Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: November 9, 1988
Camera Rolls: 4048-4050
Sound Rolls: 420-421
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Kevin White, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 9, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
It's 1972, you've just beaten Louise Day Hicks, and you're the mayor.
But, we're talking about 1972. Black parents have just filed suit in federal court, so they've been waging a fight for quality education. White parents have been vowing to resist forced busing and you're mayor. Do you think that there's any way that you can head off racial confrontation?
I don't even see it coming, I suppose, and I'm as close to the scene or the center as you could be. Ah, everything has a genesis, and, and, and, and ethnic, uh, tensions, uh, neighborhood tensions, uh, have been a part of the fabric of Boston for 30 years. The Irish against the Yankees, that kind of tension between groups was not new. But, as it revolved around the issue of busing, or Black and White relationships, it really began for me, walking up School Street one day, when I was secretary of state, a fairly young man, not even planning to run for mayor. And there was a Black minister all by himself, walking around with a sign, about forced busing, about the school committee. It seemed quaint, uh, if not a little eccentric and I, like most people, passed it by. But from that began the focus on the school committee, its lack of quality education, and, and, and, and, then I became a part of it incidentally to my career by running for mayor of the city of Boston. And, and the issue in the campaign became not my qualifications, but Mrs. Hicks's, uh, leadership, exacerbation of, or, uh, however you define it, of the, escalating the tensions between the Blacks and Whites over the issue of the school committee, of which she was chairman. And, and, and the battle basically in the election came down to Mrs. Hicks saying, "You know where I stand," which was a code word for saying to the hearer, "I'm anti-Black, and we will not let them dislodge us from, from our neighborhoods or our schools or our points of power in, in the city government." It was a code word. Ah, I used to kid and say, "If Mrs. Hicks looks like, looked like Grace Kelly, she would've beaten me." She was not an attractive candidate, and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense, but not an attractive candidate, yet she came within 12,000 votes of winning. And the good government forces in the city, uh, lived outside of her, the city had been a place they had fled, yet it was part of their living experience, where they worked and they were without the right of vote, and they had to stand by and watch Mrs. Hicks almost win the election. To make a long story short, I won, with 98 percent of the, or 95 to 98 percent of the Black vote. Blacks did not know me. They were afraid of Mrs. Hicks. I was a, an unsecured refuge for them, for the moment. But once we got to that crest, and I began to govern the city, and bring Blacks into city government, it appeared that the issue was beginning to, tensions were beginning to alleviate itself. Blacks were becoming prominent in the city, in some small degree, I don't want to exaggerate that. But the Black community felt protected and progress. So when the suit was filed in 1972, it was the insistence by White liberals, Blacks, concerned citizens, fairness, for quality education. So the battle of, of racial hostility I didn't see coming with the fervor and the emotion that was to culminate three years later. At that time, it was just another step in the legal arena, and so it was only tangential to what I was doing as mayor in '72.
Okay, now, give us a sense, people have described the Boston School Committee as, "It's too political" and as a preserve for Irish patronage. Um, could you describe, uh, give us the flavor for politics in Boston.
Well, politics in Boston is, is, is a full-time occupation. It's why Boston and Massachusetts has invariably produced, if I can say with some pride, so many good politicians at a national level. It's a full-time business. And, and, and therefore it produces the very best, and sometimes the very worst, uh, there's such a preoccupation with it. So, uh, uh, the School Committee was for a long time the only statewide--I'm sorry, the only citywide position for which a politician could launch a career to the mayor's job, and therefore political aspirants for higher office sought that office as a large part of fulfilling their political ambitions. And hopefully, in that process, depending upon the quality of the people elected, they got people who understood the education problem, but that was usually secondary, as far as the people who, who served on the School Committee. My father served on the School Committee for 23 years. Ah, it was his ambition to move on. He did not. Ah, uh, so I'm intimately k--go ahead.
What about the Irish politicians?
The Irish? Well, the Irish dominated politics in Boston, the same way the Germans do in the Midwest in some cities, or the Swedes do. Ah, uh, any minority group, and usually those in the cities, uh, are left this almost hollow structure, uh, particularly after the war, in which people fled to the suburbs. So Boston was, uh, the dominant minority group were the Irish. So it was only a natural process. It could have been some other group, but for Boston, it was the Irish. I didn't explain that well. Ah, there's another point here . I don't want to get too far off. Remember the Irish could go to Catholic schools--
If I gave you a short synopsis, if I was to try to give someone a quick snapshot--
If I gave you a short, two-minute snapshot of Boston, and all her history capsuled, she is a city that was dominated by one group of people who were comfortable with each other, called the Yankees, basically the English dominated the city from Plymouth Rock until about 1930. Uh--blew it.
From Plymouth Rock to about, uh, to about the turn of the century of 19--1900. And at that time, the Irish began to battle the Yankees, what we call the Yankee Brahin for control of the city. The turn of the century, Boston had the number one public school system in America, it had the number one teaching hospital in America, it had the number one symphony orchestra in America, it had the number one public library system in America. Thirty years later, merely because the Yankees and the Irish fought for political control of the city, we had lost primacy in all of those institutions, business had fled the city, and it was as economically dead as some of the worst cities in America today. And so, political infighting, as a high priority to what we do in this city, has been unfortunately our downfall on more than one occasion. And this was to portend that, again, this fight now, was with the Irish, who had won it in the '30s, but many other groups had left the city, fighting with the Blacks, who wanted to share in quality education, the jobs the city provided, and at this moment in time, city government was for the Irish the company business, in a town that had no other form of employment. So it was not only politics, it was a source of livelihood that was threatened by the changes that were coming, if we were going to move into quality education and an amalgamation of the Blacks and the minorities within the system. Is that a little better?
Okay, June 21, 1974, Garrity hands down his decision, what do you do?
Well, I'm the mayor. And, uh, the first recognition is that it's a, it's a court order, it has to be enforced by the city, that it's a final decision, that's it's irrevocable, and, uh, that I'm going to be responsible at a minimum, for public safety, and uh, at a maximum for, for the, for the social health, in a way it's a little exaggerated, but the morals of the town, it's a moral question, as well as a political question. What I did was, uh, respond politically**. Ah, and, and that is I brought my staff together, and I decided that the first thing I had to do, was not, was to reach out to the Whites. They were the ones who were going to feel threatened. And secondly, because I had beaten Mrs. Hicks, the Blacks had trust in me, to a degree, with the normal skepticism reserved for all public officials, and it was the Whites that I had to reach out for. So I asked them to arrange 100 coffee hours in the city, in the homes, hosted by only anti--White, uh, anti-busing mothers, in, in the White communities. And I wanted to take it head on. I wanted to reach out to talk to them, not to threaten them, to explain. And, uh, and so, uh, I began in that course almost immediately after Garrity handed down his order.
Were you apprehensive?
Yes. This, the words you can come up with, but apprehensive, eh, eh, to say the least. I was apprehensive. I, I have enough political sensitivity and understanding my own town. I wasn't scared. I thought it was a problem that I could handle. That it was going to take my attention. But that if I focused now, by September and opening day of school, this problem would be, would be containable, and that I could effectuate the order peacefully, or it would be done, while, uh, I was mayor. I was, uh, very wrong, in my prediction, obviously.
So, okay, I want you to talk to us about what the coffee hours were like.
Well, they were usually held in a very small living room, sometimes in the basement. A group no more than twenty, sometimes as small as six. And they came to listen, they came hostile, they came suspicious, but they came hopeful that if they could only capture the mayor, if only the mayor could listen, and, and, and, and see that they were right, then, then their cause would not only be heard, but would be w--but would be won. And in a ci--Boston is a, is an international city with sort of a small town mentality. And the mayor is the patriarch, and, and, because it's so political, it is a town in which the mayor is seen as all powerful. So it was a little like capture the flag for both sides. For the Blacks, if we can have the mayor as our protector, then, then we will, we will achieve, and the Whites, if we have the mayor, we will not lose. And my role had to be, uh, neither a partisan for either, but a protector in an odd way of both. And I began to play that role in the summer. But there wasn't large crowds. It was the intimacy of connecting, hopefully, to those women, and it was primarily women on both sides, the amazing thing is that the leadership that was being instituted here was women. And, and, with all the social forces swirling around this, uh, I, I was beginning to deal with a new leadership. So, there were many swirls of many emotions and many political currents, but the mayor was focal to all of it. And there was no chance to escape, if I thought alone in my room at night that I could, the realization every morning was that, there was no getting away from being the center of this storm.
And how do you feel about being the man in the middle?
Ahh, as I said, self-sympathetic, on more, on more than one occasion. Ah, little dramatic to say, "Oh why, why me, O Lord?" But the fact of the matter is that I had wrestled with it, I had fought Mrs. Hicks over this. Even my personality had been subordinated when I ran for mayor. I was called the opposition candidate to Mrs. Hicks. Ah, I was seen as bland. Ah, I, uh, resented both of those, uh, pictures of me. Ah, now I've forgotten your question as I get off on a tangent.
How you felt about being the man in the middle.
Well, one is self-sympathetic. Ah, but, but, uh, there's an exhilaration of emotion that goes along with wrestling with a public question like that. In fact, you get so emotionally involved yourself, as you go to bed every night and get up every morning, ah, on this, and, and you had a sense, as did the city in a corporate, uh, sense, that this was building to a head. It wasn't something that was flattening out. It, and, and, so that pulled away from any real self-sympathy. I was too engaged, uh, there would be times, after busing, when, uh, uh, I would, uh, you know, as a man it sounds ridi--but I would cry. I, I went away--not often, I didn't do it often--but boy, I, I left the city, I'm jumping ahead, but in October, I just left. Ah, you can absorb so much of other people's emotions, and that was something, to, to be effective as a politician, you have to, as they say, feel, but feel is another way of texture of absorbing, and if it comes in such strong, potent forces, then, then, uh, it sometimes can be emotionally, and I'm very healthy mentally, that someone can take, or that becomes a worry, a worry.
I want to go to the first day of school, September 12, 1974. You get up in the morning, what do you do?
Well, I did what was least expected, surprisingly enough. Ah, because I had become so controversial over the years, in this issue primarily, because the Whites thought I was so partisan to the Blacks, and, uh, because I had been all summer at the focal point, all of those involved with public safety and my staff, felt that the last thing I should do is physically show up on the scene. So ironically enough, the decision was, in a way, put the mayor aside, his role, for the day, was finished. And that I could only exacerbate it by my presence. So when I got up that morning, it was the first morning I hadn't been met by my drivers and driven to whatever place my schedule dictated. I drove myself, uh, back, uh, really to where I grew up in a way, I went back to, uh, I came from West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and I drove to a, uh, a fairly secluded spot. It's called an ah--arboretum, uh, on a hill, that could overlook Boston from a distance. I wasn't getting that dramatic, but it was a place where I could be quiet and be away. I was in my own car. And I turned on the radio, and that I could listen. All the radio stations were carrying, uh, the movement of the buses, so in a way I could follow it early in the morning. And as I was sitting on, uh, in the car, with the door open really, I looked up and two young boys were coming across the knoll, and that was unusual. It was school time. And they stopped and, at the moment they didn't recognize me, and then one of them did. And I said, "Why aren't you in school?" And, uh, one of them said to me, uh, "My mother, our mothers told us not to go to school, there's going to be trouble." And I just looked at them, they walked across, and, uh, I couldn't help reflect that I came from the same school they did, or the same neighborhood. I had an idea they had no idea what was happening. It was just, it was adult problems, not theirs. And, uh, I stayed there for about two hours, three hours, and then I began to head in town back to city hall, and then I knew that, uh, that the day and the next week was going to be longer than I thought, and maybe more difficult, and so my apprehensions escalated.
Going to that evening, the meeting at Freedom House.
What that, that, that first night, evening?
Ellen Jackson gave you a call and asked you to come over there?
N--yes, but, but actually the Blacks had gone to City Hall or some of the Black leadership. Among them a man that's just been re-elected state senator, Bill Owens. And I think Ellen was one of the Black leaders in whom I had the most faith. She was responsible, she was toughs and she was experienced. And I think she did call and ask me to see the group. They came to City Hall about 3:00. They were, uh, emotionally agitated, to say the least. They were scared. And, uh, they were frightened. And, uh, they asked me to go up to Freedom House that night. And I was hesitant to do it. It would show partisanship overnight, immediately. The one thing that I had tried to avoid in the summer without looking wishy-washy. But I understood that it was, that, that, that I had to go. And Owens assured me that he could control the crowd and that we could conduct something that was a semblance of a meeting. I went to Freedom House. Ah, when I arrived, Ellen Jackson greeted me, told me that there were about a hundred or two hundred women. However num--how the number was in a hall and that I had to go in and speak to them, but I couldn't bring anybody with me. I couldn't bring any bodyguards. I couldn't bring any assistants. I couldn't bring anybody but myself. And so, uh, I went downstairs into this large hall. I walked in. There were about a hundred, two hundred women. And, uh, Owens went to introduce me, but it was immediate to me, apparent immediately that he was not in control, nor were the women in control of themselves. There was a, a murmur of hysteria that you find when someone, individually or collectively, are scared. You don't hear it very often. It's like a buzz. It's, it's, it's, it's, it's, it's, it's the perimeters of a seance. And this was terror. And so I began to communicate but then all of a sudden there were "You promised us." And I think it's impossible for anybody to understand. But you have to be devoid of any emotion--even if you're not even married and had no children--to realize that these were women, Black women, who were sending their children on a bus and were watching on television while they're being stoned, escorted by police. I even had to, there isn't one of us that can understand what that is. You say, "Well, they'll be alright." But it's your own child. Better you go yourself and that's a risk. That's what they did in the, in the Freedom March in Selma, but the adults went. The, the, the startling aspect of this were the adults were all at home, as I was on the hill. It was the children that were going. And so that terror was so expressed in them. And, and what I was trying to get out of them was only one thing and get out the hall, was, "Give me another day." And I, I, uh, uh, almost in a formal plea said, "Give me another chance." I had very little evidence that I was very successful in the first chance. The first day was, uh, was a nightmare from every point of view. The image of Boston internationally and nationally. Our own sense of control, the passions on both sides, and uh, it was inauspicious--that's, that's a ridiculous description--but it, it was, I, I just wanted to, I had absorbed their fears without any sense of confidence as I left, almost in a mental frame of trying to escape the hall. I don't know. I left the hall. I get into my car. I didn't want to talk. I was filled with, uh, with some of that emotion. Frustration, I thi--the word is frustration for me. That, always that element of self-sympathy but frustration. I didn't want to speak and got a ca--call on the car phone that there was a similar crowd in South Boston, and would I come? And I refused to do that. I'm sorry--
How come Southie?
What do you mean, "How come Southie?"
Were you surprised that Southie was the, the place where, where there was so much violence?
Well, let me define myself in that I was always seen as , quote, "the man." But I was also fairly young and healthy. And I'm all Irish. I have nothing but Irish blood in me so Southie was a place that had been isolated from me because I'd run against Mrs. Hicks. So I was rejected by Southie. But when I went in there, when I used to argue with the mothers during the summer months, even as I began to try and contain this from spreading any further than Southie, I began to develop not- an empathy or an understanding. All of this was for all of us in the end, the process of education and change. And it, and it, and it was not that I was going to in any way diminish my efforts to enforce the law, or my real sense that, that the Blacks had been cut out of the process. And, and that was repugnant to me. But Southie in fairness is a cohesive community. Just prior to busing, one that a Black could walk with comfort. Much of, I had to realize, of South Boston was fright. And that was the same thing that was in the Black community, obviously misunderstanding, when you say why Southie, Southie had a spirit. I, I, I, I'm out of politics now but South Boston's perceived today somewhat like, ah, nationally, South Africa is to the world: on the wrong side. Southie was positioned wrong, but she was not in all points, I'm not explaining this well. But what I'm trying to say is, oh I get, well let me t--I'm sorry. I didn't mean, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that way. I think that what made South Boston so pronounced, what, what, what positioned South Boston and Roxbury so clearly was that each reflected the fundamental, elemental problem. The Blacks wanted equality. Even if that was poor education. And they represented a determination to fight for that. And the court order gave them a backing. And Southie, in the same pure sense, represented a cohesive community. The community meant more to them than equality or anything else. That that sense of intimacy, of comfort in a cocoon, once, that pride in it, and when you're outside that you came from it, was so pure that those two concepts came unadulterated into conflict, equality or community, and which was to prevail. And I think, I didn't see it then, I see it now. Neither prevails in the end. Each prevails at a different time and place depending upon the significance and the importance of the change. And so at that time it was seen only that you were either for equality or community and you were not allowed the latitude of playing it in the middle without being painted a coward. And so I began to understand that there was a cause in Southie that wasn't being articulated well, even that quality education was not synonymous with equality. The code words were different but I began to understand that they both fought for two concepts. And for the moment I was one who believed that at some sacrifice for the moment, equality was the higher cause, for the moment.
Well just, or about the question of the election of 1977. I've grown up in politics all my life. It was talked in my family. I never missed an election. It was a civic and family cause never to miss one. I knew who I voted for and very seldom did I not vote without knowledge from the time I was 18. And then I went into politics as my career. And yet by the time '77 rolled around and there was a municipal election, I don't know whether I voted, I think I voted. But then I did a strange thing. I didn't look at a newspaper. And I didn't talk to anybody about the election for about two or three days. I, ah, was living in a townhouse which was called, the Parkman House, I may have mentioned, and it was almost a, you can understand it and it seems absurd at the same time. No one mentioned the election to me. It was a munic--it was an interim election. I knew Mrs. Hicks was running but there wasn't anything there, but we, the administration, was not threatened by the election. And so no one mentioned it to me. And I don't think I mentioned it to anybody else. I don't know how it occurred. But certainly, at least two or three days later, I was on the phone with somebody and I, somebody said, "Too bad about Mrs. Hicks." And I didn't know Mrs. Hicks had lost. I hadn't even known John O'Bryant had won. Now you'd say, "Mother of god, what kind of mayor is that that, that, that, that kind of change--it just was a, I did--I was fed up. It didn't affect me, I wasn't interested, and I didn't know about the change when it occurred, and I remember that well, it said something about myself, really. It began to show the signs that, that, well, something, and I can't express it. But in any case,--
When you did hear the results, did you think it meant anything?
Not of great political import in the town, as such. But if you put it in retrospect, it meant the way it was over, that, not gone, it didn't disappear, but the boil had broken. That we're on a road to recovery, that, as I say, from 1974 to 1977, enormous changes had occurred, some we didn't even see, and for the main participants, Black and White, things were never going to be the same again. And, and Mrs. Hicks was about to disappear as a strong political force in Boston. But for the first time, a native-born Black was about to assume a position of important. But that didn't say that John O'Brian would change Boston politics, or that we would never again have an issue that Mrs. Hicks represented, that cut to the core of our emotional feelings, but it meant that that fight, that part of Boston's history that reflected its--
Do you feel that your hopes for national political office were sacrificed?
Don't make me laugh. I don't mean it. I didn't even see it coming. That may be overly dramatic. They certainly weren't enhanced. I'm not doing this well. Paul, uh, were they sacrificed?
Just give us a sentence beginning with something about your hopes for national political office.
Well I think it, I'd be less candid or fair if, if I didn't put some of my action within the context of, of wanting like any other young politician to move up and, uh, I had, uh, as this all began, had been nurturing quietly in my own mind the possibility of a, that I might be able to sort of try my wings nationally. And, and so I had just begun to develop in my own mind and, and with others a strategy to explore a chance for a mayor to reach out for or search or try for national office. And that went from a primary place in my mind to very much in the back of my head as the battle began. And then I knew that, uh, those hopes or ambitions were, uh, were snuffed out, that I couldn't both do busing and retain any realistic hopes that, uh, that, uh, I would be very much more than a mayor. But when I entered the battle I had, like all young men, illusions of grandeur. I used to say that in the heart of every politician is the desire to be an interplanetary leader. And I think less than that is, is, uh, a goal not secured. But for me I, I'm getting a little self-conscious so I don't want to overly dramatize it.