Boston: Melting Pot or Powder Keg?

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The political dynamics in the city of Boston have always been highly dependent on ethnocultural coalitions; Irish vs. English, Catholics vs. Protestants, White vs. Nonwhite. The Hub has been home to countless waves of peoples who were making their first stop in America. But often, increased diversity disrupts a delicate balance struck between Boston’s feuding factions. Such disruptions are triggered by key issues that affect everyone in city politics – but no one issue in city politics had an acrimonious history that traverses political dynamics as did desegregation busing.

Busing and school desegregation in Boston was an issue brought to the fore in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement when black Bostonians began to grow in number and threaten the existing racial hierarchies. The large focus on the South under the bootheel of Jim Crow during the period obscured the fact that many black Americans in the North faced less lethal, although still malevolent discrimination. One such city was Boston. And thus, this article concerns key political and electoral battles important to the busing and desegregation movements in Boston.


Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Boston had a relatively small but robust black community, dating back to the 18th century in areas such as Beacon Hill. But by the 1930s, when the city’s modern political orientation as a Democratic stronghold took root, the three main political tribes were Irish Catholics, Yankee Protestants, and Jews primarily from Eastern European extraction.

One map that classically illustrates this divide is the 1936 Senate race between Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, and State Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Curley was a staunch Irishman who practiced a highly demagogic style of politics, in the mold of Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, or President Donald Trump. Lodge was the quintessence of Massachusetts Yankee Republicanism – a Harvard-educated scion of the influential Lodge family, a jewel in the crown of Boston’s aristocracy. Below is easily visible the dark red precincts of Back Bay and Beacon Hill, where Lodge racked up solid margins. Slightly to the east is South Boston, where thousands of working-class Irish lived, and where Curley amassed margins rivaling those seen in third-world sham elections. Yankees red, Irish blue – and the Jewish areas at the time were a lighter shade of blue towards the middle of the city in neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Mattapan.

Lodge ended up winning the race statewide in a nailbiter, but at the time Boston was already a solidly Democratic city.

The partisan coalitions in Boston generally looked like this for the next three decades or so, with little change.

However, in the 1940s and 1950s, buoyed by rising prospects during World War II and flight from the violence-plagued South, Boston’s black population began to rise very quickly. This supplemented black immigration from Cape Verde and the Caribbean – movements which find their legacy today in Boston’s large Caboverdean and Caribbean Black populations.

Conflict Arises

The first hints of future coalitions began to show in the 1950s. Mapper Will M.’s map of the 1956 election in Boston by ward shows that Eisenhower did extremely well in the city overall, dominating traditionally Republican wealthier areas. But notably, the old Irish bloc vote in South Boston was gone. Curley’s 60% margins were reduced to 30% or 40%, in parts. Ward 14 stands out at the intersection of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan – and was home to the then-dwindling Jewish community there.

Boston’s closest result in the modern post-1928 era, featuring Dwight D. Eisenhower earning 46.1% of the vote. Credit to William Magann.

Already in the 1950s, developers in the area were beginning to exercise predatory practices to force existing working-class Jews and other ethnic whites out of their existing homes, by employing fears of a rising tide of black crime. Ward 14 was thus much blacker in 1956 than it would have been 20 years prior. The ethnic tension would only continue to simmer.

As many Democratic-leaning ethnic whites nationwide began to see the necessary steps of desegregation in their own backyard, riots ensued. In the 1960s, Boston largely avoided the kind of conflagration that engulfed cities like Birmingham, Detroit, and New York City. Riots did happen, but they were not on the same scale as in those cities. Gospel singer James Brown quelled rising unrest at a notable concert in Boston the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. The issue of desegregation, however, was already on many Bostonian minds though.

In 1966, the voters of Massachusetts elected Edward Brooke, the Attorney General, to the Senate – making him the first popularly elected black US Senator. Brooke’s coalition shows exactly where the majority-black areas had progressed to occupying in the mid-1960s, particularly in Roxbury and the South End. His coalition comprised these black voters as well as more liberal and upper-class whites in neighborhoods like Allston and Back Bay-Beacon Hill.

Opposing Brooke for Peabody was the enormous white ethnic voting bloc, most prominent in South Boston, Charlestown, and Dorchester. By this time much of the Jewish voting bloc that once existed in Roxbury and Mattapan had already fled for the suburbs. These ethnic whites were predominantly Democratic, but against a black Republican the racial polarization solidified greatly. This was most apparent in areas of Dorchester which were home to more middle-class Irish families that were historically less Republican.

As a Senate race, this contest was not fought on local issues of segregation – but the next important election absolutely was: the 1967 mayoral race.

Louise Day Hicks

In 1967, the two finalists in the city’s mayoral election were Louise Day Hicks and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kevin White. White was the scion of a prominent political family in Boston, while Hicks was a controversial anti-integration member of the Boston School Committee.

Hicks painted White as a creature of the political establishment, and cast herself as an outsider representing the forgotten men and women of Boston. Such a tack made sense at the time, as the traditional trappings of the city were being torn apart by redevelopment, urban renewal, and new growth. The construction of I-90 and I-93 highways through downtown Boston destroyed centuries-old neighborhoods and accelerated the flight of many Bostonians from the city.

White ran with the backing of Senator Ted Kennedy and the Boston establishment, as Hicks was seen as somewhat of an agitator. Her strident opposition to school integration only made her more popular with racist voters in blue-collar white areas of Boston. White, for his part, tarred Hicks as an unrealistic ideologue who would let the city “tear apart if it does not deal effectively with racial antagonism”. White also attacked a Hicks proposal to raise police salaries when there was no fiscally sound means to do so.

The race remained close, however, and Hicks accused the press of fomenting a pro-Kevin White cause. At the 11th hour, the Boston Globe, which had not historically endorsed a candidate for public office since William Jennings Bryan in 1896, endorsed White, calling Hicks’s platform a “threat to basic civil rights”.

When election day finally came, White ended up performing better with ethnic white voters in the North End and East Boston than expected – these would have been Hicks’s strongest expected areas. Ultimately, this overperformance combined with a surge of black turnout from Roxbury to give White a win. The map of the race is below:

This map corresponds perfectly to where ethnic whites live, except with the more wealthier/suburbanized parts of West Roxbury. The black community in the South End and Roxbury really stands out as being pro-Kevin White, as does Seaport/Castle Island for Hicks. In a nonpartisan race such as the mayoral, the coalitions are very neatly shown here.

Further Battles

The next great battle showcasing the segregation divide is the 1970 race to succeed retiring Speaker of the House John McCormack. McCormack, a New Deal liberal, strongly supported civil rights and black empowerment, and was known for shepherding the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 through Congress, along with the Great Society. Succeeding him as the Democratic nominee was none other than Louise Day Hicks. Hicks had won a brutal primary against more liberal State Sen. Joe Moakley and David S. Nelson, a black lawyer who dominated in the city’s black wards. Complicating the general election was that Hicks had not one opponent, but two. Running to her right was former Rep. Laurence Curtis, who remains to this day the last Republican to represent any part of Boston. Running to her left as an anti-war liberal was Tufts graduate student Daniel Houton. Still though, the angry white ethnic bloc vote was strong, especially after Hicks’s citywide run for mayor three years earlier.

Hicks won the district with only 59% of the vote, largely because Houton and Curtis siphoned more liberal voters who would normally vote Democratic. Curtis’s old district included parts of Roxbury which contained many black voters – split the vote roughly evenly between Houton and Curtis. Houton did not take a stance on busing that survives to enter this article, but given his profile as a young anti-war liberal student from Tufts it stands to reason that he would be perceived as a more pro-busing candidate. Comparing the combined totals of Curtis and Houton to Hicks shows a stark divide that shows where white flight had affected in 1970. Notice how the red reaches much further south than it did in 1966. Hicks got up to 90% in some Irish-majority areas of South Boston, and less than 10% of the vote in majority black areas.

Hicks eventually lost to Moakley, who ran as an Independent Democrat after redistricting complicated Hicks’s path to re-election. But she was not done fighting the cause of integration.

In the 1970s, the busing issue devolved into a full crisis. As District Court Judge Garrity ruled in 1972 that Boston Public Schools must be desegregated, white ethnics erupted in riotous opposition. Louise Day Hicks founded an organization called ROAR, which stood for Restore Our Alienated Rights, which supported the now familiar movement of “parental rights” to send white children to segregated schools. ROAR was the principal face of the anti-busing movement of the 1970s, which both tacitly and actively supported much of the violence that persisted then. Boston retains a reputation as one of the most racist cities in the United States because of the legacy of groups like ROAR.

The pro-busing vs. anti-busing coalitional divide shows up later too. As Logan Rabe’s map shows, in 1976, the presidential primary forced candidates to take a stand on the issue. The winner of the city of Boston was notorious segregationst, Alabama governor George Wallace. Second place went to Washington Senator Scoop Jackson, who also opposed busing in his campaign. Udall and Carter were more liberal candidates in the race who were not as known for any particular anti-busing views. As such, the coalitions are very predictable here. Carter ran strongest with black voters. Udall ran best with upscale whites in Allston, Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Jackson did best with Italians and Irish in Brighton, North End, and Mission Hill. And lastly, Wallace did best with the South Boston Irish, but broadly well everywhere else in the city.

George Wallace dominated Irish South Boston in the mid-1970s. Credit to Logan Rabe.

The final map to consider here is Edward Brooke’s loss to Paul Tsongas in 1978.

1978 Massachusetts Senate race in Boston. Credit to Sterling W.

After four years of desegregation busing, ethnic whites finally had it with anything to do with black political or economic power. Brooke earned roughly the same amount of the vote in 1978 as he did 12 years earlier in his first election – but his support this time was much more dependent on black voters than Yankee whites. Precincts in Back Bay and Beacon Hill were much more pro-Tsongas than they were pro-Peabody in 1966. And virtually every blue ethnic white area got even bluer as a polarizing response. The margins seen in South Boston are reminiscent of those received by James Michael Curley in the 1930s, nearly four decades ago; these were likely never seen again in a competitive race. By this time, the red belt of black voters stretched all the way south to the Neponset River, and the previously light-red housing project in Columbia Point became dark red for Brooke, signifying the area’s transformation into a majority-black precinct.

White Flight and Legacy Today

With desegregation busing taking its toll, the dwindling numbers of white voters in the city began to accelerate their pace of flight. The city of Boston had 801,444 people in 1950 according to the decennial census. By 1980, that census figure decreased to 562,994. Nearly a quarter of the city’s population emptied in the wake of one of the largest demographic transformations in city history. Even today, Boston’s population is 675,647 – nowhere close to the 1950 peak.

Furthermore, the Boston metropolitan area remains highly segregated today – as the map below shows. As one-fourth of the city’s tax base fled, those new residents who were of less stable financial means often did not have the same resources to upkeep the neighborhoods in their original conditions. Much of Boston has only recently begun to recover from the years of neglect endured in the wake of white flight.

Red = white, blue = black, green = Asian, orange = Hispanic. Credit to Erica Fischer.

The population of towns like Hingham, Saugus, Woburn, and Burlington all exploded dramatically between the years of 1950 and 1980. These towns exemplify the median population shift that has taken place in Massachusetts, and signify the transformation of statewide political power from Boston to its suburbs. For the dominant Democratic Party in the state, the most important mine of votes is no longer found in Boston, but rather in Middlesex and Norfolk Counties, home to many towns that exploded in population in that 1950-1980 period, with white flight accelerating population growth.

Boston is indeed regaining many white residents – however these are not the working-class Irish that washed ashore 150 years ago. The average white Bostonian is now college-educated, middle to upper middle class, and has a much less parochial view of the city and society than before. These voters hold views much less racially regressive than those of the white voters that preceded them in the 1970s. It is these voters, who broke barriers by choosing Michelle Wu as Boston’s first elected mayor of color. It is these voters who will continue to live up to Boston’s reputation as a shining city on a hill, a beacon of tolerance and equality.

I’m a political analyst here at Split Ticket, where I handle the coverage of our Senate races. I graduated from Yale in 2021 with a degree in Statistics and Data Science. I’m interested in finance, education, and electoral data – and make plenty of models and maps in my free time.

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