The run-up to Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day was worrying, filled with symbolism that hearkened back to long-ago days of intolerance and small-mindedness. Symbols of the day itself, however, were of a different, better sort. Perfect? Hardly. Getting there? Yes.
The focus was the neighborhood of South Boston, the heart of Ireland in America (New York City running a distinct second), which has witnessed its fair share of turmoil, from the sometimes violent protests of anti-busing marchers in the 1970s to the more recent real estate revolution that has seen old-timers making fortunes off of gentrifying newcomers. At issue were two events of great significance and long tradition. One was the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, an annual meal cum political roast. The second was the parade, first held in 1901 and sponsored by the Allied War Veterans Council.
There were two problems, one new, one old. The breakfast is traditionally emceed by Southie’s state senators who have always possessed four attributes: They were from the neighborhood, of Irish heritage, white, and male. But this year the senator hailed from neighboring Dorchester and possessed none of those qualities: She is Linda Dorcena Forry, she’s black, and her family comes from Haiti. Many, to say the least, were taken aback.
Meanwhile, there was the perennial controversy over gays and lesbians openly marching in the parade. The organizers don’t want them and their determination has been such that in 1995 they brought the issue all the way to the US Supreme Court, winning unanimously. The decision was absolutely correct, solidly grounded in the First Amendment. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right, and for years a few politicians — former Mayor Thomas Menino most notably — had consequently declined to participate. In the years since, the matter had quieted down, but new mayor Marty Walsh waded in and things ratcheted up.
The breakfast was an alloyed success. And while Walsh didn’t get everything he wanted with the parade, he accomplished something.
Forry walked into the South Boston convention center amid enthusiastic cheers. In her opening lines she addressed both her color and her sex. “There is nothing wrong with the picture on your TV,” she said. “That is right, everyone . . . I’m a woman.” The morning featured skits with Southie polls such as former state senator Jack Hart and US representative Stephen Lynch touring Forry around town and indoctrinating her into South Boston lore. Speaker after speaker reveled in the diversity on stage, from the prominent women (including Senate President Therese Murray and US senator Elizabeth Warren) and the faces of color (not least of which was the Commonwealth’s governor).
A few hours later the parade kicked off. MassEquality, the gay advocacy organization that had for a tantalizing moment seemed close to agreement with parade organizers, did not march, and so nor did a chagrined Mayor Walsh. Yet in truth, much had changed. Two groups featured displays that spoke to the gay and lesbian controversy. One, the South Boston Association of Non-Profits, carried banners with messages about diversity and equality. A second from the St. Vincent’s neighborhood featured rainbow cannons and marchers tossing plastic necklaces to the crowd. Subtle? Hardly. A decade ago, probably neither would have been permitted. This year, both were embraced by the parade’s organizers. Next year, I suspect, the restrictions will loosen even further.
It’s easy to watch all of this and feel real delight about how far Boston has moved along Martin Luther’s King Jr.’s arc of justice. The optimism should be held in check, however. The fact that there was controversy on both events serves as a warning. And too, while it was easy to celebrate diversity, the reality is quite different. Of the 13 members of Boston’s City Council, for instance, only two are women and only four (including the two women) are non-white. And as much as Massachusetts has been a pioneer for same-sex marriage, far too often — and especially in high schools — homophobic insults continue to be heard.
Still symbols are important. And this St. Patrick’s Day, the symbols told us that even if we haven’t arrived, we’re on the right path forward.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.