It was a deeply unsettling sight, as was surely intended. Two days before the Fourth of July, about 100 white supremacists, their faces covered, marched through the heart of Boston with riot shields, at one point brawling with a Black man.
The brazen demonstration, an apparent declaration of strength, heightened fears that white nationalist ideology had taken hold in Massachusetts, widely considered a progressive bastion, and that the national surge of extremism during the Trump administration had arrived here with troubling force.
But white supremacist movements have deep roots in Massachusetts and New England, historians said. While the displays of propaganda are shockingly hateful and vile, they are far from new.
“These ideas have been around,” said William C. Leonard, a history professor at Emmanuel College.
The Colonists, of course, codified slavery in Massachusetts in 1641, more than a century before the United States declared its independence. (The state abolished slavery in the 1780s.) In the early 1700s, the local Colonial legislature passed a law prohibiting interracial marriage and sex. The ban on sex was removed in 1786, but the ban on mixed marriages was expanded to include Native Americans. Two years later, local authorities prescribed whipping for nonresident Black people who stayed in the state more than two months.
In 1849, the state’s highest court ruled that the Massachusetts Constitution allows for segregated schools, and the US Supreme Court would later use that ruling to make the legal case for a “separate but equal” doctrine.
The anti-immigration movement also has roots in Massachusetts. In the 1890s, a trio of Boston Brahmin intellectuals founded the Immigration Restriction League, which laid the intellectual groundwork for many contemporary hard-line beliefs.
“It’s always had a nativist opposition to outsiders,” Leonard said of the region, “going back to Puritans.”
For much of its history, there has been a political and social dichotomy in New England, a tension between the region’s progressive impulses and the underlying realities of segregation and racism. As some academics point out, no matter what New Englanders tell themselves about the distinctiveness of their local history, it is still America.
“Massachusetts is part of America, and America is entrenched in white supremacist dogmas and ideas,” said Kerri Greenidge, a professor at Tufts University’s department of studies in race, colonialism, and diaspora. “It’s part of the DNA of the region, alongside this idea of progressivism.”
She added, “Just because somebody’s progressive, doesn’t mean that they’re not racist. Progressivism doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist.”
By 1925, the Ku Klux Klan had more than 130,000 members in Massachusetts, according to research from historian Mark Paul Richard, and Worcester had become a focus of Klan activity, which took aim at Catholic and Jewish immigrants as well as Black people.
More recently, any history of racism in Boston is incomplete without the turmoil of the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s schools in the 1970s. South Boston politician Louise Day Hicks came to personify the working-class white resistance to busing, which was met with violence in some corners of the city and cemented Boston’s national reputation as racist.
Hicks was once called “the Bull Connor of Boston,” a reference to the brutally racist police commissioner of Birmingham, Ala. Hicks served as a city councilor and school committee member and had one term in Congress. In 1967, she came within 12,000 votes of being elected mayor.
Amid the outcry over busing in 1976, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, a staunch segregationist, was met with a “foot-stomping” reception in South Boston.
“A good part of South Boston is now considered ‘Wallace country,’” The New York Times reported.
Other anecdotes of high-profile local instances of systemic racism are numerous, including the police response to the Charles Stuart case.
Ted Landsmark, a public policy professor at Northeastern University, knows white mob violence firsthand. The same year Wallace was campaigning in Boston during the presidential primaries, Landsmark, who is Black, was assaulted outside City Hall, a moment that was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
The recent white supremacist march did not remind him of the anti-busing mob that attacked him decades ago, which was largely made up of high school students who did not conceal their identities. What it reminded him of was the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.
“The cowardice of white racists continues to reflect planned efforts to intimidate without identifying who the intimidators ... actually are,” he said.
The recent march, though, shows that Boston’s and New England’s racist legacy still lingers, Landsmark said.
While race relations have improved markedly since the 1970s, racial and socioeconomic disparities remain entrenched, particularly in the private sector, which Landsmark said sustains “the sense that New England is not prepared to address its racist present.”
”I don’t like to think of ‘outside agitators’ as being the sole source of racial animus across New England, but we have a reputation that has brought negative, racially motivated white supremacists to the region,” he said. “And until we demonstrate such white supremacist attitudes will not be tolerated, they will continue to come to this area.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center last year tracked 14 hate groups in Massachusetts, including white nationalist groups such as Revolt through Tradition and Patriot Front, the group that orchestrated this month’s march, as well as outright neo-Nazi organizations such as the Nationalist Social Club.
Patriot Front’s manifesto is an expression of virulent racism, according to the law center, stating that “An African, for example, may have lived, worked, and even been classed as a citizen in America for centuries, yet he is not American. He is, as he likely prefers to be labelled, an African in America.”
In mainstream society, such views are vigorously denounced, and the white supremacist march through Boston sparked immediate outrage. But the structures of society remain tilted against people of color, helping to preserve white predominance, Greenidge and others said.
“Boston is a place that much of the overtness of racism doesn’t happen to the extent we saw two weeks ago,” Greenidge said. “We are shocked because it’s fascism, right? And America is used to saying fascism doesn’t exist here. Fascism is a form of racism. I think Massachusetts isn’t used to seeing that particular form of racism, like a fascist march. but that doesn’t mean that that’s the only incarnation of it that exists.”
Spikes in white supremacist activity in Boston also occurred in the 1970s and 1990s, Greenidge said. Such waves show that that a “bubbling of white hatred” is always present. That context should be considered when analyzing events like the recent march through downtown Boston.
“It doesn’t mean that when there’s no surge, there’s nothing there,” she said.