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Voices: Boston: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

White guides Boston through its darkest hour

Busing came to define the ambitious, confident mayor

BY: James Aloisi


Thirteenth in a series

Kevin White’s inauguration as mayor of Boston on January1, 1968, was held at Faneuil Hall, a departure from precedent, a signal that this would be an administration that followed its own rules and conventions. He was a complex and intriguing man, as drawn to the underprivileged (and as wily) as Curley; as comfortable with the business community as Hynes; as committed to the redevelopment of the city as Collins. In this package called Kevin White one could find elements of each of his three predecessors. He was not comfortable with the politics of politics – the backslapping and handshaking and forced camaraderie. Rather, he was an introvert in an occupation that attracted extroverts, the “loner in love with his city” – a backhanded compliment that White turned into a badge of honor. He was very much his own person, unique in his ability to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters and attract a diverse and talented staff that would help him govern the city.

No man of greater personal political ambition ever occupied the mayor’s office, but White’s ambitions would be dashed not once but three times: once at the hands of the voters when they rejected his bid to replace Frank Sargent as governor in 1970; a second time, at the urging of Ted Kennedy, who made clear to George McGovern that his proposed choice of White as his vice presidential running mate in 1972 would not be viewed cordially; and a third time, not by any person but by the vicissitudes of fate – he would be the mayor who had to manage the unpopular and traumatic integration of Boston’s schools. Casting White aside for Missouri’s Tom Eagleton in 1972 was a decision McGovern would quickly regret, but White quickly rebounded. When the mayor tried to leverage his brush with national fame into a possible presidential bid in 1976, what remained of his political ambition was incinerated by the flames of rancor, division, and violence fueled by forced busing. White’s attitudes toward race and equality were progressive and inclusive, but the times were cruel to men of good intentions.

White’s long tenure in office lends itself to much examination, certainly more than has been undertaken by historians to date. There were, in fact, two White administrations – the administration of the first two terms, when his best liberal/progressive instincts were given both voice and expression in the programs that defined a city reborn and on the move; and the administration of the second two terms, led by a mayor who bore the scars of the battle for racial integration, times when White, realizing that his upward political mobility was at an end, decided to govern by retrenchment.

White’s first terms as mayor were as much about innovation as they were about racial strife. He brought new ideas to Boston, establishing neighborhood “Little City Halls” that would bring city services directly to people, inaugurating a “Summerthing” program of events to occupy the city’s residents during the hot summer months. Boston became the first city to host a “First Night” celebration to ring in the New Year with a nod to music and the arts. It all seemed fresh and vibrant and inclusive in ways that challenged the city’s traditional parochialism.

More important perhaps than any of these innovations, White demonstrated a powerful talent at diffusing city tensions. Twice he went onstage – once at a James Brown concert the night Martin Luther King was shot, and again at a Rolling Stones event on an evening when there were riots in the South End – and his calls for peace were responded to by a citizenry that had never seen his like before: a young mayor talking directly to them and asking for their support in solving a difficult situation. He had the ability to reach out to people’s better instincts, and conjure up an image of the city – his city, their city – that made people pause before they did something to injure it. In this spirit, White humanized city government. His Little City Halls were a vibrant combination of city services and community activism. His Little City Hall manager in East Boston, Fred Salvucci, led community resistance to Massport’s efforts to expand into the neighborhood. This marked the first time in memory that city hall was actually on the side of the activists, and the city’s power brokers took note. Kevin White was no enemy of the business community, but he was not reluctant to use his power on behalf of average citizens when he believed they were being victimized.

White in many ways personified the New Boston. It is difficult today to remember just how exciting it was in Boston in 1975 and 1976, when the city celebrated the nation’s bicentennial with a royal visit and the first Tall Ships celebration. It must be said of White that he brought an elegance and élan to the office that had never been seen before and has not been since. The image of Kevin White standing in an open car with Queen Elizabeth during the city's bicentennial celebration, the mayor resplendent in a blue suit and yellow tie – a Gatsby-like figure – this was a mayor unlike any who had come before him. He wore power easily and his own secure sense of himself enabled him to attract and hire some of the best and the brightest of their generation – Barney Frank, Herb Gleason, Micho Spring, Ira Jackson, Fred Salvucci, Peter Meade, Lowell Richards – the list of talented men and women who worked for White and who went on to make their own significant contributions to local, state, and national affairs is a long one. His ability to navigate the disparate worlds of a Barney Frank and Herb Gleason with the worlds of a Ted Anzalone and Joanne Prevost – this spoke of formidable personal and political skills, and an innate understanding that if he were to lead effectively he needed to have support from, and access to, both worlds.

What White gave the city, more than anything else, was confidence. The city that once went begging for a skyscraper now found itself with many. During White’s tenure as mayor 14 new office buildings were built in the downtown, including much of the skyline we take for granted today, everything from the uninspired towers of lower Washington Street to the iconic Hancock Tower. Perhaps the most important development was the restoration and redevelopment of Quincy Market. Nothing spoke to the emergence of Boston as a more urbane city than did the Quincy Market project. It was a huge success that attracted city residents and tourists by the droves. It was a way for Boston to underscore that urban renewal and redevelopment did not mean destroying the old; sometimes it meant restoration and preservation. Quincy Market helped Boston preserve what made it unique, integrating its colonial and post-Revolutionary histories, offering the charm and sophistication of new shops and restaurants in a setting that mimicked London’s Covent Garden. Boston suddenly looked modern, clean, and fresh – a sparkling peninsula newly re-engaged with its waterfront, a place where the mayor could keep the lid on percolating disaffection, where there was hope for a brighter future. Boston became a modern city during the White administration.

And then he was undone by two lawsuits. In his last term in office, White struggled to keep the city in good fiscal health after the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in the Tregor case. Tregor was the culmination of many years of dissatisfaction with Boston’s approach to assessing real property, disaffection that traced back to the days of James Michael Curley. After many years of gradual reform, property owners had had enough – and the decision, which required the city to rebate over $140 million to wealthy property owners, forced White to take drastic and unpopular measures to reduce city spending. Those measures had a severe impact on a number of basic city services, and were deeply unpopular with the voters.

The Tregor case was the second court decision that had a decidedly negative impact on the fortunes of the city and its mayor. The first was a decision of vastly more import, one that threatened to tear the city apart. When federal district court judge W. Arthur Garrity issued his decision in Morgan v. Hennigan in 1974, requiring a two-phase implementation of forced busing in Boston, it shook the city to its core. The emerging crisis was as much White’s responsibility as it was of those who came before him. After all, White had been mayor for nearly six years before Garrity issued his ruling, and Boston’s schools were as segregated as ever – even more so than they were when he came into office. The number of imbalanced schools in Boston was 45 in 1965; in White’s third year as mayor that number had grown to 62. Sixty-two percent of the city’s students of color went to schools that were, at a minimum, 70 percent black. White may have thought he could avoid the difficult work of resolving the school integration issue, but it would not be easily cast aside.

The mayor understood that he was facing a challenge no other mayor in the city’s history had ever had to face, for the federal court order to integrate Boston’s schools by busing children exposed an ugly side of the city, a side that had been hidden and kept at bay for many years, but that was emerging in all of its fury. When it came to race relations, Boston found itself challenged to face itself. Was this the city of immigrants and exiles that would embrace all of its people and treat them equally? Or was this a place no different than the most segregated cities of the Old South, cities that in the 1960s burned with the hot passions of a white majority that refused to let go of archaic and destructive attitudes toward race, and a black minority that would no longer tolerate being second-class citizens? When Boston was forced to look at itself in the mirror of truth, what it saw was a city segregated into parochial neighborhoods, a city separated by decades of uneasy partition, a city that was satisfied with a status quo built upon benign neglect.

Twice before Kevin White had stepped up to diffuse racial tensions in the city. Now he walked the streets of Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan, making every effort he could to listen, to understand, to bridge gaps. His overtures to the minority community in Boston were so frequent and public that critics in the white community started calling him ‘Mayor Black.” White surely thought that he had the credibility and the skills to help navigate the city through this most turbulent of turbulent times, but the forces unleashed by Garrity’s legally correct but practically obtuse ruling would not be harnessed by any one person.

The prospect of violence and disruption was real; the tension in the city palpable. Louise Day Hicks, long a champion of parental rights and foe of racial balance, called for calm but her voice was drowned out by louder and more strident voices, voices of activists who founded groups like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) and who called for action in the streets to stop busing. All of the work and effort that had gone into restoring the city and setting it on a course for a brighter future was held in the balance by how its citizens, and its mayor, would respond to the violence and discontent. As George Higgins put it in his assessment of White’s dilemma, “Everything that had been done by Collins, and by Hynes before him, to rebuild the downtown had been based upon the expectation that large companies would be receptive to locating at least regional headquarters in the middle of Boston. Armed rebellion would set back considerably the efforts to reach those profitable dreams.”

Under Garrity’s order, 17,000 students were scheduled to be bused to a school outside their neighborhood when school began in September of 1974. White tried to hold “peace talks” among leading citizens from impacted communities, without avail. He appeared personally before Judge Garrity to ask for federal marshals to help manage the city’s angry citizens. Garrity refused the mayor’s pleas, and White was left on his own to calm the city that was coming apart before his eyes.

Busing came to Boston, and with it a time of violence and anger and division that had faded into memory. The black and white photographs remind us of what we would rather not remember: of police standing before a crowd of angry women in Charlestown’s Monument Square, of violent clashes in South Boston, of racial standoffs at Carson Beach, and, most famously, the photograph of Theodore Landsmark, a well-regarded African-American architect attacked as he approached City Hall Plaza by white youths brandishing an American flag as if it were a spear. That image was stark and unforgettable, a reflection of appalling attitudes that were being given expression in Boston, and what it said about Boston threatened to define the city for decades to come.

To his credit, Kevin White brought Boston through the most difficult moment in the 20th century, when the very fabric of the city’s social order was about to tear apart. White did not grandstand or play to the worst instincts in people. He made every effort to be a voice of calm reason, deploying police as necessary but with a firm command that they not overreact to provocation. In this he was aided by many others, including Louise Day Hicks, who would go to her grave opposing forced busing but who also opposed violence in every form. Mrs. Hicks was a lawyer and in the best, most old-fashioned sense of the term, a lady, and she would not sanction behavior that threatened to do harm to others. Because of their efforts, and also because of the innate good instincts of many Bostonians who did not take to the streets, the anger and the violence never got so completely out of control that Boston became disabled by dissent.

The busing crisis transitioned into the second two White administrations. After beating back a significant challenge from state senator Joseph Timilty in 1975, a beleaguered mayor decided to build a political machine at the grass roots that would rival the great machine of Richard Daley in Chicago – a machine that focused on political loyalties and rewards for those who pledged fealty to the mayor. It was not a time for innovation or creativity, but a time for settling in and steering a steady, if uninspired, course.

White’s fourth term in office was marked by deep dissatisfaction at his decision to severely cut back on city jobs and services as a petulant reaction to the court decision in the Tregor case. With fewer city revenues available to spend on innovation, White was forced to spend his time pleading with the Legislature for relief. But relief would not come. White, who had won in 1967 by being the least polarizing figure in the race, had now become a polarizing figure in his own right. No one was happy with him – many blacks were unhappy at the pace of change, many whites were frustrated by their perception that White was more inclined to listen to minority voices when it came to social policy, neighborhood activists were unhappy as city services went into decline. Little City Halls, the signature innovation of his first term, were closed and public safety services were threatened as a result of the fiscal cutbacks.

Faced with a crowded field in the 1983 election, White likely would have been nominated and might have won a fifth term, but his heart was not in it. In a typical White flourish, he kept the press and the voters waiting for his decision, playing it out in dramatic style and using the event as payback to Herald reporter Peter Lucas, giving Lucas an “exclusive” that contained completely false information. The evening after the Herald ran Lucas’s story “White Will Run!” the mayor went on television to announce his decision not to seek re-election. For White, the race was over and the ladder climbed.

White was no saint – he was very much a player of hardball politics and knew how to reward friends and punish enemies – but he rose to the occasion when time and circumstances thrust him into the maelstrom of Boston’s busing crisis. Kevin White kept the city intact during its most turbulent hour, did his best to calm passions, and offered a vision for Boston that appealed to the better nature of its citizens. Boston after Kevin White had a future, one that would not be defined by the ugliness of the forced busing experience, but rather by the indomitable spirit of a people who had come through the fire of forced busing changed and chastened, cleansed somehow, and optimistic. That outcome had a lot to do with the kind of leadership Kevin White brought to the city in its darkest days.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.
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