Louise Day Hicks: ‘You know where I stand’

Split field allows Kevin White to become Hicks alternative

Twelfth in a series

“My chapeau is in the ring,” declared the candidate for mayor of Boston on May 1, 1967. She appeared in the Oval Room at what is now the Fairmount Copley Plaza Hotel, dressed in peacock blue, and when she was finished with her remarks a band played her theme song, a song made famous by the French crooner Maurice Chevalier, Louise. She was the first woman to run for mayor of Boston as a serious candidate, a daughter of South Boston, a lawyer in a time when women were just beginning to break barriers by entering and completing law school, in many ways therefore a modern woman, but in many ways also an anachronism, described by Boston author George Higgins as “stubby and overweight, middle-aged, [with] a fussy hairdo . . . [and] at least a double chin.” This was Louise Day Hicks.

Mrs. Hicks was more than a local politician. She was a movement, a phenomenon – in the words of Newsweek magazine, a metaphor. She was a political shooting star, blazing for a crucial moment in the city’s history and then, as quickly as she lit up the political sky, she was gone as a major force in city politics. Was she an opportunist? A racist? A principled defender of the rights of the overlooked middle class? Hicks in retrospect is a conundrum. She presented herself as the model of clarity: “You know where I stand” was her mantra, message, and motto. It was a slogan that said nothing, and yet it said everything, for in its purposeful ambiguity Mrs. Hicks was able to maintain a veneer of gentility while telegraphing that she stood with her constituents against the rising tide of change that threatened their cherished ways of life. “You know where I stand” was code for a lot of things, and there was no misunderstanding what it meant.

Louise Day Hicks had taken an unconventional path for women in those days, becoming a lawyer and following in the footsteps of her father, the fabled Judge Day. She entered politics by winning a spot on the School Committee, a position that in normal times would offer a rising leader a chance to demonstrate their commitment to the city’s parents and children. James Jackson Storrow had done the same in 1901. Unlike Storrow, Louise Day Hicks did not live in ordinary times, and she quickly found herself at the center of the defining issue of her times – civil rights.

It has become a signal moment in the city’s history, Tuesday June 11, 1963, a day crammed with events that would mark the beginning of a national awakening on the topic of race in America, a topic that could no longer be ignored. On that day, the president of the United States, the president from Massachusetts, spoke to the nation about the moral consequences of racial discrimination. Earlier that same day the governor of Alabama famously grandstanded before the schoolhouse door in a futile effort to stop the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood, two African-American students seeking nothing more than an equal education. That evening, as the president spoke, the Boston Chapter of the NAACP appeared before the Boston School Committee and its chairwoman, Louise Day Hicks, and demanded that the scandal of segregation in Boston’s schools be dealt with. And in the early morning of the following day the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in Jackson, Mississippi. It seemed that the entire focus of the nation had turned to the question of racial equality, and the urgent necessity to repair the damage done by decade upon decade of discrimination.

Hicks listened to the NAACP as it made its case to the School Committee, and for a brief time she toyed with offering her support to their cause, but she quickly abandoned that route and issued a public statement declaring that “We do not have segregation in the Boston schools.” This statement flew in the face of the facts, and Louise Day Hicks must have known that. At least 13 schools in Boston had student populations that were 90 percent black and the city’s expenditure per pupil in those schools was significantly less than the same expenditure in schools with disproportionately white student populations. Something happened to move Mrs. Hicks away from finding a pathway to reconciliation, to a place where there was no chance she and the NAACP could come together in common purpose. Whether it was personal conviction or political ambition or a combination of the two, it marked the beginning of her journey from school committeewoman to polarizing candidate for mayor.

Mrs. Hicks was a conservative thinker who stood in the doorway of time, trying her best to block change from coming into Boston’s comfortably segregated neighborhoods. In this she reflected the tenor of her times, a time of national and local change that threatened and confused many in the majority white Irish and Italian communities of Boston. Racial strife was already in full force in the South, where blatant forms of discrimination were being challenged by a potent coalition led by the great civil rights leaders of that era. Boston was not by any stretch a southern city, but Boston like many other northern cities had its own structural and ingrained forms of discrimination. Separate but equal was still very much the norm in Boston’s public schools, egregiously so. And Boston’s neighborhoods were parochial and segregated in the extreme. For reasons not dissimilar to the residents of Charlestown or Allston Brighton opposing Ed Logue’s plans for urban renewal, the residents of South Boston, Charlestown, and East Boston preferred to remain in their comfortable, cloistered environments, where people of different backgrounds were not welcome.

The state Legislature in 1965 enacted the Racial Imbalance Act as a way to set a marker for Boston: its schools were not integrated, and there were clear disparities in school quality and funding, and this could not stand. Of course, this was also the law of the land, ever since the Supreme Court, in its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, had ruled that separate was not equal. The Racial Imbalance Act was not legally a necessity, but it was the state’s way of throwing down a gauntlet to recalcitrant Boston, and it was a symbol of state power – of suburban power – over Boston, and it did not sit well with many Bostonians. Hicks rode the rising tide of class warfare as she exhorted the state’s wealthy suburbs to become part of the solution. She reveled in taunting suburban legislators for their willingness to pass along to Boston all of the headaches of desegregation and accept none of the burdens. The problem, as she saw it, was more complex than simply blaming the Boston School Committee for not desegregating the schools. “Boston schools are a scapegoat for those who have failed to solve the housing, economic, and social problems of the black citizen,” said Hicks. She gave voice to the frustrations and concerns of poor and middle-class whites who were overwhelmed by the fears that inevitably arise whenever significant change is in the works. In this instance, they feared what racial balance might mean for their children, their schools, and their communities.

As Boston began to face the reality of change, as the tide of progressive, activist politics began to wash over the city, and as parents of black school children finally decided that they would make their stand for equality on the ground of racial equality in the school system – forcing an obdurate Boston School Committee to recognize that the longstanding disparities in funding and education ran against everything that Brown v. Board of Education stood for – many residents looked to Louise Day Hicks as a solid and unshakeable defender of “their Boston.” When she announced her candidacy for mayor, she gave hope to many people who felt disoriented by the rapid pace of change, uncertain of their place in a new social order they could barely navigate or understand.

It’s almost as if there were two parallel universes at play in the Boston mayoral race of 1967. On one plane there was the Boston struggling to find itself in the midst of disruptive social and political change. On another plane, there was the Boston of John Collins and Ed Logue – the “New Boston” that was just getting its sea legs and needed a new leader who would build on the Collins/Logue legacy and keep Boston on a path of growth and modernity. The question in 1967 was which reality would take hold of the majority of voters’ imaginations? What did most Bostonians care about, and how would they respond in the voting booth?

It was clear from the outset that, in a crowded field, Mrs. Hicks would win one of the two final positions in the September primary. Three men emerged as the most likely to garner the support needed to challenge her. John Sears was a Beacon Hill “Yankee Republican,” a throwback to the kind of Massachusetts Republicanism that was ably represented by men like Leverett Saltonstall, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and James Storrow. Ed Logue, the BRA Director, offered voters continuity, what may have seemed to some like John Collins’s third term. Logue was so inextricably linked with his boss that it was impossible to think of one without thinking of the other. And there was Kevin Hagan White, the secretary of state. White was the scion of a political family, lace-curtain Irish, a man for whom politics was a series of stepping stones – state secretary to mayor to governor to vice president – and then? Kevin White’s ambitions in his early years were (as they also were for his contemporaries Edward McCormack and Frank Bellotti) tempered by the dominance of the Kennedy family, a dominance that was at its zenith in the early 1960s. When John F. Kennedy, in his last speech before the presidential election in 1960, addressed an overflow crowd at Boston Garden, he introduced the aspiring candidate for secretary of state, Kevin White, as “Calvin Whit.” White brushed off this minor indignity, and emerged after the 1966 elections as the most significant Democrat in statewide office. Only Ted Kennedy outranked him.

White decided that being mayor of the capital city would be the right next step for him. From all accounts, he does not seem to have fully understood what he was getting into, as 1967 presented itself as a year when issues and grievances that had been on a slow burn for many years would come to the boil. A successful candidate, and a successful mayor, would need to understand these issues, grasp their underlying causes, and offer realistic solutions. That person would also need to have the skill and insight necessary to bridge the widening gulf between blacks and whites in Boston, a gulf made deeper by the entrenched parochialism of the city and the huge disconnect between its image of itself as a progressive, enlightened oasis and the reality of the distrust and discontent emerging from its ingrained social tensions.

Voters in 1967 could be excused if they were not paying full attention to the mayor’s race. 1967 was the “Summer of Love,” a time when young people across the country were expressing their rejection of the status quo in ways that were viewed as unconventional at best and disruptive at worst. Many were shocked at the sight of Boston’s own flower children smoking pot on the Common, strolling down Charles Street in very un-Bostonian attire – not quite the kaleidoscope environment of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, but a sight to send even the most proper Beacon Hill matron to the Ritz bar for a dry martini. 1967 was also the year of the Impossible Dream, the sultry summer days of Jim Lonborg and Carl Yastrzemski and manager Dick Williams who famously promised that the Red Sox that year would “win more than we will lose.” The distraction of winning the American League pennant for the first time since 1946 (with a roster than included Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Bobby Doer) created something of a surreal environment in Boston. For as the Red Sox were charming and exciting even the most hardened souls in the city, the fears and tensions arising from the city’s anticipated response to the state’s Racial Imbalance Act were reaching the boiling point.

As Mrs. Hicks seemed all but assured of a spot on the general election ballot, the battle was joined among White, Sears, and Logue. Logue was the darling of the wealthy and the intellectual set, of which there was limited supply in the city, and he was hindered by his association with the BRA’s unpopular efforts to bring urban renewal to the neighborhoods. Logue shot himself in the political foot when he authorized an ill-conceived attempt to challenge White’s nomination papers, a challenge that failed and became a boomerang cutting off his momentum. The conventional wisdom was that Sears and Logue were fishing for voters from the same pond, and on primary election night, that proved to be the case. Fifty-five percent of the electorate came out to vote, casting 156,928 votes. Mrs. Hicks topped the field with 43,719 votes. White’s second-place finish with 30,497 votes set the stage for the final battle. Sears and Logue finished third and fourth, respectively, with a combined total of 46,905. The question was where those votes would go in November.

Mrs. Hicks’ appearance presented a stark contrast to her words. One day on the campaign trail she brought a cake with pink roses and blue forget-me-nots for her supporters and standing before this bit of culinary frivolity began her remarks with the admonition that “We must declare war on lawlessness in Boston.” She railed against the Racial Imbalance Act, arguing among other things that it would “cost the taxpayers of Boston millions of dollars.” Hicks spoke for the “mothers who do not want their little children bussed,” and expressed her confidence that this point of view was shared “in ghetto areas also.” She opposed open housing laws, stating that “color is a very poor basis for making any kind of decision,” arguing that property owners “might have many reasons for not wanting” to rent or sell to a specific person or family. There was nothing subtle, nothing nuanced about Louise Day Hicks or what she stood for.

White on the other hand seems in retrospect to have been a candidate brought to shore by the tides. He, too, said he was opposed to forced busing, but he did not make that topic the centerpiece of his campaign. Rather, he seems to have won the primary primarily on the strength of name recognition and local ties; had Logue and Sears not split the progressive vote, White might well have become a footnote in Massachusetts political history. But he had won, and now he was the only alternative to Mrs. Hicks. As the only person standing in the way of Hicks and city hall, White became the default choice for the city’s minorities and progressives. It wasn’t that he was leading them in any specific direction; it was that they had nowhere else to go.

The drama of the general election was played out amidst a flood of fears that motivated voters to choose one side or the other. Riots in Watts, Detroit, and Newark had made the prospect of riots in every urban locale a fearful reality. When asked how he would prevent riots in Boston, White spoke of neighborhood city halls that would help diffuse local tensions. White telegraphed his refusal to contribute to polarizing the city by remarking that the city was faced with a “feeling of alienation on all levels, in many sections. It’s not just in one area.” And he understood the limits of his ability to reach out across the spectrum of Boston voters, acknowledging on election night that “the rich love me, and the poor. But everyone in the middle hates me.”

As Election Day approached, Hicks hurt her candidacy with an ill-timed proposal to raise police and fire department salaries, a stance that looked too much like pandering. And then Newsweek magazine entered the fray with a bombshell cover story on the campaign, reporting that Hicks had “become the very metaphor for the growing intransigence of Bostonians and other urban middle-class whites left alone in the cities to face the consequences of the civil rights revolution.” Newsweek galvanized Hicks’s supporters, as it painted them with an impolitic broad brush, characterizing her supporters as “insular Irish and Italian provincials.” Said Newsweek, “Her Boston is the immigrant Boston of Irish cops and firemen, saloon keepers and cabdrivers, longshoremen and small-time businessmen.” Wittingly or unwittingly, Newsweek was displaying the kind of snobbish class superiority that was the fuel energizing Hicks’s candidacy, and she lost no time attacking the magazine for its “insults to Boston and its residents,” declaring “I am proud of my heritage.”

It was an extraordinary time, and extraordinary measures were taken to influence the election outcome. The Boston Globe had not endorsed a candidate for any political office in 71 years. Now, under the leadership of famed Editor Thomas Winship, the Globe was going to have its say. On the Monday before the election, the Globe endorsed Kevin White in a lengthy editorial, arguing that “in this hour of trouble and opportunity for our city, there is a great principle involved – the principle that all of our citizens be given an equal hearing and then equal treatment.” The Globe editorial worried that the outcome of the election would impact the national opinion of Boston, and “what the nation thinks and says about Boston is important. It becomes part of the climate for attracting and keeping young people and drawing new business to the city.”

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An exhausted city went to the polls on November 7, 1967, and elected Kevin White by a margin of 12,429 votes out of a total 192,673 votes cast. Mrs. Hicks ended her campaign with a gracious appearance at White headquarters, signaling that she bore no ill will and sending an important message to her constituents: this was no occasion for anger or recrimination, but a time to come together as Bostonians. No mayoral election since has captured the interest of the voters quite as deeply, no candidates have expressed so starkly different visions for the city’s future, or embodied people’s hopes and fears. In 1967 every little breeze may have whispered “Louise,” but the winds of change were now behind Kevin White’s back.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.