Speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance at Paine College, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy told a crowd Monday that today's generation can and should continue the work of Dr. King.
"If anything, we need to do the work of Dr. King in these times as much as ever before because we don't have Dr. King to inspire us every single day to go out there and march for civil rights," said Kennedy, the youngest son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of president John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island, was the day's keynote speaker at the request of the the Rev. Larry Fryer, an organizer of Monday's event. The program involved local politicians, several area pastors and a racially diverse crowd holding hands at times and singing such songs as We Shall Overcome and Lift Every Voice and Sing .
Fryer said that in the past, separate King Day events were held in Augusta, but the two came together this year at Paine's Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel as a sign of unity.
Before a packed chapel, Fryer and others presented Kennedy a plaque in honor of his father, whom Fryer called "one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate."
Kennedy went on to refer to his family's storied past and how he never knew his uncle "Jack" and was just a baby when another uncle, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated.
"I often feel to myself, I wish I was around back then (as a politician)," he said, but noted that "I was born to live in these times."
Kennedy spoke about current issues that he says connect with King's message of equality for all.
He said that in his time as a politician -- first being elected on the state level as a representative at age 21 and then to Congress at 27 -- he's fought a bill that targeted illegal immigrants and led the push for national health care reform.
As for the pending health care reform bill, a topic his father championed, Kennedy said he believes "something will get passed," calling it "a moral argument" that all citizens get equal access to medical care.
Referring to himself as "a gratefully recovering alcoholic," he also said he's pushed for greater understanding and fair insurance coverage for those struggling with substance abuse and mental illness.
While talking about his father, Kennedy addressed today's special election in Massachusetts to fill his dad's seat in the Senate. He told the crowd a high turnout would be key for the Democratic side to win, saying before the event that "failure isn't an option."
In closing, Kennedy returned to King's message of effecting change for the better, saying anyone, whether having a famous last name or not, can do so.
"Frankly, his message was a message that should resonate with all of us, that all of us can be great because all of us can serve," he said.
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.