Natalie Kennedy, OC Civil Rights Pioneer, Among Those We Lost in 2010
Sharon and Natalie Kennedy
Photo by Kimberly Valenzuela
One of my all-time favorite quotes came not from a legend but rather a nun quoted in the National Catholic Reporter, who said, "When you work on the margins, you really don't expect much recognition at the center. This is the choice I made." She was nameless, of course. It's a quote I think about when recalling the life of Natalie Kennedy, whom God called in June at age 85. No mainstream newspaper bothered with an obituary, because no mainstream reporter could possibly recognize Kennedy's crucial role in fighting for civil rights in Orange County and community journalism.
Natalie was the matriarch of our own liberal Kennedy clan. Originally from Rhode Island, she and her husband Ralph moved to Fullerton in 1952 and immediately began fighting the lords whom allowed segregation to stand for so long. As recounted by her daughter, Sharon, in my cover story this year about the Alex Bernal case, the young couple stood by a Chinese family that was trying to move into their neighborhood despite the protestations of Know Nothing neighbors. That brush with the ugly side of la naranja spurred Natalie and Ralph into a lifetime of service to others. They helped start the Orange County Fair Housing Council, which helped African-Americans and Latinos fight housing discrimination during the 1960s; one of their cases became Reitman v. Mulkey, a 1967 Supreme Court case that legally ended apartment discrimination. The Kennedys helped Orange County farmworkers, the poor, the damned, the meek--those who needed help. Natalie and her husband also founded the Fullerton Observer, one of the last remaining family-run community newspapers in the county, and the only newspaper to print an obituary on the civil rights giant.
"When confronted with hate she turned the other cheek, when an opportunity to help arose, she stepped forward," the obituary read. "She always said that from those who are given much, much is expected."
Natalie's children continue their mother's cause--Sharon Kennedy publishes the Observer, while Rusty Kennedy is the longtime head of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, also partly founded by the Kennedys. If this county were any good, her passing would've been front-page news--but like that nameless nun stated, those who work on the margins don't seek credit in this life.
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