Remembering Kevin White

Kevin White — Boston Mayor 1968–1984

Michael Grecco/BOSTON HERALD — Boston Mayor Kevin White with a revitalized Quincy Market as a backdrop.

Kevin White 1929–2012

If you grew up in my Dorchester neighborhood, you loved hockey and you loved the Boston Bruins. My friends and I watched every game. The next morning at school, we’d critique all the key plays.

Did Gerry Cheevers earn a new scar for his goalie mask? Did Pie McKenzie win that last fight? Maybe Bobby Orr gave us another miracle by starting from behind his own net and skating up ice eluding, outmaneuvering and embarrassing every player on the other team, including their goalie, who would be the last man to bow to Orr’s grace and talent.

Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins Won the 1972 Stanley Cup

Bobby Orr Holding the Stanley Cup in 1972

Winning the Stanley Cup

When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1972, my friends and I piled into the back of a neighbor’s pickup truck and headed to City Hall Plaza to celebrate with 20,000 other fans. It was the only time my Dad ever gave me permission to play hookie. He was the business manager of the Boston school department and took education seriously. But he loved the Bruins too, so he understood when an exception should be made.

From the plaza that day, I may have seen Mayor Kevin White on the city hall balcony where a drunk Wayne Cashman was pulling off his socks and tossing them to a cheering crowd. After the celebration, I definitely saw a mark that Kevin White would leave on the city of Boston.

The City of Boston Celebrates the Bruins Winning the 1972 Stanley Cup

Celebrating the Bruin’s Victory in Downtown Boston

We had parked the pickup truck in the old Quincy Market. In 1972, it was still a dirty, smelly, unglamorous place where trucks unloaded meat, fruits and vegetables. In the next few years, the area would undergo a dramatic transformation. The makeover of Quincy Market brought in the charming cafes, shops and restaurants we all know today. Downtown Boston was turned into into a public space envied by other cities. It was all part of Mayor White’s vision for a new Boston.

Mayor Kevin White Turned Quincy Market into a Public Square

Quincy Market — It’s Come a Long Way Since It Was Built in 1742.

Making Boston a World Class City

On the way to turning Boston into a world-class city though, Kevin White had to deal with the busing conflict brought on by the Boston School Committee. Because committee members were elected, rather than being controlled by the mayor, White was in for a decade of frustration.

As I read various stories online this morning, I wanted to know where Kevin White grew up. His neighborhood. Back in the seventies, Boston was a collage of neighborhoods, each with its own personality and interests. None of the articles listed White’s neighborhood though. (My best guess would be West Roxbury.)

That lack of attachment to a specific neighborhood might have been one of Kevin White’s greatest assets in dealing with the busing crisis. Had he been from a neighborhood like Dorchester, Charlestown or South Boston, he would have been under tremendous pressure to fight against desegregation rather than make it work as best he could under difficult circumstances.

Desegregation Brings Tension

That’s not to say the he had an easy time. In an earlier post, I wrote about how threatened he felt by Whitey Bulger and his brother Billy. People in my Dorchester neighborhood and in South Boston truly hated the man, referring to him as “Mayor Black.” Because desegregation was enforced by the Boston Police department, cops became hated as well.

The annual St. Patrick's Day parade down Broadway in South Boston.

St Patrick’s Day Parade on Broadway in South Boston

On the St. Patrick’s Day after busing began, my friends and I watched the annual parade from the rooftop of Flanagan’s Market on Broadway in South Boston. I remember seeing a Boston cop lose control of his motorcycle. As it spun across the road, people applauded and cheered. The cop was OK, but he was screamed at and insulted from all sides until he managed to right the bike and ride it away.

As kids, we didn’t really understand the historic shift that was occurring and how Boston would never be the same after desegregation. Nor did we imagine what it must have been like for Kevin White to wake up every morning during those years and worry where the violence would erupt. And whether it would finally grow beyond the ability of the police to control it. We were kids. We cared about the Boston Bruins and Bobby Orr’s failing knees.

The Boston Globe has a pretty nice Kevin White photo remembrance here.

(This post authored by Steve Burke)

Steve Burke

Read Another Post:  Whitey Bulger — How He Shipped Arms to the IRA

Boston and Its Busing Problem — An Irish Family Feud

Whitey Bulger — How He Beat the State Police

Whitey Bulger — How He Terrified Mayor Kevin White

Home Page:  The Chieftains of South Boston

Whitey Bulger — How He Terrified Mayor Kevin White

Whitey Bulger Terrified Mayor Kevin White

Kevin H. White, Mayor of Boston 1968–1984

Fear Was Whitey’s Greatest Weapon Against Mayor Kevin White

Even in 1975, Whitey Bulger had enough of a reputation to put the fear into Boston’s leading political figure — Mayor Kevin White. So much so, that the mayor was frightened out of his wits one night when leaving his gym in South Boston. Afraid that Whitey or one of his thugs would be waiting to kill him in the dark parking lot.

Mayor White admitted as much in a 1978 interview with WGBH TV’s Christopher Lydon. “I was never more scared in my life,” White said,  “…Whitey would be crazy enough to do it. And if they shoot me, they win all the marbles.”

Why was the mayor so afraid of Whitey Bulger? And why would Whitey want to kill him?

This was during school desegregation. Also known as forced busing, it had turned the whole city of Boston upside down. During desegregation, tempers were especially high. There were lots of protest marches, lots of violence and plenty of resentment.

Whitey Bulger In a Surveillance Photo With Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks

Whitey Bulger With Colleagues Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks On Castle Island in South Boston — DEA photo by Special Agent Mike Swidwinski.

Whitey Bulger’s Business Disrupted by Desegregation

South Boston was at the center of the storm. As the buses rolled into town, so did lots of cops. As a South Boston resident, Whitey Bulger was just as resentful as everyone else in his community. He also resented the police presence because it made it more difficult to conduct his business on the streets.

At the time, Whitey was part of a merger of different gangs, the Mullens, the Killeens and Winter Hill. To the police, they were referred to as the “Irish Mafia.” (Read more about the history of the gangs, and how Whitey ended up on top, in this ShortList article.)

J. Anthony Lukas writes about the mayor’s concern that the gangs would infiltrate an anti-busing march in September, 1974. In his Pulitzer-Prize winning book Common Ground, Lukas says White feared the gangs would draw weapons and shoot at the police if the march was stopped. There were also reports that the gangs were passing out weapons to kids in South Boston so they could join the battle as well. One rumor had Whitey Bulger preparing to blow up all the bridges into South Boston to keep the buses out.

Senator William Bulger vs Mayor Kevin White in the Busing Crisis

During Busing, South Boston Senator Billy Bulger Was No Friend of Mayor Kevin White

Billy Bulger’s Political World Disrupted by Desegregation

Another reason the mayor was terrified was because of Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger. The senator from South Boston was a fierce opponent of busing and one of Mayor White’s biggest political adversaries. The two had a very tense relationship. Kevin White was certain that if he ever crossed Billy Bulger, the senator would call on his brother Whitey to punish, even kill, him.

There’s no evidence that Billy Bulger ever asked his brother to do such a thing. But the fear was real enough for Mayor White. In a 1992 Boston Magazine article, he talks about a night he was called to meet at senator Bulger’s house in South Boston. The meeting was to take care of political business. But all the way there, the mayor feared that Billy had called him to South Boston where Whitey Bulger could kill him more easily.

Kevin White survived the years of desegregation, serving as mayor of Boston until 1984. And he survived any threats, real or imagined, from Whitey Bulger. Succeeding White as mayor was Raymond Flynn, the first South Boston politician elected mayor of Boston.

(This post authored by Steve Burke)

Steve Burke

Read another post — Whitey Bulger — How He Shipped Arms to the IRA

Whitey Bulger — How He Beat the State Police

Remembering Kevin White

Boston and Its Busing Problem — An Irish Family Feud

Home Page — The Chieftains of South Boston