy attended King’s funeral in Atlanta. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.
King’s followers found in Edward Kennedy an ally. Four months after President Kennedy was killed, Edward Kennedy, then 32, gave his first major speech on the Senate floor. He had listened to four weeks of debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“My brother was the first president of the United States to state publicly that segregation was wrong,’’ Kennedy said. “His heart and soul are in this bill. If his life and death had a meaning, it was that we should not hate but love one another; we should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace.’’
A friend of Coretta Scott King, Edward Kennedy sponsored legislation that made King’s birthday a national holiday.
King was a hero to Kennedy, his wife said.
“On this day, let us rededicate ourselves to what is best in our country,’’ she said. “Surely we know it when we live it, as these two men lived not just for themselves, but for others. One of them told us, ‘I have a dream.’ The other affirmed, ‘The dream shall never die.’ ’’