Across US, activists hail their advocate, recall a vast legacy

Activists and homeless people gathered yesterday in the basement of the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Washington to pay tribute to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Activists and homeless people gathered yesterday in the basement of the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Washington to pay tribute to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / August 28, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Holding hands, their heads bowed in prayer, the several dozen homeless men gathered in the basement of the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists yesterday were the epitome of the disenfranchised and underprivileged that Senator Edward M. Kennedy fought for throughout his career.

They gathered to pay tribute to the late Massachusetts senator, with personal words of thanks, scratching their names into a book of condolences and singing the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.’’

The ceremony was among a series of hastily organized tributes following Kennedy’s death in which the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and their advocates bade farewell to a man many considered their biggest champion.

The tributes were also an opportunity for political supporters to highlight their issues and urge greater government attention to them, now that Kennedy’s booming voice will no longer be speaking up for them.

“We’re honoring Senator Kennedy’s legacy by calling for the changes and ideals he held most dear,’’ said Caroline Murray, executive director of the Alliance to Develop Power, which organized an interfaith vigil in his honor last night at the new federal building in Springfield, Mass., “including the expansion of health care and the full and fair inclusion of immigrants in our society.’’

Kennedy used both his family’s name and his legislative influence to help pass a series of landmark laws that helped the less fortunate, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also helped establish a host of government assistance programs for the poor, from food stamps to Medicaid.

Across the country, leaders of civil rights groups, advocates for the disabled, and others said Kennedy’s passing left a huge leadership void.

Bernard Schaer, a political activist, organized a candlelight vigil for Kennedy last night in Plaza Park in Las Vegas “to give renewed voice’’ to the senator’s causes on behalf of average Americans.

Other beneficiaries of Kennedy’s work mourned him at a candlelight vigil Wednesday night held in Washington’s Dupont Circle.

“I’m grieving,’’ said Laurie Coburn, 68, who described herself as an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, racial justice, and reproductive health. “I’m devastated he’s not here to make the breakthrough we need.’’

Tom Matzzie, 34, a political consultant who used to work for the liberal group and the American Federation of Labor, said he organized the event because there was such an outpouring from community activists and other advocates for the less fortunate with the news of Kennedy’s death.

Clasping sheets of paper bearing the closing lines of one of Kennedy’s most famous political speeches, several hundred people stood in a circle, several people deep, and lit candles as twilight descended.

Armed with the phrase, “The cause endures, the work goes on, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die,’’ taken from Kennedy’s 1980 Democratic convention speech, the diverse group of couples with their children, students, and men and women on their way home from work held a moment of silence for Kennedy and spoke of what his legacy meant to those on the margins of society.

Trevor Sandwith, 50, and Leonard Solai, 43, both originally from South Africa, came because they said they wanted to pay tribute to an individual who was an early critic of the apartheid regime.

“He was a person that changed the face of human rights,’’ Sandwith said. “The fight here has to go on. Maybe this is a moment to reflect that we need these kinds of champions.’’

At the Washington church, with posters of civil rights leaders hanging on the walls, the homeless reflected on Kennedy’s impact as they savored a meal from the church’s soup kitchen.

“He was a compassionate human being,’’ whispered a homeless woman who gave her name only as Lee Ann.

Bryan Bender can be reached at

Correction: This story has been revised because of a reporting error that incorrectly described the relationship between Trevor Sandwith and Leonard Solai of South Africa.