Don't Miss 'American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver'

Robert Sargent Shriver is a great man: a great friend, a great husband, father and patriot. His historic legacy is far-reaching; the lives he touched and made for the better are countless.

On Monday night, Jan. 21 — appropriately, Martin Luther King Day — PBS will be broadcasting a movie describing his remarkable life, "American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver," written, produced and directed by Emmy award-winning Bruce Orenstein. The PBS movie is scheduled for 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. PST — but check your local listings, since times might vary.

Three values of Sargent Shriver have dominated his career: civil rights for those who suffered the gross injustice of slavery and discrimination; public service by young people to help the poor and the uneducated abroad and at home; and, together with his great and wonderful wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, providing for the physically and mentally impaired through creating the Special Olympics, where tens of thousands of impaired children and adults have found dignity and self-respect on a truly level athletic playing field.

But for me, his most important legacy came during his years heading the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty — young people doing public service to assist and teach the disadvantaged at home and abroad — and the one most relevant to today's politics is that he proved — and I mean proved beyond the shadow of a doubt — that a socially conscientious and caring federal government can be a friend of the average American, not the enemy that many conservatives believe and would have Americans believe.

Many, perhaps most, Americans today do not remember that before John Kennedy, the Democratic Party was supported by few African-Americans, because the Democratic Party from the Civil War and through the 1950s was dominated by Southern leaders who believed in and implemented segregation; and the Republican Party was still identified as the party of Lincoln.

But at a magic moment in the presidential campaign of 1960, the loyalty of African-Americans began a momentous and historic switch to the Democratic Party. And that beginning can be traced to Sargent Shriver. He was head of Sen. Kennedy's civil rights division of the campaign. And when the Rev. Martin Luther King was jailed because of a traffic infraction in Georgia and sentenced to four months of hard labor, Sargent Shriver went to his then-brother-in-law, Sen. Kennedy, and convinced him to call Rev. King's wife, the late Coretta Scott King.

After that phone call, a tectonic and historic political shift began to occur. After Rev. King and the courageous leaders of the civil rights movement kept up the political pressure, President Lyndon Baines Johnson joined with Rev. King and these leaders to lead a Democratic-dominated Congress to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From that moment forward, the realignment was sealed — African-Americans (not all, but most) came to recognize the Democratic Party as more committed to equal opportunity and non-discrimination than the GOP. And that remains so to this day.

On Aug. 8, 1994, President Bill Clinton presented Sargent Shriver with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the United States' highest civilian honor as recognition for a lifetime of public service.

A personal note: Sargent Shriver was an icon of mine ever since I first met him at the annual spring banquet of the Yale Daily News, the "Nation's Oldest College Daily," in 1966 (he was chairman of the Daily News in 1938; I was proud to be a successor of his in that august position 28 years later). He spoke that night about the meaning of President Kennedy's famous line in his 1961 inaugural address: "Ask not what this country can do for you; ask what you can do for this country."

Sarge told us that night, an audience of privileged and almost entirely white Yale students, that we had been given much by our country — by living in affluence, with good parents and good homes and great hopes for the future. But we owed something back, especially to those who had darker skin and had suffered discrimination and racism, and to those who suffered the oppression of poverty and broken homes.

That was, he said, the basic bargain of American citizenship. Responsibility is owed to others less fortunate by every citizen who has benefited from the riches and opportunities of America. In return, government can and must be our partner — our friend — representing the public interest and the common good, not the enemy as many conservatives still believe. But only our partner and friend to help level the playing field and give all of us an equal opportunity to make our lives and the lives of our children better.

There are no "entitlements," he said; only this basic bargain, summarized in President Kennedy's inaugural address — to give to others and receive back from the government in return an equal opportunity to succeed.

In later years, I kept in touch with Sarge. He offered me his backyard on one memorable summer afternoon in 1974 — a rather large backyard, at that — at his beautiful home in the "rural" areas of a place called Rockville, Md., when I had the audacity to run for Congress at the ripe old age of 28. And through the years he kept in touch as I watched his extended and loving children and grandchildren grow older as he, at the ripe young age of 92, and Eunice, at the ripe young age of 86, grow younger.

Thank you, Sarge. Thank you for being the hero, the role model, and the inspiration for now several generations of Americans who have been taught by you the values of civil rights, social justice and dignity and self-worth for all people.

I hope everyone watches Monday night. And go to www.americanidealistmovie.org to watch excerpts and read more about Sarge's life and legacies.