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Boston’s Black Leaders Wonder If Community Has Lost Its Clout

41st Annual Conference of the NAACP, Boston, Mass., June, 1950. (Library of Congress)

The 41st Annual Conference of the NAACP in Boston, Mass., June 1950. The first chapter of the NAACP was in Boston and the group led the fights against school segregation and housing discrimination in the city, but is now much less active. CLICK FOR FULL IMAGE. (Library of Congress)

Correction appended below.

According to the most recent census estimates, nearly one in every four Bostonians is black. Mayor Thomas Menino and challenger Michael Flaherty are courting black voters, but some wonder if black Boston is losing its political power.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was once the premier civil rights group in America. Boston had the first chapter and, in the 1960s, 5,000 people were in the organization. The NAACP led the fights against school segregation and housing discrimination in Boston, but now the group is a lot less outspoken, said member Sarah-Ann Shaw.

“I don’t know why the NAACP doesn’t have more of a voice, or more presence,” Shaw said. “Years ago, it did.”

Shaw is one of 400 members of Boston’s NAACP. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, she said there were dozens of groups in Roxbury alone dedicated to political organizing. But some of the best organizers were the black clergy.

“The ministers were front and center,” Shaw recalled. “They were united and front and center.”

All the way into the 1980s, black ministers used to protest outside City Hall and educate parishioners in the pews about issues and candidates.

Pastor Bruce Wall led some of those protests, but now, “the ministers are so dependent upon the government for faith-based grants, for property, for little things that the government is giving them,” Wall said. “The ministers are not independent to speak their minds.” Without activist pastors, Wall worries that Boston’s blacks are losing their “political potency.”

Some think they already have.

Erick Esteves, 30, is part of the new generation of black leadership in Boston. He helped found the Roxbury-based organization "Think Politics" to motivate blacks to vote and run for office. Esteves said Boston is a "fractured city" and there are "two Bostons: one for English speakers and one for non-English speakers, one for the well-off and one for the parents with kids on free and reduced lunch." (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

Erick Esteves, 30, co-founder of a Roxbury-based organization to motivate blacks to vote and run for office, is part of the new generation of black leadership in Boston. Esteves said there are "two Bostons," "one for the well-off and one for the parents with kids on free and reduced lunch." (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

Activist Horace Small is trying to organize black people to demand better public schools. He said Boston’s blacks missed an opportunity with this mayoral race.

“We don’t have any clout,” Small said. “For instance, we have four guys running for mayor, and none of us had enough sense to say, OK, none of these cats become mayor unless the black community votes.”

But what is the black community in Boston? The most recent census shows that the overall black population is shrinking in Boston. While African-Americans have been leaving the city, they are being replaced by Haitians, Dominicans and Somalis, but not at the same pace.

Small said no one has figured out how to integrate immigrant interests into a unified black agenda. But there is common ground.

“We know, because we’re talking to them on public education issues, that housing is an issue with them, just like it’s an issue with us,” Small said. “Health care is an issue with them, just like it’s an issue with us; unemployment is an issue with them, just like it is with us.”

Finding this common ground could help blacks in Boston have political clout, said Simone Miles, who helped start a group called Think Politics to educate voters and encourage black candidates to run for office. The problem, she said, is complacency.

“People have gotten a little numb,” Miles said. “They think racism is not overtly in my face, so everything is OK. But it’s worse. When a kid is not being educated and then expected to be an adult and then held accountable for things he didn’t learn as a child, it’s worse. But again, since it’s not so blatant and overt, some people have gotten numb.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Blacks in Boston are voting. Black neighborhoods had an average turnout in the preliminary mayor’s race, but Miles said that’s not good enough.

Candidates are talking about issues important to blacks. Mayor Menino has high approval ratings among blacks because he has helped bring development to black neighborhoods. Michael Flaherty has talked about improving failing schools.

But activist Horace Small said black people in Boston still to have to pressure these candidates to meet the black agenda.

“Michael Flaherty is a personal friend of mine. I like Mike. But I don’t know which Mike is running for office,” Small said. “I don’t know if this is the guy who’s to the right of Louise Day Hicks or to the left of Gandhi. I remember when he was president of the City Council and would stop conversation on things that impact people and, in particular, people of color. Who are you bro?”

“And the same thing with Mayor Menino!” Small continued. “Fourteen-hundred kids have been killed since you been mayor. If we’re empowered, we got a right to ask that question. We got a right.”

But figuring out who the “we” is in that sentence and getting them to speak with one voice is now the challenge for blacks in Boston.

Correction: The story misrepresented the number of people killed in Boston since Mayor Tom Menino became mayor. According to city statistics, more than 1,000 people–including children and adults–have been killed in homicides since 1992 when Menino took office.

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  • http://KingCast.net KingCast

    Some blacks have become complacent, this is true.

    However, the NAACP has led that charge in many ways because they are now beholden to the corporations that feed them. They have even changed their mission statement to water it down. I know this because I was an NAACP Legal Chair in New Hampshire.

    To wit:

    they removed words like “keep the public aware,” and “take lawful action to secure elimination of discrimination,” and the new version contains none of that.

    The other thing that is happening is that the media and mass culture has marginalized many of our concerns because they will put gay rights as a major issue, or [pick any other social issue] in front of black Civil Rights. I’m all about fairness for all, but I suggest you read

    “White Privilege — Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. It is linked on my Citibankisracist.blogspot.com page and my http://christopher-king.blogspot.com pages.

    http://www.case.edu/president/aaction/UnpackingTheKnapsack.pdf

    To wit:

    13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

    30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

    5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed….. and many many more. I discussed these things with an old friend of mine (like from 3rd grade, 1973) who is now a Man of the Cloth, Anglican — and we got deep into white solipsism in the Church as well.

    Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.

    -Christopher King, J.D.

  • ksbjp

    Racism absolutely still exists in our city, however, Mayor Menino has been the only candidate in this race to acknowledge that, as well as acknowledge that there exists a national racial wealth divide. He also created the Office of New Bostonians in an effort to integrate the needs of those communities into city policies.

    Racism is institutionalized and normalized in our country; it exists in all aspects of our lives. The way to combat this is to have anti-racism be the bottom line for all projects and policies pushed forward.

    Boston is the only city in the country where the Mayor has publicly declared that racism is the cause of public health disparities AND where there is a clear blueprint for how to combat racial and ethnic health disparities. Our Public Health Commissioner, Bárbara Ferrer, is nationally recognized for her commitment to this cause and both her and her Medical Director, Nancy Norman (who works clinic-hours at Dimock), have, on multiple occasions, been asked to present for the Black and Latino Caucuses. Also, at the Boston Public Health Commission, all employees are mandated to attend the “Undoing Racism” multi-day workshop.

    As a Latina in Boston, the issue of fighting racism is paramount to my choice of candidates. When Michael Flaherty makes comments to African-American youth entering a pick-up basketball game along the lines of: ‘well you guys will be good at basketball {because you’re black},’ it just shows me how much he doesn’t understand racism and how he has not been able to branch out from that ‘White Boston’ in which he grew up and was educated. For me any white man who doesn’t understand the privileges they’ve been afforded because of their sex and race, can never adequately represent people of color.

  • Frank Smith

    Menino may be out shaking hands in the community and cutting ribbons, but that’s it. His administration doesn’t look like Boston. His Police Department doesn’t promote people of color to high ranking positions. He doesn’t enforce the Boston Jobs Policy. He is doing nothing about the failing schools in the city and he has no answer to the epidemic of youth violence in our city. He has been there too long – and it’s time for new leadership.

  • ksjp

    Actually Menino does far more than shake hands with residents.

    Youth violence is a great topic, I’m glad you brought it up. I’m not sure if you live in an area with youth violence, or if you work with youth in the City of Boston — I do both.

    Menino, unlike Flaherty, but like many residents of areas that see youth violence, understands that this is actually a public health issue — not one that should be addressed solely by police and punitive measures, that’s what Flaherty is pushing for, and that’s reactionary.

    Menino has public health workers trained to go out into these communities on a regular basis and confront youth before violence happens. He also knows that violent-behavior patterns start far before children reach high school age and has backed legislature which would mandate Conflict Resolution Curricula in all schools statewide. In fact, he has already implemented these courses in several BPS sites.

    I agree that there aren’t enough African-Americans in the BPD at high levels — you should talk to the BPD Union about that — oh, wait, they endorsed Michael Flaherty.

    Also, Michael Flaherty publicly commented that there were no Latinos serving as department heads. In fact there are, they just don’t look like Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, so he couldn’t possibly have known. Racist rears its ugly head again.

    You want new leadership, but I’m not willing to take it at the expense of racism.

    You’ve cited some issues here, but only at surface value, show me what Flaherty and Yoon can do? Matter of fact, show me what they’ve done!

    Anecdotal evidence and empty promises won’t fool the residents of Boston.

  • Victor

    As in Boston, or any other major metropolitan area, the issue of Black Political Clout steriltiy is a common denominator. I’m a black male resident in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I dare say the problem is more internal than external. There is a generational disregard of preparing black youth for assumption of political and economic leadership in all communities. There also a narcisstic and materialistic “I have to have mine – tommorrow isn’t promised to me” syndrome in the black community whioh minimizes any attempt to really form a unified approach to developing black political, social or economic clout. Most important of all, black political clout has a diluted spirituality. The Black Christian church’s radiant impact that lead the life of our great grandparents and grandparents has lost it’s shine. When the average everyday black citizen (not only self made or established black leaders) participates consistently in community hearings, court room proceedings, and vote in all elections, then black political clout will have the impact it lacks now. And this also includes includes being critical of black leadership. If they are stuck in the good old glory days and their visions have not adapted to the present times, it is high time to replace them.

  • Ruth Housman

    I think it’s good that there are articles like this one, to help mobilize people into talking about real issues, because racism is still very much a part of life, and people need to think of ways to overcome this. We do marginalize in society, still, and there are so many groups that remain targets of hostility. We have acts of violence that don’t look all that random involving this notion of “race”. I think it’s time the human race got it right and crossed the finish line with flying “colors”, because it’s still about color, and I think, why should it take so long to learn about equality and the beauty of cultural diversity.

    So yes, more articles because they raise the bar on consciousness and conscience.

  • Lesley

    The NAACP, first of all needs to change it’s name from “colored people” as we were called in the 50′s. Also, this became an elitest organization of blacks that are first generation professionals, lawyers, etc. who left their community, who do not identify with classes below them, and therefore, cannot be effective in the communities where needed. What have they done lately?

  • ruralcounsel

    “People have gotten a little numb,” Miles said. “They think racism is not overtly in my face, so everything is OK. But it’s worse. When a kid is not being educated and then expected to be an adult and then held accountable for things he didn’t learn as a child, it’s worse. But again, since it’s not so blatant and overt, some people have gotten numb.”

    Perhaps the family, with help of the surrounding community in which the children are raised should take responsibility for what their children are taught. Not blame it on racism, or lack of political voice, or failure of “government”. There was a time when it was forbidden to teach blacks to read and write, and they fought hard for that education. Now, it has become popular urban culture to shun a basic education, and act lawlessly.

    The bottom line is that everyone is held individually accountable, by society and our legal system. If someone isn’t learning proper behavior as they grow up, they aren’t going to fare too well as adults.

  • Sheldon

    People stopped going to church, so the cry of the activist minister fell upon empty pews. The Black community, and America as a whole has turned it’s back on God—that’s why you have violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, single parents, dropouts, same sex marriage, racism, apathy, and a whole host of other ills. We should not look toward Menino or Flaherty/Yoon for answers because they don’t have them. We should look toward God, acknowledge that his way is best and live it out……

  • Myron

    Ruralcounsel, reread the article carefully. This has nothing to do with “not taking responsibility for what their children are taught and blaming it on racism and lack of political voice”. It has to do with creating better schools for Black children who are stuck being school in lower-class areas and Whites simply not caring about these issues as they don’t affect them. Whites are the majority-both racially and as far as wealth goes. If issues are prevalent and whites don’t care, issues don’t get resolved. These white political leaders obviously feel as though they won’t receive much backlash if they do not oblige the needs of the Black community, as the article even states the area doesn’t have very many Blacks so of course Blacks have to go to all these trouble in making their needs met unlike the White community. This is a White privilege. I don’t understand why these political folks aren’t more sympathetic to Black needs in Boston. Being grown men in positions, they should understand this type of issue. It’s a shame that the Black community there is having to get their needs met.

    It’s enough of a shame these little Black children have to be raised in lower-class areas due to poverty; poverty stemming from how Blacks were prohibited from all things good in this country by Whites only 35 freaking years ago. If it weren’t for abusive anti-black racism, the amount of blacks who are poor and lower-class wouldn’t be so high. It’s not just some dark skin color related issue as to why a lot of Blacks are stuck in poverty which is is what a lot of racist want you to think. No, Blacks having a darker skin color is not why the majority of them are lower-class while the majority of Whites live it up in higher-class areas, even when there are a great deal more Whites than Blacks; it’s an issue of how Blacks weren’t even allowed in so much as a decent bathroom 35 years ago, much less a decent living environment with decent jobs. With that mistreatment and suppression ending only a few decades ago and the children of our grandparents being forced to grow up lower-class, it should be obvious as to why the Black community of today is in the state it’s in; meanwhile I all I see over the internet posting websites is the majority (Whites of course) criticizing and bellyaching about the status of the Black community as if it’s just that their an irresponsible race, when the White race brought on this Black struggling.

  • Myron

    REVISED VERSION! My apologies for the mistakes!

    Ruralcounsel, reread the article carefully. This has nothing to do with “not taking responsibility for what their children are taught and blaming it on racism and lack of political voice”. It has to do with creating better schooling for Black children who are stuck being schooled in lower-class areas and Whites simply not caring about these issues as they don’t affect them. Now take into account that Whites are the majority (both racially and as far as wealth goes). From that you can conclude, if issues are prevalent and whites don’t care, issues won’t get resolved. These white political leaders obviously feel as though they won’t receive much backlash if they don’t oblige the needs of the Black community, as the article even states the area doesn’t have very many Blacks so of course Blacks have to go to all this trouble in making their needs met unlike the White community. This is a White privilege. I don’t understand why these political leaders aren’t more sympathetic to Black needs in Boston. Being grown men in positions like this, you’d think they’d be understanding to this type of issue unless of course there’s an element of racism. The Black community in Boston is realizing that they will always have to go to a lot of trouble in order for them to get their needs met if they do not pick a decent political leader who is sympathetic to Black issues.

    It’s enough of a shame these little Black children have to be raised in lower-class areas due to poverty; poverty of course stemming from how Blacks were prohibited from all things good in this country by Whites only 35 freaking years ago. If it weren’t for abusive anti-black racism, the amount of blacks who are poor and lower-class wouldn’t be so high. It’s not just some dark skin color related issue as to why a lot of Blacks are stuck in poverty which is is what a lot of racist want you to think. No, Blacks having a darker skin color is not why the majority of them are lower-class while the majority of Whites live it up in higher-class areas, even when there are a great deal more Whites than Blacks; it’s an issue of how Blacks weren’t even allowed in so much as a decent bathroom 35 years ago, much less a decent living environment with decent jobs. With that mistreatment and suppression ending only a few decades ago and the children of our grandparents being forced to grow up lower-class, it should be obvious as to why the Black community of today is in the state it’s in; meanwhile I all I see over the internet posting websites is the majority (Whites of course) criticizing and bellyaching about the status of the Black community as if it’s just that their an irresponsible race, when the White race brought on this Black struggling.

  • Lesley

    What is in question here is WHY this organization lacks a strong presence in our poor “colored” communities. With the exception of ministers dedicated to the civil rights movement, the NAACP has turned out to be an organization of upper class blacks that distinguish themselves from lower class blacks. This is not a grass roots organization on the front line engaging in the current issues that we face. The NAACP is powerless and has no political clout. In terms of ADVANCEMENT, yes Blacks have made some strides, but homelessness, the black prison population, and the drop out rate has increased since 1950. Duh, where are you 2009 NAACP?

  • http://CVAVA.com Steven Santos

    Black America was led to believe by the Democratic Party that there is no need for Black Leadership organizations. Democratic white leaders where the “soul” of the Black community. Boston’s Black community has been plundered, and taken away just as other Black communities have been, for GOOD of the all (the other) people!

  • http://CVAVA@com Steven Santos

    Black Boston, the time for change is now, break the chains of Democratic bondage, and be come the leaders, of your own destiny.

  • Gregg

    Black people in Boston have had very little if any political or economic clout for several years. Long cloud in the misperception that their lives was good or better than Black people in other parts of the country, Black Bostonians were complacent living in a segregated “yet restricted” city, never having a voice, or even taken seriously unless it was election time. I grew up in Boston and left 12 years ago in large part due to the inequity I felt as one of its citizens for over 36 years.

  • Jade Solomon

    All of this Menino lovefest, he doesn’t care about anyone but himself! People in Boston are so number esp. some black people that they either don’t vote or vote for Menino because they are fooled by the crumbs he gives and he is massa on the plantation…

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