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What Kennedy’s passing brings forward

On Friday morning at 1:45, I left the John F. Kennedy Library having joined tens of thousands who paid their respects as Senator Ted Kennedy’s body lay in repose there.

At 5 p.m. the previous evening, my wife and I had gone to see the motorcade with his casket pass by at the entrance road to the Library. We stood next to Mary and Kit, two community leaders from Savin Hill who held one of those poignant hand-made signs that thanked Ted Kennedy for all he did.

People of my generation remember where we were when we heard of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, when we woke up to learn of Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June of 1968, and now there was Ted Kennedy’s passing, which I learned about when I opened my newspaper on Wednesday morning.

There’s a bit of coming full circle and elegy for me. I was 10 when I waited for the then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s motorcade to pass through my home town during his 1960 presidential election campaign; and there I was last Thursday, 49 years later, waiting for his brother Teddy’s last motorcade.

Members of each generation carry intense memories of national events that touched them just as my mother told me how people of her generation remember where they were when they learned of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.

If I can be so bold to say, I believe we who are organizers, leaders, or active members and volunteers in community organizations, unions, social service agencies, religious congregations, and government are operating humbly in Ted Kennedy’s way when we are thoughtful and effective.

We have principles, but we are willing to compromise, which we can see as something that brings us a glass half-filled and not one half-empty. This means giving some new opportunities for people and some lessening of injustice. We try not to demonize our opponents but to reach them; but we do fight tenaciously for what we believe in. And we know we have our personal failings, as the senator knew he did.

One of Ted Kennedy’s biggest accomplishments is the SCHIP, or State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health care coverage for tens of millions of children whose parents are lower wage earners. Senator Kennedy had first developed this legislation, and the campaign to pass it, in 1997. We hope a new chapter will be added soon to extend health insurance to all people and fulfill his lifelong goal.

My organization did a small share of organizing on the more recent effort the senator led to extend this program to the remaining uncovered children. I was proud that in 2007 we organized a press event on SCHIP that he spoke at alongside one of the community leaders from our organization. President Obama signed this legislation, after two vetoes by President Bush, in February.

Showing the staff organization and personal touch Ted Kennedy was famous for, I got a hand-written note from him thanking me for working on the event. You can imagine how I treasure this note. I know that tens of thousands of others cherish similar letters that they have gotten from him over the decades.

As he said so well, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” He did his part and the lesson is not for us to wait for another Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr., but for each of us to do our part together, which is always how change and transformation really happens. Leaders can only be great when they have many, many committed followers to stand with them, and, sometimes to push them to lead.

Lewis Finfer is a Dorchester resident and community organizer and Director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.