Making Boston a better place for blacks

'Twas a ''last hurrah'' for Mayor Kevin H. White, a ''lame duck'' who claims progress in civil rights in Boston during his 16 years in office. Mayor White has survived numerous racial crises in the city, often as a ''good guy,'' the hero who placed blacks and other minorities in City Hall.

''I said four years ago that minorities must be pulled in from the periphery of powerlessness to the center of power. When the battles of Boston are fought, the best of Boston will prevail,'' he said recently at the first annual meeting of the three-year-old Boston Committee, formed to monitor race relations.

''I promise that in the role of a private citizen I will keep up my work in this commitment.''

Inside the plush new Westin Hotel where the meeting was held, the audience applauded. Outside, people in the streets of Boston express mixed emotions.

Lyda Peters, who walked the sands of Carson Beach in South Boston in 1975 in a demonstration against racism sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), says:

''We came out to establish the right of black people to use that beach and to toss Frisbees. I did neither. It was too cold to swim, and the atmosphere was too tense to play with Frisbees.''

Not much has changed since 1975, she continues. ''Today minorities still seek access in Boston - to move about safely in every neighborhood in this city, to equal opportunities in seeking jobs,'' she says.

''Today we express our dissatisfaction in another form of confrontation - at the ballot box. And we have moved one step forward.'' A black man, Melvin H. King, waged a vigorous mayoral campaign in the final election runoff, but lost to Raymond L. Flynn Nov. 15.

Mayor White cites the recent Boston primary election as an example of racial progress, too.

''When I was first elected mayor, only one black person was elected to office ,'' he recalls. This time, ''29 percent of the city's voters cast their ballots for Mel King in the primary.''

He cites other achievements against racism:

* The formation of the Boston Committee in 1980, after his attempt to establish a city human-relations office was rejected. Original incorporaters - the city (Mayor White), the church (Humberto Cardinal Medeiros of the Boston archdiocese), business (Richard D. Hill of Bank of Boston), and the media (W. Davis Taylor of The Boston Globe) - financed the committee in 1980.

* Private-sector support of city public schools. This includes the Boston Compact, a commitment to hire and train local high school graduates, and an agreement by the Boston Globe to hire and train more minorities.

* Jobs for Bostonians, minorities, and women. White set a policy for developers doing business with the city to hire established percentages of local residents, minorities, and women.

During White's long tenure, the Hub faced racial crises over court-ordered school desegregation; affirmative action in the hiring of teachers, police, and firefighters; quota hiring of minorities and women by contractors; and outbreaks of violence, including the attack of a black man in front of City Hall by white teen-agers, led by a youth bearing the American flag as his weapon.

When White was elected mayor in 1967, Thomas I. Atkins was voted Boston's first black city councilor in an at-large system adopted in 1951. Mayor White hired blacks in City Hall, giving him the name of ''Mayor Black'' in some circles.

In 1971 Mr. Atkins was among White's challengers for mayor in the primary, but he finished an ''also ran.'' Atkins still lives in Boston, although he works in New York City as general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Older blacks recall one White campaign slogan, ''A vote for Atkins is a vote for Louise Day Hicks.'' That ''hurt Tom,'' some said. Mrs. Hicks led Boston's antibusing forces in the city's torrid school desegregation struggle that began in 1974. Elected to the school board, the City Council, and US Congress, she lost twice in runs for mayor.

Mrs. Hicks ran first in the primaries, but lost in 1967 and 1971 head-to-head battles with White. Blacks voted heavily for the mayor in both finals.

Most people say that ''some progress'' has been made in human relations during the ''White era,'' but not solely because White was an ardent advocate for better race relations.

''After all, his early victories were against Louise Day Hicks, and blacks couldn't vote for her,'' said one man who did not want his name printed.

''Mayor White is a master politician,'' says a Roxbury politician.

''He appointed qualified blacks to office like 'Jeep' Jones. (Clarence Jones was the city's first and only black deputy mayor.) Some blacks have been on the job in City Hall a long time, too.''

''The city's new officials must understand how important we are to each other ,'' Gov. Michael Dukakis told the Boston Committee. ''Then the specter of racism will disappear from our midst.''

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