Kevin H. White, four-term Boston mayor during racial strife of 1970s, dies at 82


After 16 years at the helm, Kevin White poses on his last working day as mayor of Boston on the roof of City Hall with the city skyline in the background, December 30, 1983. (Michael Grecco/BOSTON HERALD)
January 28, 2012

Kevin H. White, a four-term mayor of Boston who dominated the city’s political landscape during a turbulent period of court-ordered school desegregation in the 1970s, died Jan. 27 at his home in Boston, family spokesman George Regan said in a statement. He was 82 and had Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. White, who was first elected in 1967 and served until 1984, presided over an ambitious commercial rebirth in Boston, but his tenure was shadowed by the city’s in­trac­table problems with race relations.

He entered office as a reform-minded Democrat who had grown up among Boston’s Irish-American political elite. His father, maternal grandfather and father-in-law had all served as president of the Boston City Council.

After serving as secretary of state of Massachusetts, Mr. White was elected mayor at age 38, defeating an avowed opponent of integration. Barely three months after Mr. White took office, other cities erupted in violence after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Mr. White helped prevent a potential disturbance by encouraging singer James Brown to go forward with a scheduled concert the next night at the Boston Garden. The mayor arranged to have the concert broadcast on television in Boston, which kept many young people at home.

Onstage, Brown called Mr. White “a swingin’ cat,” the concert was deemed a triumph of good will and wide-scale violence was averted in Boston.

In his early years in office, Mr. White established “little city halls” throughout Boston, where local residents could voice their grievances. He brought large numbers of women, minorities and young people — including future congressman Barney Frank — into government and was considered a rising political star.

Mr. White lost a race for governor in 1970 but was reelected mayor the next year. In 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern briefly considered him as his running mate before reportedly being dissuaded by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Mr. White’s political fortunes seemed to stall in 1974, when federal judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the Boston public schools to be desegregated. Thousands of children, both black and white, were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods, pleasing almost no one.

Ugly episodes of racial violence broke out in a city once celebrated as the birthplace of abolitionism in the 19th century and known as the nation’s “cradle of liberty.” Brawls were commonplace in school hallways, buses were pelted with rocks and brutal racial attacks occurred in the city’s ethnically entrenched neighborhoods. Within eight years, the percentage of white students in Boston’s public schools fell from 70 percent to 30 percent.

Mr. White was caught in the middle.

“I am for integration and against forced busing,” he told U.S. News & World Report in 1975. “Eighty per cent of the people in Boston are against busing. If Boston were a sovereign state, busing would be cause for revolution.”

He was upset that the Justice Department, under President Gerald R. Ford, turned down his request for federal marshals to enforce the court order of a federal judge.

“When the violence began, I asked for U.S. marshals,” Mr. White said. “We didn’t get them. So we had to enforce the federal order with local ordinances.”

The persistent troubles, which left Boston divided along racial and class lines for years, were chronicled in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Common Ground.” Although Mr. White was reelected three times, he could never find a solution to Boston’s racial woes and grew increasingly remote in office.

He was often compared with Richard J. Daley, the longtime Chicago mayor who ran an efficient, if ruthless, political machine. Critics began to mock Mr. White as “King Kevin” and “Mayor DeLuxe” for his lavish remodeling of the mayor’s mansion and for cruising around the city in a chauffeured limousine.

“I love being mayor,” Mr. White once said. “For me, it’s like playing in a sandbox.”

Federal investigations led to the convictions of 23 city officials for extortion, bribery, perjury and other corruption charges.

Mr. White escaped prosecution, but he had to return $122,000 in donations — mostly from city employees — for a party he had planned for his wife. By 1983, two-thirds of Boston’s voters had an unfavorable opinion of the mayor.

Mr. White “loved the flair of greatness,” City Council president Christopher A. Iannella told the Boston Globe in 1989. “He was a duke . . . like in medieval times, with his castle and his dukedom to rule over. He was the regal mayor.”

When he decided not to run for reelection in 1983, Mr. White was 54, but he knew his political career was over.

“There are days I think, ‘Well, maybe I could have been president,’ ” he told the Economist in 1979. “Who knows? Maybe I blew it. Maybe I could have worked harder. I’m only the mayor.”

Kevin Hagan White was born Sept. 25, 1929, in Boston, and knew from an early age that he wanted to enter politics, like his father and grandfather before him.

He graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 1952 and from Boston College Law School in 1955. He had a private law practice and was a prosecutor before running for secretary of state in 1960. He defeated Edward W. Brooke, who in 1966 would become the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction in the 19th century.

After leaving office in 1984, Mr. White taught courses on politics and media at Boston University until 2002.

Mr. White’s survivors include his wife of 55 years, Kathryn Galvin White; five children; a brother; and seven grandchildren.

In 1972, one year after a constitutional amendment was passed allowing 18-year-olds to vote, he earned the support of many newly enfranchised voters through a clever ploy.

When the Rolling Stones were arrested on drug charges in neighboring Rhode Island, Mr. White persuaded authorities to release the rock band into his personal custody.

When they appeared the next night in Boston, Mr. White announced to the cheering crowd, “The Stones have been busted, but I have sprung them!”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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