“Of course — Boston.”
The underlying idea was that if something so tawdry was going to happen in the arena of sports, it was entirely predictable it would happen here. You’d like to call that a cynical, outdated sense of what Boston is like. But then you encounter whoever runs the Boston Police Department’s Twitter feed and you find yourself forced to reconsider.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the department — as part of its Black History Month observance — tweeted a picture of Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach’s statue, with a glowing tribute to all Auerbach had done for African-Americans. As the tweet noted, he signed the first black player in NBA history (Chuck Cooper), named the first black head coach (Bill Russell), and fielded the league’s first all-black starting lineup.
Reaction was swift when the tweet went up Sunday night, and it wasn’t positive. Unfortunately, the BPD wasn’t done embarrassing itself. Someone took the down the tweet, but in doing so posted an apology widely condemned as inadequate.
Among the publicly aggrieved was Boston NAACP President Tanisha Sullivan. She pointed to the recent Globe Spotlight Team series on race (to which I contributed). The series posed the question of whether Boston continues to deserve its reputation as unwelcoming to black people. “That question was posed very intentionally,” Sullivan said. “It is moments like these that require us to say yes.”
Let’s get this out of the way: This controversy is not about Red Auerbach himself. In the same era in which the crosstown Boston Red Sox organization resisted change with all its might, the Celtics were the polar opposite.
But it’s Black History Month for a reason — that reason being to honor the contributions of those leaders, often African-Americans who are marginalized, who otherwise risk being written out of history. If you think Auerbach has been denied his due in this town, we can meet at his statue near Faneuil Hall and talk it over. Red was an icon, but he fails every test of a good Black History Month tweet.
Sullivan said the department should have focused on the black players who broke the barriers Auerbach was credited with shattering. “There was a way to celebrate sports history while also educating people about the men who actually broke those barriers.” “We still don’t hear their names. And in this city, we know they went through stuff. It was about more than dribbling a ball.”
Both Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans were slow to react to the problem. Sullivan and Walsh spoke Monday morning.
Walsh put out a statement just before noon.
“We are celebrating the accomplishments and limitless contributions of the Black community to our city and the entire country, from Harriet Tubman to great leaders of today such as (former) Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, artists like New Edition and Michael Bivins, powerful activists including Mel King and Superintendent Lisa Holmes, the first African-American woman to lead the Boston Police Academy training program,” the statement said. “I am personally committing to the people of Boston that we will always honor our Black leaders, activists and trailblazers with the respect they deserve, not just in February, but every day and every month of the year.”
Well thanks, mayor. But it shouldn’t be a revelation that a city — especially this city — might want to honor black people during Black History Month. Once again, the city’s painful image and tortured reality have managed to coincide.