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The Schweitzer Fellowship’s central office is housed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston — a city that, over the past few days, has been awash in mourning for Senator Ted Kennedy.

Some of that outpouring of grief is doubtless a reaction to the fact that Kennedy was part of a storied (and often wildly romanticized) American political dynasty. But as evidenced by the tenor of the Kennedy tributes that are flooding the airwaves, the depth of public grief is also informed by Kennedy’s tireless efforts to promote social justice over the past five decades.

As Michael Dannenberg writes in today’s Los Angeles Times,

For the next several weeks, we’ll memorialize the work of the U.S. Senate’s greatest legislator since Henry Clay — maybe ever. Kennedy was a sponsor of every civil rights law since 1964. He brought us children’s health insurance, and he was the force behind the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote; student loans; education aid for the poor; federal support for Meals on Wheels; and countless other domestic policies. We’ll read and hear the words of one of the nation’s greatest champions of the young, sick, needy and elderly . . . Those of us who share his mission to build a more just and decent society will worry that he cannot be replaced.

As historian Douglas Brinkley told the Associated Press,

“Of the white Americans who did the most to help the advancement of civil rights, Ted Kennedy would be on the short list. He may even be at the top of it. He wasn’t just for civil rights in the sense of the movement, but for dignity rights for all people.”

And as Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in The Nation,

Kennedy’s final fight was for quality, affordable healthcare for all. As recently as July, he called that fight “the cause of my life.”

From civil rights to women’s rights to labor rights to health rights, Kennedy’s life had many causes — and they’re the same causes that motivate many Schweitzer Fellows. This is a time to mourn someone who used his priveleged status to bring about tremendous and important changes on behalf of the powerless. But it’s important to remember that Kennedy wasn’t a saint; he was a man, a man who was capable of making (in his own words) “indefensible” decisions and whose life was more complicated, more human, than so many of these elegies admit. 

I can’t help but think of something Albert Schweitzer’s daughter, Rhena, once said about her father: that people shouldn’t be remembered as saints, because in remembering him as such, we deny them their humanity. We owe it to Kennedy, and to ourselves, to heed Rhena’s advice.

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