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How the 1967 mayoral race changed Boston

Frank O’Brien/Globe Staff/File

Louise Day Hicks and Kevin White met before a debate on Oct. 30, 1967.

By Globe Staff 

Last in a series of occasional stories on the summer of 1967, when the Red Sox caught the imagination of a city in an era of tumult and change.

The campaign announcement dreaded by Boston’s establishment came with gold-embossed invitations and a 475-pound cake baked in the shape of the new City Hall rising at Government Center.

It was a crisp May night in 1967, and a crowd estimated at more than 1,000 packed the Sheraton Plaza’s Oval Room. A band struck up a soon-to-be familiar tune, with the lyric: “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise.”

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Into the ballroom swept Louise Day Hicks, the popular but intensely polarizing School Committee member who’d been disparaged by some as a dangerous bigot, albeit one in an aqua dress and dainty white gloves. Others revered Hicks as a champion of the “little people” alienated by a government that seemed to care only about highways and bulldozing old neighborhoods to make way for the shiny new downtown. Boston was redefining itself in 1967, and Hicks, to her critics, was a throwback who could undo it all.

Addressing the crowd and a battery of national reporters, Hicks promised a “Boston for Bostonians.” She lamented what she described as the city’s “forgotten man — the middle class who are paying everything and getting nothing.” She made her mayoral campaign official with the declaration: “My chapeau . . . is in the ring.”

With that, Hicks hoisted an enormous, oversized key and, wielding it like a saber, cut City Hall in two.

And so she set in motion something Bostonians of today, witnesses to the current somnolent, lopsided race for City Hall, can barely recall or imagine: a thrilling, tempestuous, defining election, maybe the most important in city history — a choice between two candidates that would reverberate for generations. The future and image of Boston seemed at stake, and were. The 1967 mayoral election became a local referendum on America’s long overdue promise of civil rights in a city long strangled by blight, high taxes, and a tribal divisiveness, a city which, like Newark and Detroit, but on not nearly the same scale, had erupted in violence.

Hicks, with the insight of a remarkably gifted politician, recognized the growing disillusionment in Boston’s blue-collar enclaves. She caught fire as a populist phenomenon, a symbol of white backlash against a changing world.

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“A large part of my vote probably does come from bigoted people,” Hicks once told an interviewer. “But after all, I can hardly go around telling people, ‘Don’t vote for me if you’re bigoted.’ The important thing is that I know I’m not bigoted.”

Her sly campaign slogan — “You know where I stand” — left all that unsaid.

“I’m for Louise because she is against the colored,” a cab driver was quoted as saying in a Sept. 10, 1967, Mary McGrory column in The Boston Globe. “I shouldn’t be, but I am. I think they’ve got to be put in their place.”

As the world watched, Hicks barreled toward the mayor’s office.

Could anyone stop her?

***

Kevin H. White arrived alone on the tiny Caribbean island of Aruba for a clandestine trip in December 1966. Like his city, White faced a political crossroads.

At age 37, White had just been elected to his third term as Massachusetts secretary of state. But the post lacked the stature and political base for a man with national dreams. On long walks along Aruba’s beaches, famous for white sand and turquoise water, he decided to put his political future on the line, entering a rambunctious city preliminary election that would draw 10 candidates in all.

By February 1967, a stealth campaign hummed on the 11th floor of the Little Building on the edge of Boston Common. The walls were festooned with maps of the city’s 22 wards. A poster read: “Go Kevin White for Mayor.”

He had a resonant political name — both his father and grandfather had been City Council presidents — but White was renowned for little else, except obvious ambition. He was by no means the favorite, which may come as a surprise to those who would later know him as a prominent four-term mayor, as “Mayor Deluxe” and “Kevin from Heaven.”

What was more important, with the Hicks bandwagon taking shape, was that he was all in.

All in all, it was quite a year. The Beatles released “Penny Lane.” US troops in Vietnam launched the largest airborne assault since World War II. The Red Sox mounted an improbable pennant run, which, for stretches, would make politics an utter irrelevancy in a most political town. And in an elaborate press conference on Feb. 15, White formally launched his campaign, vowing to tackle the city’s “crisis of confidence” by focusing on people and not buildings.

“There is an alienated voter in Boston,” White said. “A citizen who has been locked out.”

***

The newly constructed Southeast Expressway in many ways symbolized the Boston of the 1950s and 1960s, as its white residents increasingly escaped to the suburbs. Twenty percent of the population left town, with much of Dorchester and South Boston headed south.

Bulldozers razed blocks in the name of urban renewal, superhighways severed Colonial-era neighborhoods like the North End from downtown, and an airport expansion gobbled up houses in East Boston. The backlash against big government bred a cynicism that Boston University political scientist Murray B. Levin chronicled in his 1965 book, “The Alienated Voter: Politics in Boston.”

Mayor John F. Collins had ridden that anti-incumbency wave into office in 1959, defeating powerful state Senate President John E. Powers in what Levin described as “one of the most stunning upsets” in Boston history. But after two terms, voters had soured on their mayor, who was humiliated when he ran for US Senate and lost his own city in the Democratic primary.

Globe staff/File 1967

Mayor John F. Collins had ridden an anti-incumbency wave into office in 1959.

At City Hall, mayoral hopefuls lined up. The stable of candidates included a Republican reformer (John W. Sears), a technocrat (Edward J. Logue) who masterminded Boston’s sweeping but controversial urban renewal initiatives, and an Italian-born city councilor (Christopher A. Iannella), who warned against “demagogues” who play upon fears and prejudices.

One obscure candidate (John J. McDonough) papered Boston with posters declaring: “To vote for Mrs. Hicks is to Ask for Violence.” Another long-shot candidate (Peter F. Hines) implored Boston voters not to put “up before the nation and the world a candidate that stands for racial bigotry.”

***

Hicks’s unlikely rise began on a drizzly Election Day in 1961. She was the only School Committee candidate that day who went by three names — Louise Day Hicks — to remind voters of her father, William J. Day, a wealthy banker and judge from South Boston.

Despite her prominent family, Hicks rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment into office. She campaigned across the city, even among black voters in Roxbury. She vowed to be the voice of mothers, promising to “keep politics out of schools.”

But politics would soon subsume the Boston public schools, and in the arena of politics, Hicks stood out. In January 1963, after a year on the School Committee, Hicks outmaneuvered a colleague and won a surprise 3-2 vote to become chairwoman.

As Hicks wrestled with the school budget, the country roiled. From Birmingham to Detroit, African-Americans pushed to make good on the promise of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The demand grew for integrated schools.

In Boston, the numbers were undisputable: 13 Roxbury-area schools were 90 percent black and received less money per student than predominantly white schools. Black leaders threatened to boycott the system unless the city acknowledged this de facto segregation. After weeks of intense negotiations — and a near-compromise — Hicks dug in, blaming the racial imbalance on geography.

Joe Dennehy/Globe Staff/File

NAACP executive secretary Thomas Atkins (right) asked to be admitted to Louise Day Hicks's office in Boston on Sept. 6, 1963. Eight demonstrators held a sit-in in the offices that began on Sept. 5 and lasted into the night, including Atkins staying in Hicks's office.

She told black leaders that there was “no de facto segregation in Boston,” and proclaimed, “This is not Alabama; this is Boston. I shall not yield.”

Race proved good politics in Boston’s ethnic Irish and Italian neighborhoods. Hicks’s popularity exploded. That fall of 1963 in her School Committee reelection, she won tens of thousands more votes than any other candidate on the ballot, including Mayor Collins.

Governor George Wallace, the segregationist from Alabama, seized on the lopsided results as evidence that Northerners also opposed integration. Southerners were “tired of being the whipping boys for national politicians,” Wallace said in a speech at Smith College, pointing out that Hicks triumphed in Boston despite being “vigorously opposed by the NAACP.”

With new fame, Hicks excelled as a provocateur. She warned of threats of violence against white students. She insisted — despite the threat of protests — on attending graduation ceremonies at a nearly all-black junior high school in Roxbury. As a crowd of more than 1,000 black parents chanted “Get her out! Get her out!”, a civil rights activist stormed up to the stage and declared that Hicks’s presence was akin to inviting Hitler to a synagogue.

The next day, Hicks rode in a convertible in the Bunker Hill Day parade. The crowd in the white, Irish enclave of Charlestown greeted Hicks, according to the Boston Herald, with “the biggest applause of the day.”

That polarizing popularity — loved in one neighborhood, loathed in another — pushed Hicks’s ambition beyond the School Committee to City Hall.

***

Hicks placed first in September’s 10-person mayoral preliminary. Less than 90 minutes after polls closed, she beamed at a bank of microphones, reaching her white-gloved hands up in victory. White took second, 13,000 votes behind the leader, setting up a November runoff against Hicks, who declared, “May the best woman win.”

At 11:05 that night, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy endorsed White. Republican Governor John Volpe would follow, and Kennedy said that “today’s election was not the final word. The real campaign begins tonight.”

Hicks pounced. She painted White as a tool of the establishment. Hicks stood alone, she said, with the little people. She stole one of White’s issues — establishing neighborhood City Halls — and made it her own, promising to bring government back to the people.

Hicks was winning. The press depicted White as a milquetoast, a candidate who “suffers from a seemingly incurable and largely undeserved case of blandness,” said New York Times Magazine writer Berkeley Rice. White was an opportunist. The mayor’s office was his springboard to a governorship. Hicks had momentum.

Then, abruptly, the election froze in place. At Fenway Park, Carl Yastrzemski singled in a five-run inning as the Red Sox beat the Twins on the final game of their season. Later that day, as another contender lost, it was official. The Sox were going to the World Series!

Both campaigns effectively ceased as few paid attention for 12 days, until Red Sox first baseman George Scott swung and missed for that final World Series out.

Bob Dean/Globe Staff/file 1967

Three weeks before Election Day, White and Hicks faced off in a debate at Dorchester’s Florian Hall.

***

With an October poll showing Hicks with a substantial lead, White churned out position papers but couldn’t find an issue that stuck. He knew better than to attack Hicks head-on. The two candidates who had branded Hicks a racist finished with the fewest votes in the preliminary election.

White met privately with Kennedy in the back of a Boston restaurant. “Take the gloves off,” Kennedy urged White. “Don’t attack Mrs. Hicks personally but attack her stand on the issues.”

Three weeks before Election Day, White and Hicks faced off in a debate, on territory friendly to the front-runner. She stood at a podium in Dorchester’s Florian Hall, addressing the police patrolmen’s union. White sat with his hands clasped.

Then she said it: Hicks promised a 30 percent raise for police, up to $10,000 year. She doubled down, making the same pledge for firefighters. Hicks had earlier vowed not to raise taxes. The math didn’t add up — and White pounced.

“Fiscal fantasies,” White charged. Hicks had a “credibility gap.” She can’t be trusted to run a city where taxes are already too high. “Fiscal fantasies” became White’s battle cry. “Fiscal fantasies” became his salvation.

Hicks sputtered. She went to Washington to search for federal funds for the raises, but returned empty-handed and embarrassed. “Pie-in-the-sky promises,” White hammered away, “which cannot be kept.”

Hicks’s gentility and confidence gave way to aggression. At Polcari’s restaurant, addressing a gaggle of reporters, she attacked White, challenging him to “point to one act of bigotry” on her part.

White tried to project the aura of a leader, not a bomb-thrower. At Faneuil Hall on a gray Thursday, he warned that Boston faced a psychological crisis. He said on Channel 2 that the city was in danger of “tearing itself apart if it does not deal effectively with racial antagonisms” with a mayor who can “smooth the frictions and heal the scores”

Hicks then turned her fire on the press. The Globe misrepresented facts, she alleged. A Newsweek cover story headlined “Backlash in Boston” belittled her supporters. Hicks used the article as fodder for a final flurry of campaign ads seeking to rouse resentment among her supporters.

“It was a diabolical plot to defeat me and elect my opponent,” Hicks warned, describing a media conspiracy “to take government from the people.”

The Globe had not endorsed a candidate for public office in 71 years. Not since William Jennings Bryan’s presidential campaign of 1896. That Monday, the newspaper broke with its tradition. It argued Hicks was a threat to basic civil rights.

“There is a principle at stake in this election,” the Globe editorial board wrote. “In a city which once led the nation in public education and in calling for the end of slavery, it is now the principle of equal treatment for all people.”

Hicks fired back, blaming a “suburban-based establishment” for a “plot to destroy me through half-truths and innuendoes.”

***

That first Tuesday in November, Cleveland voters elected Carl B. Stokes, the first black mayor of a major US city. Another black candidate, Richard G. Hatcher, won the mayor’s office in Gary, Ind.

The world watched Boston for a backlash. The first results came from a precinct in East Boston. Hicks won with 491 votes, but White ran strong in a neighborhood she needed. White did surprisingly well in the North End. A surge of black voters in Roxbury and Dorchester helped tip the tide.

By 10:15, Hicks conceded. White won, 53 to 47 percent. It was a comfortable 12,000-vote margin — hardly a landslide, but not a squeaker.

There was gloom in South Boston and other Hicks strongholds. But in Roxbury, Lillian Mair jumped into the air with a celebratory squeal. Rene Giles of Dorchester told a reporter that “apparently there aren’t as many . . . bigots in Boston . . . after all.”

A few floors above a heaving ballroom at the Sheraton-Plaza, White leaned against a wall, “looking much younger than he looked during the afternoon,” according to columnist Jimmy Breslin.

“Nobody in this city,” White said, “is ever going to be able to run for anything on the basis of any kind of a racial appeal.”

The ballroom swirled to the song “Happy Days are Here Again.” Jubilant supporters ripped “Kevin White for Mayor” signs into confetti. Hicks made a surprise appearance at White’s victory party. She mounted the stage, in a conciliatory gesture her critics would have said was beyond her. The woman who proudly would not yield, yielded.

“I came over here, Kevin,” Hicks said, “to wish you my very best.”

Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff/File

Boston mayor-elect Kevin White (center) stood with Massachusetts Governor John A. Volpe (left) and Senator Edward M. Kennedy on election night, Nov. 7, 1967.


Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.