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New Ted Kennedy papers released by JFK library unveil letters to MLK, others

Senator Edward M. Kennedy was photographed with this member of the US Army during his visit to the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Tuy Hoa, Vietnam, in 1968.John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

A trove of newly released material from the late Edward M. Kennedy’s files includes the young senator’s communications with several notable figures, among them are the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., labor leader Cesar Chavez, and movie star James Cagney.

A total of 879 boxes of archival material are being released that feature an assortment of letters, telegrams, memoranda, notes, news clippings, reports, and photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum officials announced. The materials have never been seen before by the public.

One document is a Western Union telegram that Ted Kennedy received from Cagney in 1969. In that tersely worded missive, Cagney expresses his dismay about a proposed airport expansion on Martha’s Vineyard.


“For more than 30 years I have watched Martha’s Vineyard go downhill as a place of natural wonder and peaceful haven,” Cagney’s message says. “Now they are talking of runways for jets. Is there to be no end to the destruction of all that is natural and worthwhile? Please give it some thought.”

Another notable piece of correspondence was a letter that Kennedy wrote to King in October 1966.

“Dear Dr. King: Thank you very much for your thoughtful letter of September 2, 1966 and for your kind comments on my address,” Kennedy says in his typewritten letter. “My visit to Mississippi was a memorable one for me and I was deeply impressed by the ability and sincerity and dedication of the members of the SCLC who I met that night in Jackson. As you know I have the greatest respect for your organization and the work it has done and is doing to advance the cause of civil rights. It was my privilege and pleasure to visit with you.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded in 1957, played a key role in the civil rights movement. King was its first president.


The collection also features a telegram Kennedy sent to labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez regarding a United Farm Workers protest march. The message was sent to Chavez and addressed to the Ramada Inn in Brawley, Calif., on May 16, 1969.

“To all who marched through the heat and the desert to strengthen the cause and open the eyes of our nation I send my admiration and pledge my lasting commitment,” stated Kennedy. “The lifting of men from poverty and from the crush of exploitation is the challenge on both sides of the border. We are joined in this common cause; I am proud to be joined with you. We shall continue the fight for human dignity and understanding.”

Much of the material in the collection pertains to constituent services, which includes correspondence with organizations, businesses, local government officials, and private citizens. (Kennedy’s office received a lot of mail: In 1969, Senator Kennedy received 1,000 letters per day, and by 1972, that had doubled to 2,000 letters, according to a press release from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum).

“I was surprised by the range of issues and questions that were directed to Senator Kennedy, as well as the degree to which his Massachusetts constituents felt a deeply personal connection to him and the entire Kennedy family,” said Christina Fitzpatrick, one of the archivists who worked on processing the Kennedy files.

In addition to those documents, library officials announced that more than 1,900 audio recordings of the “Face Off” radio program, which featured Kennedy debating with Republican colleagues, have been digitized and are now available on the library’s website.


Library officials said the newly released files represent approximately 5 percent of Kennedy’s collection. This is first of the batch to be released, and more will be released in the future.

“It will all depend on how difficult it will be to review/process the next set of material, which is still unknown,” said Karen Adler Abramson, chief archivist of the John F. Kennedy Library.

The longtime senator’s wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, is co-founder and president of the board of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. In the press release, she noted how her husband served in the US Senate for nearly 47 years, and with 10 different presidents (one of whom was his late brother) and “had the great privilege both to have witnessed and played a significant part in modern American history.”

“Ted donated his papers to the Kennedy Library with the hope that they would be made publicly available as quickly as feasible,” she said in the press release. “Today marks an important first step in achieving that goal.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.