My most vivid memory of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy wasn’t the tumultuous reception he received at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. Although to say he received a hero’s welcome would be the height of understatement. No, my memory goes back three decades earlier.
I was covering a rally to keep a hospital in Harlem open. It was 1977, and New York City was still trying to cope with a mammoth budget gap. Cops and teachers were being laid off, and a place called Sydenham Hospital was scheduled for closure. Normally, this was the kind of issue that attracted local politicians and health activists. But as I walked toward the hospital, I sensed something different. The crowd was larger than normal for a hot summer day. It was also louder.
I asked someone what brought all these people out, and she turned and said, “Haven’t you heard? Teddy Kennedy is here!” Those words alone were magic. There was always something about the relationship between black America and this family that was a close to royalty as you’d find in this country.
After all, it was Bobby Kennedy who walked the streets of Bedford Stuyvesant back in the late ’60s, and from that walk, Bed Stuy Restoration was born.
And here was his kid brother, walking to the podium on the back of a flatbed truck. Ted Kennedy unleashed a torrent of words that day. I wish I still had the tape of his remarks.
I do remember he was one of the earliest politicians to link shortened black longevity to a lack of affordable healthcare. “We are going to fight to keep this hospital open”, he thundered, and the crowd believed his every word.
Years later, Sydenham is a health clinic, not a full blown hospital. But were it not for Ted Kennedy and the people of Harlem who fought that battle back in ’77, Sydenham would be little more than a memory.
And now, the Lion of the Senate has left us, left us to fight his last battle. That would be the battle for healthcare for all Americans. Unlike so many others, Ted Kennedy believed that poor and working people ought to have access to the same quality of care he had.
In the end, that’s what made him different, different 30 years ago, and different until the day he died. Ted Kennedy believed part of being American was wanting the best for all Americans. And so his passing should steel the resolve of those who believe the battle for affordable healthcare is a battle that must be won.
You tell me . Will healthcare reform be a part of Ted Kennedy’s legacy?