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Louise Day Hicks, 1916–2003

The news several months ago that former mayor Kevin H. White was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, coupled with the death last week of veteran South Boston politician and two-time mayoral candidate Louise Day Hicks, effectively closes a chapter in Boston’s history.

From her first run for mayor against White in 1967 to her second four years later, the White-Hicks rivalry defined city politics. And the relatively cordial private relationship she enjoyed with White behind closed doors always ensured her more than a modicum of influence with her public rival. Both, after all, were children of Boston’s Irish political class. Her father was the much beloved — in South Boston, at least — Judge William Day, for whom Day Boulevard in that neighborhood is named. White’s father, Joe, was a city-council president, state senator, and commissioner of public works. Just as breeding spoke to breeding in the cold-roast precincts of Beacon Hill and Back Bay, so too did this son of West Roxbury via Jamaica Plain and this daughter of South Boston have an intuitive understanding of each other.

This was something Joe Timilty, the former city councilor and state senator who was White’s later rival, never achieved. Maybe it was a guy thing. Perhaps the Williams-educated, neo-Brahmin White, infused as he was with a touch of the Kennedys and inspired a bit by New York mayor John Lindsay, had Timilty sized up and didn’t like what he saw. They were boys from the same clan, but from different sides of a divide. True, Timilty’s father was a crony of Joseph P. Kennedy and a Boston fire commissioner. But his son was a former Marine, not a college graduate. Class, which for so long divided WASP from immigrant, thus cleaved Irish Boston.

A great source of Hicks’s personal appeal and power was her retro sense of femininity. Like Margaret Thatcher, the public Hicks — if the occasion called for it — could be stern, tough, and unyielding. But the private Hicks was the soul of lace-curtain gentility, feminine to a fault. Although she was an early member of the National Organization for Women, her traditional upbringing suggested that flattery and charm, more often than not, were the ways to get what you wanted from a man. And if that didn’t work, you resorted to politics. Hardball politics, if need be.

And Hicks could be hard. She was best known for her unyielding stance against court-ordered busing and her militant support of neighborhood schools. Unlike Boston School Committee members John Kerrigan and Pixie Palladino, brittle personalities who later supplanted her on the front lines of those opposed to busing, she was not, I believe, a racist. Yet many of her supporters were. Her slogan, "You know where I stand," skillfully allowed the public to project on to her what they wished. It is an uncomfortable truth that she never publicly confronted the darker passions of some those partisans. But she was a politician, not a saint.

The first three years of what came to be known as the busing crisis, which began in 1974, were indeed dark. At the beginning of every school year, riots rocked the streets of South Boston and Charlestown. Hundreds of truncheon-wielding, black-leather-clad United States marshals reinforced an army of Boston, state, and Metropolitan District Commission police. Parts of the city were under siege. Blacks were beaten and attacked in those and other white neighborhoods. And whites were likewise assaulted in minority neighborhoods. The city was turf-crazy, race-crazy. For many, these were the worst years of their lives.

The federally ordered busing was the result of undeniably racist policies of the elected Boston School Committee, of which Hicks was a member. Simply put, more money was spent on schools attended by white children than on those attended by black children. The massive busing ordered to remedy the situation resulted in white flight from the city and a rush to private and Catholic schools — although the Boston archdiocese, to its credit, did all it could to question the motives of those seeking asylum, as opposed to education, in its schools.

Today, the Boston Public Schools are more "segregated" than they were when the busing program began. Now, however, students of color are in the majority. The buses still roll. Millions are still spent annually on transportation — as opposed to pure education — costs. The noble, if elusive, goal of racial integration was never achieved. Boston still bears the scars of those years, although the wounds have largely healed, thanks in a very large part to the efforts of one of Hicks’s lieutenants, Raymond Flynn. The former state representative and city councilor, who as mayor engaged the city in both subtle and vigorous forms of talk therapy, helped revive this municipality from its nervous collapse. So history teaches its sometimes cruel, sometimes unexpected lessons.

But what of Hicks? Once a household name, she is now remembered only by those of a certain age. I don’t think it’s truly possible to consider Hicks without White — and White without Hicks. White was the candidate and the embodiment of white, middle-class, largely Catholic — and Jewish, although Boston’s Jewish population was small — upward mobility. Most of his supporters may have had blue-collar paychecks, but they had middle-class values, and upper-middle-class aspirations for their children. Hicks was the candidate of a more tribal Boston, a Boston that still nursed more grudges than it forgave. Home, church, and neighborhood were the understandable and noble trinity they held sacred. White was an agent for change, Hicks a representative of stasis.

Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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