Boston’s African American leaders
Q&A with Ken Cooper
PHOTOJOURNALIST DON WEST teamed up with former Boston Globe national editor Ken Cooper on Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership to document the careers of Boston-area African American leaders who have distinguished themselves in fields from arts to politics.
The book is a photographic journey through the stories of more than 100 black men and women and their allies. (Eastern Bank, a CommonWealth sponsor, underwrote the book.) These African American powerbrokers are a complex band of strivers. Former governor Deval Patrick and Rep. Byron Rushing operate in a seat of power still controlled by white men. Boston community activist Mel King made his mark working inside and outside traditional confines of Boston politics. Veteran lawmaker Rep. Gloria Fox paved the way for newcomers like Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry.
There are cautionary tales, too, of politicians like former Boston city councilor Chuck Turner and former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who both fell far and find themselves on a long road back to redemption.
CommonWealth caught up with Cooper, who wrote the profiles accompanying West’s photos, to talk about how a few African Americans have shaped politics on Beacon Hill and in Boston City Hall. The Dorchester resident is now the editor of The Trotter Review, a journal of African American history and culture, published by the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
This is an edited version of our conversation.
Dianne Wilkerson and Chuck Turner are convicted felons. Why include them in a book about leadership?
They weren’t always convicted felons. They were community leaders and elected officials before their criminal convictions. Each of them made contributions prior to that time that benefited many people. Chuck Turner’s big issue has been jobs, particularly construction jobs for people of color.
Before Wilkerson was elected to the Legislature, she was a lawyer for the NAACP and played a role in the desegregation of public housing in the city. While she was a state senator, she was an early critic of those subprime mortgages that resulted in massive foreclosures in black and Latino communities.
Readers will reach different conclusions about how to weigh Chuck Turner’s and Dianne Wilkerson’s accomplishments and contributions against their criminal convictions. I leave it up to them.
Were Turner and Wilkerson profiled by law enforcement?
You discovered that Gloria Fox, who is the longest-serving woman in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is two terms short of being the longest serving woman in the Legislature’s history. Is that widely known?
Not many people know that. It may be because of this: She sees herself as the poor people’s representative. Some people don’t think that’s sophisticated. But she told me that’s what I came here to do and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
How do you assess Beacon Hill newcomers like Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry?
Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry are the next generation of women-of-color leaders in the state. Both have shown the ability to attract support from white voters as well as voters of color. Chang-Diaz is very much about good governance as a way to heighten civic engagement, particularly among those people who want to see social change. Dorcena Forry is very much interested in small business, which is very different for a Massachusetts state legislator of color as opposed to being concerned with social problems like housing or human services.
In 2004, Byron Rushing became the first African American to hold a House leadership position, assistant whip. What does that tell us about black power in the Legislature?
It was a long time coming for an African American to get into party leadership in the Legislature, but it did happen. The position gives him access to information, a seat at the table when decisions are being made about legislation, the content, and the politics.
People see the Legislature as an impenetrable fortress. Rushing has been working to dispel that idea. If people want state government to do XYZ, he encourages people to lobby the Legislature. It’s the kind of thing that an African American can achieve in a position of influence, which is to help others understand how they can have access and a role in the decision making. In a very broad sense, he’s been trying to overcome the powerlessness of the black community. The community lacks power in lots of different ways.
Are African Americans politically powerless in 2015?
It is still an issue. On the Boston City Council, there’s been an increase in the number of councilors at-large who are of color in the last decade or so. But out of those nine district seats, the city has been stuck at two councilors of color. There were some changes made in the last district map; further changes need to be made.
City Councilor Charles Yancey’s district, which is centered in Dorchester and Mattapan, has a very high percentage of people of color who are of voting age.
I would think that there are some legal analysts that would say that represents “packing,” putting too many voters of color into one district so that their influence is diminished in surrounding districts.
Besides changes in the maps, there needs to be voter registration efforts like the ones Byron Rushing was involved in in the 1960s to register African Americans, Vietnamese, Latino, other Asian, African, Caribbean, and Cape Verdean immigrants and get them involved in the process.
Mel King, the long-time community activist, ran for mayor in 1983 and Ray Flynn crushed him. Why do you say he actually won by losing?
Elements of Mel King’s platform were adopted by Ray Flynn [such as] the rainbow inclusion agenda with prominent appointments of African Americans to run the Boston Housing Authority, to be the city comptroller, and city treasurer. Nothing like that had ever happened before. The other big part of King’s platform that Flynn adopted was a linkage policy that requires developers of properties downtown to either build affordable units or kick into a fund where affordable units can be built in the neighborhoods.
What impact did Tom Menino have on the racial climate in Boston?
When Flynn came into office, he signaled that the city was going to turn a corner and do something different. Boston was going to move away from polarization and hostility to getting along and being together. What Tom Menino did is underline that, this [pause] is [pause] normal. People are supposed to get along.
Menino did not speak in racial code.
That’s absolutely right. I tried to draw him out [on the topic of race and ethnicity], but he didn’t take the bait. The hunch that I had was that he was sensitive to this phenomenon of certain people being excluded because of their racial or ethnic identity. I sense that he was sensitive to that because in this town, being Italian, he felt like an outsider. It would have been unseemly for him as mayor for 20 years [to say now] that I was aggrieved before because the Irish did this, that, and the other to me. The closest he came was to say very proudly, I broke the Irish monopoly on City Hall.
So why hasn’t Boston had an African American mayor yet?
The Boston electorate was polarized [along racial lines] following school desegregation for a few decades. That broke down [in 2009] with the election of two councilors at-large, Ayanna Pressley and Felix G. Arroyo.
The other thing is an inadequate African American political infrastructure. You just don’t happen upon a black mayor. It takes organization and strategy, some foresight. Nobody could have predicted when Tom Menino was going to leave or why. But when he departed, the African American community was basically caught flat-footed and unprepared to lend a vital organization to a candidate capable of winning.
Felix G. Arroyo, Charlotte Golar Richie, and Charles Yancey ran unsuccessfully in the 2013 mayoral primary: Do communities of color need to unite behind one candidate rather than split the minority vote?
This is where I depart and dissent from the common wisdom that the African American community or communities of color need to rally behind a single candidate. The idea that we need to unite behind one candidate also operates on the premise that Boston has a racially polarized electorate. It does not.
There were as many white candidates as candidates of color, so the white vote wasn’t going to be united either. Arroyo had given up his at-large city council seat. Was he going to bow out in favor of somebody else? I don’t think so. Yancey, because he is a senior member of the city council, thought he was entitled to run. Nobody was going to convince him otherwise.
This diversity could have been a tremendous strength if one of them had actually made it to the general election. For example, John Barros, a Cape Verdean, excited people. He’s probably the only candidate of color who outperformed expectations.
I strongly suspect that the subsequent election of Rep. Evandro Carvalho, [a Dorchester Democrat], who is Cape Verdean, owes his success partly to Barros.
What’s Deval Patrick’s legacy for black political power in Massachusetts?
He brought a good number of African Americans into responsible positions in state government. Many of them, I expect, will play other roles in government down the road. Some of the people he brought in seemed to have an impact on people’s thinking. To bring in [former Suffolk County sheriff] Andrea Cabral as secretary of public safety elevates her stature. I don’t know what she does from there, but she might have more options as a former cabinet secretary. That’s one effect: African American leadership development.
All images © copyright DON WEST / fOTOGRAfIKS