A Connection to the End

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

NEWTON, Mass. -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Reginald Lindsay grew up on starkly different sides of the American track. Kennedy was a product of a storied political dynasty, a child of privilege. Lindsay grew up black in segregated Birmingham, Ala., raised in an environment of racial fears and expected limitations.

But a glorious kind of fate brought the two together and exemplified the American struggles and achievements across lines of race and physical handicap. Their lives became intertwined through their public service and generosity of spirit.

It was Kennedy who recommended Lindsay for a federal judgeship to President Bill Clinton in 1993. When Lindsay was sworn in the next year, he became the second black federal judge appointed from Massachusetts.

They eventually wound up in Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital together. Kennedy had brain cancer; Lindsay learned he had a spinal tumor in 1983, which left him with several ailments and needing a wheelchair. After battling an array of illnesses, Lindsay died in March at 63. President Obama is expected to name his successor soon.

As the nation mourned on the eve of Kennedy's funeral, the judge's widow, Cheryl Lindsay, was thinking of the unique friendship her husband had shared with Kennedy, one that seemed to personify the special affection much of black America has long held for the Kennedys.

"I remember Reggie told me he was so touched about hearing the story of Senator Kennedy going to a school in Washington -- a school with a good many impoverished students -- and reading to the fourth-graders. That touched him."

The Kennedy mystique took hold in black America in the early 1960s, during President John F. Kennedy's administration. The president rebuked Mississippi officials on national television during the riot at the University of Mississippi as James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the school. Later, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, seen gliding through the ghettos of the United States, seemed to offer a touch not only light and sincere but without condescension.

"I think it largely began with the civil rights movement," Lindsay said of blacks and their feelings about the Kennedys. "You could tell they cared."

Young Reginald Lindsay came under the spell of the Kennedy family shortly after he arrived in the nation's capital in the summer of 1964. He got a personal moment with Robert Kennedy and shook his hand. The moment would forever stay with him.

Lindsay's childhood had been a thing of gritty wonder. He was born in 1945 and raised mostly by his grandparents after his parents divorced. He attended Carver High School in Birmingham, an all-black school. He won a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta.

He came to Washington with fellow students to campaign for equal rights. That's when he met Robert Kennedy, helped raise money for the Kennedy Library and felt the momentum building for the legislation that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After Morehouse, Lindsay attended Harvard Law School. In time, he joined Hill & Barlow, becoming the firm's first black partner. (The second would be Deval L. Patrick, Massachusetts's current governor.)

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