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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 947

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This is the grave of Kevin White.

Born in 1929 in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, White grew up in an Irish-American political household. Yes friends, those do exist in Boston. His father and maternal grandfather had been both city council presidents. So his path was laid out. He graduated from Williams in 1952, Boston College Law in 1955, and then the Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration, which is today the Kennedy School. He was primed for politics.

In 1960, White felt he was ready to run for office and won his race to be Secretary of the Commonwealth, which is basically a public information office. His family used all their family capital to secure the nomination for Kevin. This was not the kind of family to leave things to chance. It was machine all the way. He was reelected in 1962 and then again in 1966 when the job now had a four-year term. The next year, John Collins decided he would not run for reelection as mayor of Boston. White was close to Collins and so he ran. He was second in the open run for it, behind the loathsome anti-busing crusader Louise Day Hicks. It was a close race in the general between the two, with Hicks really gaining ground among the large racist vote in white Boston. White won though, thanks to the machine. In fact, the Boston Globe, which never ever endorsed candidates for mayor, did so for the first time in 75 years to stop Boston from becoming a national embarrassment if Hicks won. Hicks would stay around though, leading the anti-busing forces again in 1971, but White beat her more decisively that year.

White had his mind on higher office as well. He ran for governor in 1970 and won the primary but lost the general election to Frank Sargent. He was also on George McGovern’s short list for VP in 1972. After several leading Democrats decided to avoid this disaster in the making, White rose up the ladder. But White had supported Muskie in the primary and so McGovern’s advisors, including Ted Kennedy who evidently hated White, opposed giving him the spot, which notoriously went to Thomas Eagleton instead. McGovern deeply regretted this decision but it’s not as if White would have led him to defeating Richard Nixon that fall.

So, mayor was as high up the ladder as White would go. White could have demagogued the busing issue and probably had an easier time of it. But to his credit, he did not do this. Instead, he appointed a quite racially diverse staff. He also gave greater power to the neighborhoods as part of his plan to ensure that minority voices had a greater say in the governance of their lives, though he would later backtrack on this and recentralize authority in an attempt to create his own political machine. White also received national accolades when he and his advisors came up with the idea to show James Brown’s show scheduled for the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination on public television, which helped keep people off the streets. Boston avoided any significant violence that night. In fact, Barney Frank, who worked for White, noted that people called him “Mayor Black” because he cared about minorities.

But others noted his lack of leadership during the worst of the busing crisis, with activists for desegregated schools noting how much more comfortable he was in City Hall than in making any public appearance to ensure the law was followed. In 1974, Judge Arthur Garrity ordered the city to follow the state’s Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 to desegregate schools and since Boston wasn’t going to do that, he also ordered busing to even the racial balance of schools. This sent the racists in the city through the roof. After all, Jennifer and Kevin deserved the BEST schools and we all know what that meant. White’s leadership here was not great, but again, he refused to become a racial demagogue. Because of this, he nearly lost his 1975 reelection bid to anti-busing forces, this time led not by Hicks but by Joe Timilty. It was after this near-loss that White sought to recreate the machine and center power in himself since he saw what neighborhood

The busing crisis slowly faded over time, though the racial tensions of Boston did not. White engaged in heavily in urban revitalization, bringing Boston back to a functional city, though with a lot of ugly new buildings. But the late 70s were less bad in Boston than in New York and other cities and White’s projects do deserve some credit for it. But as time went on, White’s administration also became super corrupt, including at the top. For example, White charged city workers money for his wife’s birthday party and let’s just say it wasn’t a request. This was caught and White canceled hte party and returned the money but Republicans could smell blood in the water, including the Reagan administration after it took power in 1981. Reagan appointed Bill Weld, an ambitious young Massachusetts Republican prosecutor, as US District Attorney for Massachusetts and Weld had a field day investigating White. To be fair to Weld here, there was plenty to go on–pension fraud, bribery, extortion, perjury, all the crimes of the corrupt. Most of this was not directly connected to White, but rather to many of his top advisors. The extent to which White really knew about all of this is not a question to which I have an answer, but it’s clear enough that he at least tolerated it all. Then the Department of Housing and Urban Development discovered that White had used $1.9 million of its grants to pay city employees not working on federal projects.

All of this meant it was time for White to move on. He decided not to run for reelection in 1983. Raymond Flynn would replace him, staying in the position until Bill Clinton made him ambassador to the Vatican. As for White, he landed on his feet. He became the head of the Institute for Political Communication at Boston University in 1984 and stayed in that role until 2002. By that time, he was suffering heart problems, hearing loss, and the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. So he retired and died in Boston in 2012. He was 82 years old.

Kevin White is buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other big city mayors of the era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tom Bradley is in Inglewood, California and Frank Rizzo is in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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