The labor movement and other mass organizations of the people unleashed a torrent of tributes to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, hailing him as a “hero” who fought to the final hours of his life for civil rights, health care and workers’ rights to union protection.

Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, wrote on the labor federation’s blog that she had seen Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, just hours before he was assassinated, had mourned the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and went to the Democratic Party convention in 1980 as a Ted Kennedy for President delegate hoping that with his election “the nation finally would get universal health care.” She added, “That was not to be but I never stopped believing in Teddy Kennedy and worked and supported all that he stood for … on this day, I am filled with hope and a fighting determination to see Sen. Kennedy’s dream of health care reform become America’s reality.”

Another blogger on the AFL-CIO site said Kennedy “wasn’t just a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, he helped create it. He was the first to introduce it in the Senate.” The Employee Free Choice Act is a measure designed to make it easier for workers to organize into unions free of employer harassment and intimidation.

NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said, “Sen. Kennedy was a courageous leader for civil and human rights. He championed more civil rights initiatives than any other senator in U.S. history. Even as he took his last breath, he was passionately fighting for the health care reform our nation critically needs.”

Terrie O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women said, “We lost a true legislative hero in Ted Kennedy, a defender of women and children and all those who are discriminated against and underserved in this country. We have Kennedy to thank for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. He was a great leader in the fight for health care reform and I only hope that we can honor him by passing real reform designed to benefit the people — not insurance CEOs.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said, “He made himself into one of the greatest senators with his advocacy of human rights, for health care, education and worker protections.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., noted on the Tavis Smiley Show that Kennedy’s first major speech after he was elected to the U.S. Senate “was on the 1964 Civil Rights Act … He didn’t just stay in Boston and Washington. He traveled to Mississippi. He traveled to Atlanta” to fight for civil rights and equality.

Ron Pollack, president of Families USA, said, “It is impossible to be a part of the fight for universal health care without honoring Sen. Edward Kennedy. He showed us all what compassion, a strong vision, and real dedication to humanity can do. It’s important that all of us reaffirm our dedication to his fight — our fight — for real meaningful health care reform. Let’s win this for America and win it for Ted.”

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