Feature

Kevin White, 1929–2012

The mayor who remade Boston

When race riots erupted across the U.S. following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Boston Mayor Kevin White came up with a plan to calm his tense city. By chance, soul singer James Brown was scheduled to perform at the Boston Garden on April 5. White arranged for the show to be broadcast on the city’s public television station, hoping that would encourage young people to stay home. It worked: Unlike other major cities, Boston remained peaceful. Onstage that night, the Godfather of Soul praised White as a “swinging cat” who had his “thinking together.”

As “the son and grandson of Boston City Council presidents,” White seemed destined for the metropolis’s top job, said The Boston Globe. In 1960, at only 31, he was elected Massachusetts’s secretary of state, and in 1967 won his first mayoral campaign. White immediately set about modernizing the city’s archaic administration. He established “little city halls” across Boston where locals could air their grievances, said The Washington Post.

White’s political fortunes seemed to stall in 1974 after a federal judge ordered the desegregation of Boston’s public schools. “Months of racial violence followed,” said The New York Times, and in some white neighborhoods, protesters hurled stones at arriving buses full of black children. “In the years to come, White and Boston appeared to grow disenchanted with each other.” In 1975, White was narrowly re-elected to a third term, but in 1980, he labeled the city “racist” for its continuing resistance to integration.

As White became increasingly remote in office, he focused his energies on redeveloping downtown Boston, plotting out the skyscrapers and markets that now dot its waterfront. “I love being mayor,” he said. “It’s like playing in a sandbox.” White’s 16-year tenure ended in 1984 under a cloud of ethics suspicions, but while several of his aides were charged with corruption, the former mayor escaped prosecution. White never entirely lost the city’s respect, and in 2006 a bronze statue of him was unveiled downtown. At 10 feet tall it was, many Bostonians noted, suitably larger than life.

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