A Long Way From Home
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
BOSTON It wasn't Mississippi and it wasn't Alabama. But in the 1970s, many blacks were frightened just to climb the steps of Charlestown High. Police officers had to escort students to their classrooms while this tightknit white neighborhood howled and demonstrated against integration.
And now, here is Deval Patrick, 50, a black man and the Democratic candidate for governor, gliding through his main campaign headquarters.
Only one other black man -- L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia -- has been elected governor of a state in America. The race is a roiling political drama, drawing the kind of interest here that is usually reserved for the Red Sox or the Patriots. Patrick, who faces the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, on Election Day, has a double-digit lead in the polls.
If he's successful, Patrick would not be the first black elected statewide in Massachusetts. That distinction belongs to Edward Brooke, who in 1966 became the first black elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, the state's racial history has been bloody and complex, both brutal and glorious.
Two miles from Charlestown and directly across the street from the gold-domed state capitol stands a lustrous bronze statue honoring the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all-black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. The regiment's casualties were huge. Inscribed on the base is "For the Union Dead," a haunting poem written by Robert Lowell as a tribute to the soldiers:
. . . Two months after marching through Boston,
Half the regiment was dead;
At the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
But harsher winds also swirled across the commonwealth.
The nation was introduced to a black man named Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential contest between Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush. Horton was an imprisoned murderer who received a weekend furlough while Dukakis was governor. Horton escaped and made his way to Maryland, where he raped and robbed a woman. Horton became a seminal figure in the anti-crime ads of candidate Bush, and there were those who thought Bush was pandering to racial fears.