“Our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter,” state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. said as he spoke the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to roughly 230 people gathered at St. Therese’s Catholic Church in Stony Creek on Monday. Then he said the words again. And he said them slowly, so their meaning would be felt.
Dr. King’s words formed the theme for the annual King breakfast held each year. Jan. 15 would have been Dr. King’s 89th birthday, a birthday now celebrated as a national holiday. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, nearly 50 years ago this year. He was 49 years old.
Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s uncle, was assassinated two months later and died on June 6, 1968. He was a U.S. senator from New York at the time of his death and was seeking the Democratic nomination for President. His older brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.Their youngest brother, Ted, was Ted Jr.’s father.
Ted Kennedy told the audience that his father and his father’s brothers, John and Bobby, were Dr. King’s “political contemporaries and they lived and had to deal with many of the same turbulent issues” the nation faces today.
John Gill, master of ceremonies, began the program with a tribute to Betty Ann Trapasso, “a guiding light” of the King breakfast committee. She died in 2017 at age 90. “She was among the most dedicated, tolerant, and compassionate persons in our Branford community. She, like Martin Luther King Jr., stood for justice and inclusion and worked tirelessly for both,” he said. Trapasso was a daughter of John B. Sliney, Branford’s first selectman from 1963 to 1981.
After Gill introduced Kennedy, Kennedy told the audience he promised a friend involved in the event that he would not make a political speech on this day. And he acknowledged the venue of the event, a Catholic Church. But he pointed out, “it is very difficult if not impossible to have an honest discussion about the legacy of Martin Luther King in 2018 without acknowledging the angry rhetoric and policies that are being advanced by many of our country’s leaders, including the president of the United States.” The audience gave him a sustained round of applause.
Kennedy, who represents the 12th senate district, which includes Branford, said that in addition to working as a health care lawyer and serving in the state legislature in Hartford, he also chairs a national organization called the American Association of People with Disabilities. A member of the board for 15 years, he decided last year to chair the organization because the politics in Washington were taking aim at the disabled.
The ADA Would Not Become Law Today
As the keynote speaker, Kennedy drew on his family’s civil rights history and on preserving and continuing to protect and extend the federal and state civil rights laws that apply to the disabled.
The major law of the land is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. Kennedy remembers that day. He and his family were there.
“I can remember back in 1990 watching President Bush in the Rose Garden signing the ADA. It is the greatest civil rights document ever codified. And you know what? We did it in a bi-partisan way he said to a round a applause. “I don’t believe the Americans with Disabilities Act could pass today in Congress. We would never, ever be able to pass this law today.
“The preamble of the Americans with Disabilities Act sets forth the aspirations for what we are trying to accomplish with civil rights legislation. The preamble of the ADA says that discrimination against those with disabilities is a grave and pervasive social problem persisting in such areas as employment, transportation and access to public services.” The disabled were politically powerless, he said, “based on circumstances beyond their control. If some of this language rings familiar with people that’s because that was exactly what it was intended to do. These words are lifted, practically word for word, from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
He went on to say that it is not the physical or mental conditions of the disabled that are creating the problem. “It is society’s discrimination against people with disabilities that is the problem.” He said outdated ideas, “prejudices and stereotypes about people with disabilities create the true barrier.”
He said “because of the recent harmful changeover taking place in our nation’s capitol that are taking a wrecking ball to the 30 years of bipartisan progress that we have been able to make in the area of disability rights. I could not stand by and watch 30 years get demolished.”
He could not and would not remain silent, he said. “We are the foremost civil rights and policy organization representing a whole cohort of people with disabilities across our country.”
A signature issue, he said, is the organization’s Disability Equality Index, which reviews how companies are faring in the disability area. He said his group is working with over 200 companies, including over 75 companies in the Fortune 500. “We are working to recognize which companies are doing well,” in the disability area. (And which ones are not.)
Politics and a National Holiday
Kennedy told the audience to a round of applause that In 1983, “my father was the lead (U.S.) senate sponsor for the Martin Luther King holiday.”
“We think today, of course, we will create a national holiday to honor the foremost civil rights leader in America’s history. But go and Google the history of the Martin Luther King holiday,” he told the audience. “This was far from an easy thing to accomplish. There were many, many people who did not want to honor Dr. Martin Luther King as a national holiday.” Kennedy noted the national holiday is now 33 years old. He said he wanted to remind the high school students (The Branford High School Music Makers sang at the event) and other young people in the room to remember that “Dr. King’s ideas were threatening to people. It took until 1983 for Congress to pass a national holiday in his honor.”
Kennedy said he also want to share with the audience his personal story, how he lost his leg to bone cancer at age 12. He told the story of meeting another boy, also age 12, who also had his leg amputated. Both kids were hospitalized, receiving physical therapy, when they met. Kennedy asked the boy why he was not wearing an artificial leg. He knew that one reason was that an artificial leg may be painful to wear. But that was not the reason. The reason, he told Kennedy, was that his parents could not afford to buy one.
“I felt so guilty. Because my parents could afford to buy me an artificial leg. And I said to myself when I grow up I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people. Really, I am so fortunate in so many ways that the defining moment of my life happened when I was 12 years old. I had an issue in my life. And all of us need to have issues in our lives,” he said.
Extending the Civil Rights Movement to the Disabled
Later in his talk he spoke of the commitment his father and his brothers had to civil rights. Why were they so committed, he asked. “I think my own thoughts are that they were deeply influenced in their relationship with my aunt Rosemary who was born with intellectual disabilities. They witnessed firsthand how differently she was treated. How she was excluded. They understood firsthand the pain that millions of families feel as they watch a sibling struggle for social acceptance. Or a parent search in vain for an educational program or a job opportunity in order to promote independence.
The reality of inclusiveness, of helping the disabled to lead their lives stayed with Kennedy.
“So I was brought up with the belief that society has so much to gain from inclusion and integration. And that we all have a civic duty to get involved in our community. That we can’t leave these problems for other people to try to solve. The theme for this morning’s breakfast is a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King. “Our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“So let us leave here, in this incredible breakfast and I am really uplifted and feel the power of positive energy coming from every single person in this room because Martin Luther King taught us we cannot be silent about the critical issues of our day.”
The audience stood as one to applaud Kennedy and King.