Before I moved to Boston, in the late 1980s, every black person I knew warned me about the city’s racist reputation. In no small part, James “Whitey” Bulger helped cement that damaging image.
In his brutal life, Bulger was a mobster, murderer, fugitive, and FBI snitch. He was also a terrorist, fueled by racism. Even “Whitey,” his childhood nickname and later a thug’s moniker, teemed with racist implications.
After US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 court order to desegregate Boston schools, Bulger churned racial turmoil in South Boston, then a predominantly Irish-American enclave marked by its fierce parochialism and hostility toward outsiders. Buoyed by white identity politics, Bulger bonded his neighbors through an ugly common cause — violently opposing schoolchildren of color being bused into their neighborhood.
If you grew up outside of Boston in those years, here was a likely first impression: angry white people threatening black kids (who looked like us) with rocks, sticks, and racist invective honed through years of practice. It was more reminiscent of Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 than what was expected from a city that considered itself “liberty’s chosen home.”
Yet Bulger extended the chaos even further, launching a personal terror campaign against school busing advocates. An anonymous source told the Globe’s Shelley Murphy in 2001 that Bulger and an accomplice torched an elementary school in Garrity’s Wellesley Hills neighborhood before the start of the 1974-’75 academic year.
With an unnamed associate a year later, Bulger firebombed the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the Brookline home where the 35th president was born. It was retaliation for Senator Edward Kennedy’s impassioned support of desegregation. In front of the house, Bulger reportedly left a spray-painted message on the sidewalk: “Bus Teddy.”
I didn’t know any of this when I landed at the Globe. Yet during a new-employee orientation, I was told the story behind the massive bulletproof front windows at the newspaper’s Morrissey Boulevard headquarters. During the busing era, they became the target of shooters upset with the Globe’s pro-busing stance.
Decades later, Bulger still felt like a malevolent wraith. I never thought of him as Al Capone or John Dillinger; comparisons with Alabama’s Governor George Wallace or Birmingham’s evil public safety commissioner Bull Connor seemed more apt. No one had to tell me to avoid South Boston. I stayed out of Bulger’s neighborhood like I dodged Klan territory when I lived in Florida.
These days, city officials often tout a “new” Boston. It’s more than civic sloganeering meant to highlight the city’s modern sophistication. It’s also an effort to distance itself from the Boston of Bulger, and an era when he and others terrorized black children just trying to go to school.
Of course, reminders of the bad old days are never far away. Boston police are investigating spray-painted racist graffiti found Wednesday on the exterior of South Boston’s Joseph P. Tynan Elementary School.
Bulger is dead. Boston’s racist reputation, which he fostered, remains much harder to kill.