Three years into his tenure as president of Boston’s NAACP branch, Leonard Alkins considered stepping down while grieving his father’s sudden death from cardiac arrest, but decided to stay.
“I know that he would not have wanted me to step down from doing something that he would be proud of me for doing,” he told the Globe a couple of months after his father died in late 1998. “He never quit, so I would never quit.”
President of the branch from 1995 to 2006, Mr. Alkins spent more than a half-century advocating on behalf of Greater Boston’s people of color. He was 77 when he died of cancer Saturday while in hospice care in his Brockton home.
Years before the Black Lives Matter movement increased the national focus on issues affecting people of color, Mr. Alkins was immersed in causes that drew far less attention in his era.
“Lenny was advocating for quality schools, affordable housing, and community investment for Black and brown people, and a response to health inequities that left people of color more vulnerable,” said Michael Curry, a past president of Boston’s NAACP branch.
“At that point, very few people were paying attention to these critical issues, and the policies didn’t reflect their urgency,” Curry said. “He led many of the efforts to drive a change in policies in the City of Boston.”
Mr. Alkins did so while working to resuscitate an ailing organization. In the years before he was elected president, membership had plummeted in the Boston branch and the national NAACP had placed it in a receivership status to address its financial woes.
Hesitating at first before committing to lead the branch, Mr. Alkins said in an interview that although he was Boston-born and had grown up in the Orchard Park housing project, he and his family had moved to Brockton in the 1970s.
“I initially told them I felt the position belonged to someone who lived in the City of Boston,” he told the Globe after being elected in December 1995. “But where you live has no relevancy.”
His experience navigating politics was more relevant than his mailing address.
By the time he was elected president of Boston’s NAACP, Mr. Alkins had three decades of experience at the State House, having worked first as a legislative page until his talents caught the attention of state Senator Kevin Harrington, who hired him for his own office.
As Harrington rose to become Senate president, Mr. Alkins found his own responsibilities increasing as well.
Within less than a decade on the senator’s staff, Mr. Alkins was Harrington’s go-through person.
“In order to get to see Harrington, a person must first get by Leonard Alkins,” the Globe reported in 1973.
Two years later, in a Globe feature on powerful, top legislative aides, a reporter dubbed Mr. Alkins the Henry Kissinger of Harrington’s staff – likening his clout in the Massachusetts Senate to that held in Washington, D.C., by the US secretary of state.
“Alkins’s major task is to defuse the emotions of adversaries coming before the Senate president to have their disputes adjudicated,” the Globe noted.
When Harrington left the Senate in 1978, Mr. Alkins became clerk of the Joint Committee on Rules, where he remained for the rest of his four-decade career with the Legislature.
Upon being elected to lead the Boston NAACP in 1995, Mr. Alkins called it “a great day” for the organization, which honored him with its distinguished service award in 2008.
“We are looking forward to an exciting year, and resurrecting this chapter,” he told the Globe. “We are looking forward to rebuilding our connection with churches. We will be committed to voter registration, membership drives, and civil rights in general.”
Leonard Conrad Alkins, who shared his first and middle names with those of his grandfathers, was born in Boston on Aug. 18, 1944.
Though he spent his childhood in an era when segregation intruded into the lives of Boston’s people of color, he grew up with friends of all races, said his wife, Carole.
His mother, Barbara Blizzard Alkins, raised the family’s children – Mr. Alkins was the third of nine. His father, Charles L. Alkins, spent 38 years at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, where he was a driver for the motor pool.
A Boston Trade High School graduate, and an Army Reserves veteran, Mr. Alkins married Carole Ann Wilson in 1966.
They had been acquainted long before they began dating as high school seniors.
“I knew him from the time we went to St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church,” she said.
Along with running into each other on Sundays at the Roxbury church, the two knew each other through their families, which socialized together.
Carole said that through his years in the State House, her husband “grew into the man we know, who had strong beliefs and ideals about what was the right thing to do, and that you work together for your constituency, you don’t work for yourself.”
Though the demands of work with the Legislature and the NAACP kept Mr. Alkins busy, at home “he really was very family-oriented,” she said. “He used to say, ‘I love coming home sitting around the table, having conversations with my children.’ ”
While Mr. Alkins led the Boston NAACP, the branch annually fielded countless reports of discrimination that involved housing, law enforcement, education, and other matters, Curry said.
“Give credit to Lenny for being the leader who responded to many of those complaints and resolved those complaints to have a lasting impact on families in this city,” Curry said. “He has had an indelible mark in the City of Boston through his advocacy on behalf of families.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Alkins leaves their two children, Leonard Jr. of Dorchester and Pamela of Englewood, N.J.; a sister, Patricia Clark of Franklin; six brothers Charles of Sharon, David of Lincoln, Kenneth of Atlanta, Stephen and Brian, both of Randolph, and Jeffrey of Dorchester; and two grandsons.
A celebration of Mr. Alkins’s life and legacy will be held at noon on April 30 in Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury.
Along with being a prominent voice for Boston’s Black community and people of color, Mr. Alkins was a longtime mentor to young activists such as Curry, whom he helped guide to being elected to the national NAACP board in 2014.
“Not only did Lenny manage the struggles of being a leader extremely well, modeling that leadership to me and others, but he also encouraged us and checked in on us,” said Curry, who has served on the national NAACP’s executive committee and chairs the board’s advocacy and policy committee.
“Lenny was my friend, he was my mentor,” Curry said, and someone who seemed tireless in his efforts.
“While many people were at home, Lenny was at a meeting, Lenny was at a conference, Lenny was engaging about issues with legislative leaders, with mayors, with governors. He had dedicated his life to addressing systemic issues when society wasn’t ready to,” Curry said. “He had a lifelong commitment to being our voice, our presence, our advocate on issues of importance to communities of color.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.