|Former Boston Mayor Kevin White|
With gleaming stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck bickering over who has the right to make a movie about that rapscallion Whitey Bulger – you know, the gangster and drug dealer who killed at least 19 people – it’s safe to say we have moved so far away from Boston’s dark past that it looks nearly charming these days.
And yet, it really wasn’t so long ago that the Boston Irish were at the center of a drama that was ugly, raw and rooted in ancient hatreds. And it had nothing to do with Whitey Bulger.
The death last week of former Boston Mayor Kevin White, at the age of 82, was another reminder of these bad old days.
This also reminds us that while we have our problems in the year 2012, they are nothing compared to the rancor of 1970s Boston.
Finally, lest we ever forget, the White days also proved that we may be known as the “Fighting Irish” not because we fight against the world, but because we fight each other.
White’s glory days were 1970s Boston, a town ruled politically by the Irish. In fact, former Boston Globe reporter and editor Gerard O’Neill has a new book coming out in March entitled Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston (Crown).
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The book’s starting point is “Four Micks,” including, Thomas Fitzgerald (JFK’s Irish-born great-grandfather) and Michael Curley, whose grandson James would serve as Boston mayor and Massachusetts governor, while also serving time in prison.
But perhaps the most interesting – and timely - sections of O’Neill’s book are the White years.
White was briefly a towering figure. He was nearly selected as George McGovern’s presidential running mate in 1972.
And yet, White may be the least colorful of four key figures from late 1960s and early 1970s Boston.
They were all Irish and all, in their own ways, despised each other.
First there was White, who like most Irish pols of his generation had a strong political pedigree. His father once served as Boston’s City Council president, and also served in the state senate. He even eyed the mayor’s chair his own son would eventually occupy from 1968 to 1984.
White, simply put, was a moderate liberal. He even labeled Boston “racist” in 1980.
And so, when the notorious bussing controversy of the early 1970s hit South Boston, White was vulnerable when it came to political enemies such as Louise Day Hicks.
“Bussing” hit the big time in 1974, when Irish American judge Arthur Garrity ruled the Boston’s schools were racially segregated.
The solution? Sending African American kids on busses to mostly white schools, and vice versa.
Louise Day Hicks looked like everybody’s grandmother, but she was supported by the vociferous, sometimes violent, anti-bussing crowd, including the group ROAR.
Demanding that someone “Restore Our Alienated Rights,” Hicks won over her fans and earned her
enemies when she said, “You know where I stand.”
To some, she and ROAR stood for racial segregation in the north, just as fat, bald sheriffs had done in the American south.
A more complex opponent of White’s was Joe Timilty. “They came from opposite sides of the tracks to enter city politics at the same time, in the same place,” O’Neill writes.
“One was a hard-charging, beer-drinking Marine from St. Gregory’s parish in Dorchester. The other was something of an intellectual from a lace curtain family in West Roxbury who read the philosophers and sipped white wine – when he drank at all.”
Timilty and White, who battled in three ugly races for mayor throughout the 1970s, represent two sides of the Irish American experience -- one, blue collar and feisty, the other more upper class and anxious to escape these less sophisticated roots.
When all was said and done, there was racial tension and violence, not to mention Irish-on-Irish violence.
Most notoriously, Judge Garrity faced death threats and Senator Ted Kennedy was nearly mauled by an angry crowd.
Meanwhile, even though White got the most votes in those mayoral races, it’s hard to say someone actually won given the long-lasting scars left behind.
To some, these days are ancient history. And that’s a good thing.
So long as we do everything we can to avoid the passing of such days ever again.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at firstname.lastname@example.org