John Lewis on Kennedy's Commitment to Civil Rights

My dear friend and colleague ted Kennedy will forever be remembered for his brilliant accomplishments, his compassion, and his humanity. Certainly that is how I will remember him. But, with a secret smile, I will also remain grateful to Teddy for something more prosaic: he once helped me sell a lot of books.

Let me explain. In the summer of 1998 I wrote a memoir, Walking With the Wind. Ted graciously insisted on hosting a book party for me in Boston. When I arrived, the large room was packed with people—no one, especially in Massachusetts, refused an invitation from Senator Kennedy. He took the microphone and said many warm things about me. I was greatly moved. He was, of course, a brilliant orator, and to have that voluminous baritone employed on my behalf was a delight. But it turned out he was just getting started. After he finished his remarks, he began working the room, shaking hands, grabbing shoulders, enveloping the guests in his inescapable hugs. To each one, he said the same thing: "You cannot leave without buying a copy of John's book." He said it smiling, but no one walked away believing he was kidding. I sold and signed many, many books that night—and went home that evening with a far greater understanding of what has been called the "Kennedy mystique."

This was the Ted Kennedy I had known for decades. We met in the 1960s, when we were both much younger men. At the time I was a social activist pushing to advance the cause of civil rights. From his far loftier perch in the United States Senate, that was Ted's goal, too. Even then—many years before he would win renown as the Senate's greatest legislator—he used his power and his skills to move others in the right direction. He made a fearless commitment to carry on the work of his two fallen brothers. It was never a matter of if a civil-rights bill would be signed, but when. Never before and never since have I known a man of privilege who so fully embraced and embodied the cause of the poor and disenfranchised.

On any number of occasions, I can remember feeling myself losing hope, only to hear Ted pushing harder. He had the audacity to believe that people wanted to do the right thing, even if it meant sometimes they needed to be given a push. "We will win this fight," he would say. "We will end this injustice. Everyone will have the right to vote." His resolve was not only inspiring, it was effective. It was more than just words. Like his brother Bobby before him, he took his cause on the road. He traveled to Mississippi and Georgia and all across the South spreading the word—often in places where neither he, nor his message of freedom and equality, were welcome. In my times of darkness and deepest despair, his resolve restored my own.

Years later, I had the pleasure of coming to Washington and working alongside my friend in the Capitol. It was a true pleasure to watch Ted negotiate a bill. He seemed to relish these closed-door sessions most when the odds were against him. He knew what he wanted. He knew how to get there. He knew when to press, and when to relent. And always, he did it with good humor. In all the years I knew him, never once did I see Ted lose his cool. When his voice rose, sometimes to the point of trembling, it was because the moment called for it. In persuading his colleagues to see things his way, he did not resort to threats or arm-twisting. He never talked down to people but instead raised them by appealing to their better nature. "It is the fair thing to do," he would say. "It's the right thing to do."

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to work with him when the Voting Rights Act came up for renewal. There were some who said that its time had come and gone and that it should be allowed to expire. Ted helped put together a group of senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle to make sure that that did not happen. On the day that the Senate voted to renew the act, he invited me into the Senate chamber to witness the vote. It passed, of course, and he proudly presented me with the Senate tally sheet of the vote. We then walked together to a small room nearby, where he showed me the desk where President Johnson had signed the original Voting Rights Act in 1965. He had a photographer waiting, and he took our picture at the desk.

That photograph has hung in my home ever since. When I look at him in that picture, with that ruddy face and renowned Kennedy smile, I am reminded how blessed I was to have had the pleasure and privilege of his company.

John Lewis on Kennedy's Commitment to Civil Rights | U.S.