A Connection to the End
Kennedy's Friendship With Federal Judge Crossed Lines of Race and Physical Handicap

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.)

Lindsay was fond of recalling the "10 suit" his grandmother purchased for him when he moved north. The suit consisted of a vest, suit jacket and two pairs of slacks. The pieces were interchangeable -- and both jacket and vest could be turned inside out -- creating 10 different sartorial looks. His law clerks would stare at him with wonder at hearing the story.

Soon after his spinal tumor diagnosis, Lindsay needed a wheelchair. "I think there was fear when he first learned he could end up in a wheelchair. I think it was something he didn't know if he could accept. But once it happened," his widow said, "and he could still do what he loved to do, he went on."

As news of Edward Kennedy's grim prognosis swept the country last year, Lindsay's health was failing. Both found themselves at Mass General. "Senator Kennedy would send Reggie notes when they were in the hospital together," Cheryl Lindsay recalled. "Reggie was tremendously affected that in spite of the seriousness of Senator Kennedy's diagnosis, he was still thinking of others and would take the time to send him cards and call."

It was not lost on her that one of Kennedy's political passions was health-care reform and that the issue had again been placed at the forefront of political debate. "I thought it was ironic that they both were thinking of health-care issues while confined in the hospital. In spite of his diagnosis, Kennedy aimed to get back to work and do his part on health care, just as Reggie was able to make arrangements and do a little work himself in his hospital setting."

She said her husband still suffered little indignities. "A great many of the places we'd go to just were not wheelchair-accessible. It was frustrating."

U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris was sworn in on the same day as Lindsay in 1994. Saris was perhaps Lindsay's closest friend on the court; she was also a former employee of Kennedy's. She sat vigil near Kennedy's coffin at the Kennedy Library on Thursday. And while watching the mourners, she said, it struck her just what Lindsay's life must have meant to Kennedy.

"There were thousands there, and they kept coming," she said. "And so many of them were handicapped. I just can't tell you how many people were there in wheelchairs. There was clearly a connection between Kennedy and Reggie as people. It was who they were as human beings. There was a special place in their hearts for people with disabilities."

The Lindsays were invited to Kennedy's 70th and 75th birthday parties. "At the last one, after a lot of people had left, some of us stayed behind," Cheryl Lindsay said. "Kennedy had us all gather around the piano and we all sang some show tunes. He and Reggie sang alone on a couple of songs. It was special."

Lindsay is gathering her husband's papers. She thinks they belong in the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. She said she feels that, if they found a home there, it would be a wonderful tribute to both the senator who made the historic nomination of her husband and her husband's own legacy. "Senator Kennedy was always helpful to black people."

At Lindsay's funeral, a passage from William Cullen Bryant was read:

"Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."

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