BOSTON — In 1968, big city mayors were like emperors. Chicago had Richard Daley. New York had John Lindsay. Los Angeles had Sam Yorty. Arguably they wielded more power than senators. In that year, an ambitious former Massachusetts secretary of state moved into the mayor’s office of the brand-spanking-new Boston City Hall, and changed the city forever.
At 38 years old, Kevin Hagan White brought with him an energy and vision that jolted a town still under the influence of the Yankees and Brahmins who had called Boston home for generations.
“He was a very, very astute politician,” says Dick Flavin, who served as White’s City Hall press secretary in the early years.
“One of the things that always fascinated me about him was how inquisitive he was,” Flavin says. “He had a very, very inquisitive mind, and was extremely well-read. I became aware that he was very much into FDR and how he ran things, and how he used people and how he saw issues, and it was a forerunner of things to come.”
The people White brought with him into City Hall were equally energetic.
“Kevin had a talent for attracting bright people, and for keeping them motivated,” he says. “Because he was a guy of ideas. He had an idea what he wanted the city to be. He wanted to make Boston a world-class city and he did.”
With staff members like future Rep. Barney Frank in place, White set out to govern the city and to make his vision a reality. He started what were called “Little City Halls,” in an effort to bring city government to the people.
“Well,” Flavin says, “what he wanted to do was decentralize the city some. And he wanted to make city services accessible to people in the neighborhoods. So in every neighborhood there was a Little City Hall, and there was a person from the neighborhood who was in charge there. So that people didn’t have to go downtown and go through all the rigmarole of a big bureaucratic thing.”
Keeping The Calm
Through much of his tenure, the city was on edge over the simmering issue of race relations. White’s first test came just a few months after taking office, as news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spread through the city. As riots broke out in other cities, Flavin says Boston was able to keep its cool because of the new mayor and a long-before-scheduled concert at Boston Garden by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
White was able to arrange to have the concert televised live and took to the Garden stage himself to introduce the headliner and to ask for peace.
“So all I ask you tonight is this: to let us look at each other, here in the Gardens and back at home, and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.”
And Boston remained calm that April. But this would not be the last time race relations defined White’s tenure as mayor.
Still in his first term, White had greater ambitions for himself. He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1970, but lost that race handily to Republican incumbent Frank Sargent. Flavin says the loss made White more disciplined.
“And he became the much more thorough practitioner,” he says. “Not just the guy with the ideas… he became much more the hands-on, big-city boss, because really, that’s what you need to be. It’s a pejorative term, but if you’re gonna be an effective mayor, you’ve gotta be the boss.”
White’s profile became more prominent and caught the attention of S.D. Sen. George McGovern, 1972’s Democratic nominee for president. Flavin says White was McGovern’s pick as a running mate.
“So, he called up Kevin White and offered him the job,” Flavin says. “Then someone said, ‘Did you clear this through Kennedy?’ and he said, ‘No, but he’ll be all right with it.’ Well, you better call him. So McGovern called Kennedy, and the fact was that Ted was not all right with it because if Kevin White became the vice presidential candidate, then he became the most prominent political figure in Massachusetts. And Ted was not happy with that prospect.”
McGovern rescinded the earlier offer, putting an end to White’s national aspirations.
While White was able to keep a lid on a race riot years before, in 1968, race relations in Boston continued to simmer, and came to a head when a federal judge ordered Boston schools to be desegregated. White, again, appealed for calm.
“Whether you’re for or against busing, we — that’s all of us — hold in our hands the capacity for responsibility, judgement and restraint that I think will be so important in the days and the weeks ahead.”
But battles over forced busing in neighborhoods like South Boston and Charlestown divided the city. The division took years to heal — well beyond White’s final years in office.
While much of his tenure was marked by the bitter desegregation fight, most agree that he more than any mayor in modern times transformed the city of Boston.
“He was great copy, because he was always doing extraordinary things,” says Peter Lucas, who was a columnist for the Boston Herald during White’s final years in office. While Lucas took great joy in tweaking the mayor, and even gave him the title “Mayor Deluxe,” he has praise for what White was able to accomplish.
“The city grew under Kevin, and he was able to communicate with the business community unlike previous mayors. And when Kevin was around, the building of downtown really began to take off,” Lucas says.
The revitalization of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, along with Downtown Crossing, are credited to Kevin White. About six years ago, a larger-than-life statue of White was unveiled in the shadow of Faneuil Hall.
“He was an extraordinary mayor,” Lucas says, “and he was an extraordinary individual. And we won’t see that type of political leader again, I don’t think. Times have changed.”