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Reflections on Senator Kennedy’s passing

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Yesterday, the body of U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy was transported to Boston for a public memorial at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. All day, the doors of the library have stood open to mourners. Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser shares his reflections below.

Oxfam’s Raymond C. Offenheiser listens as the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy speaks at an event in Washington, DC, in February 2006. Photo by Christopher O. Banks
Oxfam’s Raymond C. Offenheiser listens as the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy speaks at an event in Washington, DC, in February 2006. Photo by Christopher O. Banks

Today marks a sad day for those in Boston and for the nation.

For those of us who have spent decades working on human rights—whatever our political leanings—Senator Kennedy was an institution. We always knew where he stood. We could always count on his office to take on the tough request, to tackle the thorniest issues, to champion the most controversial issue. As one of the few organizations to express concern about the invasion of Iraq and the humanitarian catastrophe that followed, we were strengthened by Senator Kennedy’s leadership on this issue.

My first real engagement with Senator Kennedy was in 1973 as a young graduate student at Cornell where I was involved with a Latin American student group swept up in the events following the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile.

Our group, with support from the National Council of Churches, was involved in assisting Chilean refugees fleeing the mass killings of suspected opposition leaders. The Nixon administration was denying all visas to all Chilean political refugees. Senator Kennedy took up the cause of these refugees and fought these visa restrictions. With his help, our group was able to resettle numerous innocent victims of this political upheaval with new lives in upstate New York and other parts of the country.

I had the pleasure four years ago of introducing him at an Oxfam America event. I used this opportunity to tell this story. The senator had come to the event with prepared remarks. His eyes lit up as I recounted his role in championing the cause of these Chilean refugees.

He pocketed his prepared remarks and then set off reflecting on his work on human rights in Latin America over the last 45 years. It was a spontaneous tour de force. More important, it was a small window into a larger than life career of practical commitment to human rights and social justice around the world. From his work on civil rights here at home to his support for victims of human rights violations in Chile, Central America, or Afghanistan, there is a clear arc toward justice.

More recently, it was my good fortune to be on the floor in Denver for the first night of the Democratic convention when Senator Kennedy left a hospital bed to give what was probably his last major public address. Despite his infirmity, Kennedy’s voice was clear and deep; it filled the room. He did not disappoint. He spoke with all the passion, conviction, and eloquence that we have come to expect from him and that stirs in many of us recollections of past moments and marches and campaigns in which his clarion voice moved us to act. Once again, he was calling us forth.

Senator Kerry and his wife Teresa were ten feet to my left during his remarks. As Senator Kennedy’s voice rose and he found his rhythm, the tears started rolling down his face. He was not alone. The poignancy of the moment was palpable. We were witnessing the end of an era. And while it could not be spoken—words were not needed; the meaning was clear—the torch was being passed, the Lion of the Senate was moving on.

We shall miss him—his constancy, his courage, and his righteous voice.

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