JUST outside Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, where a ceremony celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was about to begin on Monday, an animated street vendor was hawking ``Skin the Bears'' T-shirts to New England Patriots fans. But the football fervor didn't taint the commemoration of the man who struggled for racial harmony and equality. For both blacks and whites were buying the shirts to get ready for the Super Bowl showdown with the Chicago Bears this Sunday in New Orleans.
The scene would have been inconceivable in Boston just a few years back, when racial tensions and a floundering football team were city trademarks. But now most residents seem to feel that Boston is slowly shedding the stigma of racial hostility that marked the fight over forced busing in the 1970s. And while professional sports remain mostly a white affair here, the long-awaited success of the Patriots is helping to bring all segments of the city together.
Ron Burton, a Patriots halfback for six years and the team's first-ever draft choice in 1960, says there is ``a fever in this city that's just magnificent. And we [blacks] are part of it. Everybody feels a part of it.''
He notes that after 26 years of virtual starvation, fans are finally feasting on success. Some fans, in fact, are beefing up on the 4,000 pounds of bear meat that was shipped in to a local meat market this week.
Mr. Burton -- now an executive consultant for John Hancock Insurance Company and president of the Patriots' posh Stadium Club -- says he thinks this passion for the Patriots may help ease Boston's lingering racial tensions.
``When people see how everybody can really get along, it has to help,'' he says. ``Anytime you experience a winning atmosphere from a team that touches the hearts of so many people, it brings them together; it lightens the load.''
But the same spirit of togetherness has not blessed Boston's other professional sports -- not even the ever-winning Celtics.
``A lot of blacks are turned off by the Celtics,'' says Kenneth Hudson, the first black referee in the National Basketball Association and now the public-address announcer for the Patriots' home games.
Much of the disenchantment is because of the team's racial makeup, he says. While Celtic coach K. C. Jones is black, only four of the 12 players are black -- the reverse of the average ratio across the league. (Kevin McHale, a high-scoring forward for the Celtics, once remarked half jokingly, ``We might be the only team allowed to play in South Africa.'')
``There's more interest in the Patriots from a black perspective,'' says Mr. Hudson, echoing the sentiments of many in Boston's black community, which makes up 23 percent of the city.
And it's not just because 16 of the team's 22 starting players are black. Nor is it just because the Patriots have three black assistant coaches, a black director of publicity, and a minority voice over the public-address system. The Patriots also boast 17 players who returned to the classroom last year to complete their college educations -- and then explained the benefits to area youth groups.
In their relations with the black community, Hudson says, the Patriots are ``trying to bridge the gap.''
Thomas (Satch) Sanders, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, acknowledges that the Patriots' success ``brings a lot of people together. And finding something in common is undeniably a good thing.''
But to Mr. Sanders, a Celtics star from 1960 to '73 and former coach of the team, it's ``idealistic'' to think that the city's feeling of togetherness will last.
``It's working now, for this particular time,'' he says, stretching out his 6-foot 9-inch frame behind his desk. ``But what we're interested in is lasting effects.''
Jesse Wilson, an automobile mechanic from the Roxbury section of Boston, agrees. He is confident that the Patriots will ``defrost the Refrigerator,'' William Perry, the Bears' versatile 300-pound lineman and sometime running back. But he's not so sure the team's success will thaw race relations in the city.
In fact, many blacks here do not even think the ice has been broken at Sullivan Stadium, the Patriots' home in Foxboro, Mass., 20 miles south of Boston.
``For the most part, there is still a sense of hostility out there,'' Hudson says. ``Black folks just don't want the aggravation'' of rowdy, largely white crowds whose aggressive tendencies rise in tandem with their beer drinking, he says.
That's a problem that also troubles both Fenway Park, the baseball home of the Red Sox, and the Boston Garden, where the Celtics and hockey's puck-pounding Bruins play.
But Hudson says it is the city's largely segregated neighborhoods, or ``turfs,'' that perpetuate apprehension and misunderstanding. ``Folks don't know anything about each other,'' he says. ``They just don't communicate with each other.''
With social segregation so entrenched, ``tangible results are probably impossible,'' Sanders says. He notes that even more-significant events -- like the assassination of the Rev. Dr. King -- failed to unite people permanently, even though many thought it would. ``It all depends on leadership -- in government, in business, in the communities. They have to set the example. If they're successful, it will last.''
One encouraging sign for black communities, Sanders says, is the morale-boosting effort by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, an Irishman from the heavily segregated community of South Boston.
Billy Ijames, a parking-lot attendant who has lived in the Boston area for ``11 years too many,'' still speaks bitterly about the prejudice he has experienced in Boston. But the ``problems of the city don't get in the way of my pride for the Patriots,'' he says, warming his hands over a portable heater. ``And maybe, in a small way, this will lead to better feelings between blacks and whites.''
``There's no question that the Patriots have been great for this city,'' says Sanders, eagerly pointing at the good news splashed across the front page of the Boston Globe.
``Look at this! That's as rare as hen's teeth,'' he says.
``Whether you are a football fan or not, you get caught up in the winning spirit,'' Sanders says. ``If only you could find a way to bottle it.''