On January 20, 1961, John Kennedy stood before the people of America and the world and announced that the torch had been passed to a new generation. I cannot help but think that on August 26, 2009, with the death of Ted Kennedy, the light of that torch may have gone out. We must now ask the question, “who will carry the torch?”
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy spoke of a generation
born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
We accepted the challenge presented that cold day in January. Now, who will carry the torch?
An entire generation came to believe that a new and better world was possible; later writers would call this “Camelot” but for those who heard the words, it was a call to action. And this generation, to whom the torch was passed, gladly and quickly took up the challenge. Now, who will do the same?
I was ten years old when President Kennedy was elected and I was thirteen when he was assassinated; my memories of this time are limited in nature and substance. But as I read what he challenged Americans to do, I came to see and sense the new and better tomorrow that he spoke of in that inaugural address.
I was a senior in a Memphis area high school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; I was beginning my third summer of college when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. In their deaths, I began to see the slow and painful unraveling of that dream. Last week, I spoke of what has transpired in the forty-some years since that summer of dreams and nightmares.
And now Ted Kennedy is dead. Both of his brothers were undeniably conservative in their outlook until they encountered the secrets that lie beneath the veneer of American life. John Kennedy came face to face with hunger and poverty in the hills of West Virginia, Bobby Kennedy would meet the same on the plains of Mississippi. Both would encounter the evil that lies in mankind with the resistance and violence that accompanied this country’s slow progress towards civil and human rights. It was long said that John Kennedy didn’t want to put human rights into his inaugural address but Harris Wofford (later Senator from PA) pointed out that you couldn’t be for human rights in the Third World if you weren’t for it at home.
Ted Kennedy was different. The liberal nature that his brothers accepted reluctantly came to him naturally and he accepted the fights that they fought as his fights. But he did not fight his brothers’ battles; he fought the battles for the American people who had been forgotten and would have continued to be forgotten in the years between 1968 and 1992. Those who had little or nothing had a champion in Ted Kennedy.
I don’t know if he should have been President; I am not entirely sure that he ever knew. But he came to love the Senate and he saw a way to make a difference. In his eulogy for his brother, Senator Kennedy said,
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”
I believe that President Kennedy once said that should something happen to him, Bobby would carry on, just as he carried on when their brother Joe was killed over France in 1944, and if something should happen to Bobby, Ted would carry on. As much as to honor his brothers and what they had done for this country, Senator Kennedy made those dreams a reality. And now he has died and there appears to be no one willing or capable of carrying the torch.
This is still a world in which inequality is the norm rather than the exception. This is still a world where regions of this country resemble some distant Third World country. This is still a world where war is the first answer for too many problems. This is still a world where the wealth of one comes before the simple needs of all. This is still a world in which personal greed and self-interest ranks before care and compassion. And now there is no one to carry the torch.
There are those in this country who will not go hungry tonight, who will get the medical care that they need and who are able to sleep at home because of what Ted Kennedy stood for and fought for in the United States Senate. But there are still too many people who will go hungry tomorrow and who will not get the medical care they need and for whom a home is only a dream. Who will carry the torch tomorrow?