A World-Class Mayor

He was audacious and outspoken. But the big dreams of Boston Mayor Kevin White ’52, who passed away in January, helped rebuild the city of Boston. 

By David Kibbe

As America’s Bicentennial celebration reached its height in the summer of 1976, millions of tourists in Boston cheered the Tall Ships as they circled the harbor. The newly opened Faneuil Hall Marketplace drew crowds to a festival atmosphere. The Boston Pops lilted and soared in a nationally televised Fourth of July concert. And an ebullient Mayor Kevin Hagan White ’52 strolled past City Hall in a parade, his arm around the Queen of England. 

There was no bigger moment for the City of Boston—or for its mayor. “Getting the Queen here, that was really Kevin,” says Michael B. Keating ’62, counsel to the city’s Bicentennial organizing committee and today a partner at Foley Hoag. “He was never limited in his own mind by what he could do for the city.” 

White was mayor for 16 tumultuous years, from 1968 through 1983, a time of profound change that saw Boston struggle with racial conflict and then shed its image as a provincial backwater to become a modern city.

He became a giant among American mayors, laying the groundwork to run for president in 1976. But any national ambitions were doomed in part by the violent protests over a 1974 federal court order to desegregate Boston’s schools. Later, his record was tainted by a federal investigation into his administration and fund-raising activities, though he was never charged with a crime. 

When White died on Jan. 27, 2012, at the age of 82, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, city and state leaders looked anew at his legacy. “He held the city together,” says Paul S. Grogan ’72, a former speechwriter and aide to White and now president and CEO of The Boston Foundation. “He planted the seeds for what would become the Boston Renaissance.” 

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White was born into Boston’s Irish political class. His father and grandfather both had been City Council presidents. But White himself was closest to his mother, Patricia, who preferred the classics to politics. White was such a voracious reader that, as mayor, his historical allusions often left Boston pols scratching their heads. 

“He was able to go to both Tabor Academy and Williams, so he had an elite, private education layered over the legacy of old Boston politics,” Grogan says. “It made him a unique amalgam of attributes. He often talked about how Williams had lifted his sights considerably.” 

White was 38 when he was elected mayor, and he filled City Hall with idealistic young aides who would become leaders in business and government. His first chief of staff was no City Hall insider but rather future Congressman Barney Frank, a young Harvard graduate who grew up in New Jersey. White, Frank recalls, “was aware he was a transitional figure between the old Boston political tradition in which he grew up and a newer set of things he was embracing.” 

At the time, America was being consumed by racial tension. Large-scale riots were engulfing disenfranchised black communities in Detroit and Newark. The summer before White took office, Boston had seen three days of looting and violence in Roxbury after police broke up a demonstration at a city welfare office. 

White was the first Boston mayor to truly reach out to black neighborhoods. He walked the streets—shirtsleeves rolled up, jacket over his shoulder—and talked to residents on their front stoops. He placed people of color in upper-level city jobs and promoted black police officers to positions of higher authority. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, White, fearing a riot, proposed canceling a James Brown concert at the Boston Garden already scheduled for the following night. He then changed his mind and asked the Godfather of Soul to broadcast the show live on public TV, offering Brown $60,000 to cover any loss at the gate. Since the city budget couldn’t cover the expense, White coaxed the money from a consortium of Boston business leaders. 

The night of the concert, White took the stage, imploring the audience to “honor Dr. King in peace.” Brown, in turn, paid White the ultimate compliment, calling him a “swinging cat.” The mayor’s plan worked—people in Boston stayed home that night, and the city remained relatively calm, even as devastating riots broke out across the country. 

“One of the great things about him was his openness and his ability to improvise … and do things that were unconventional,” Frank says. “It seemed almost the natural thing to do, given his style, which was, ‘Let’s not just go by some old rules. Let’s look at what we’ve got and do the best thing with it.’” 

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White didn’t have any control over the independently run Boston school system, but its troubles came to define him. A decade after schools in the South had been forced to integrate, Boston still had in essence two public school systems—one black and one white—divided by neighborhood. The black schools were systematically underfunded, with constant turnover of teachers, out-of-date books and shortages of desks. The Boston chapter of the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit to correct the inequity. In the summer of 1974, a U.S. District Court judge ordered black and white students to be bused into each other’s neighborhoods. 

White disagreed with the order, fearing a backlash in Boston’s white neighborhoods. But he was adamant that the law be enforced. “No man, not even a president, stands above the law,” he said the day before school opened in September 1974. “And no city or group within it can stand in defiance of the law.” 

South Boston, a working class Irish neighborhood, quickly became the epicenter of resistance. When buses carrying black students from Roxbury rolled up to South Boston High School that first day, they were met by a large crowd yelling racial slurs. At the end of the school day, the buses were pelted with rocks. White immediately met with black and white parents in their own communities to appeal for calm. He mobilized hundreds of city and state police, ordered that buses have police escorts and banned protests in the vicinity of school grounds. 

Tensions roiled in South Boston and other communities for several years as a succession of schools were integrated. Parents protested in the streets, while students fought in school hallways and cafeterias. The violence eventually abated, but White was powerless to stop an exodus of middle-class families— both white and black. 

“He didn’t control the school committee, he didn’t control the decision, and yet he had to do almost the impossible to hold it together,” recalls his son Mark White ’80, a real estate developer in Boston. “That didn’t mean it didn’t get chaotic, but I often wonder, had he not been at the helm, with his experience at that time, would it have been four times more chaotic?” 

Indeed, The Boston Globe, which had criticized White in the early 1970s for not supporting busing as a moral issue, took a different tone in an editorial after his death: “White sought to manage the crisis without unduly inflaming passions on either side: his stance struck many Bostonians as a lack of leadership but may, in retrospect, have been the least damaging approach he could have taken.” 

The busing crisis, broadcast nightly on network TV, ended White’s national ambitions and nearly cost him the mayor’s office. In 1972, U.S. Sen. George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat, had offered White the vice presidential slot on his ticket, believing he could deliver urban Catholic votes. McGovern withdrew the offer two hours later when Sen. Edward Kennedy, a longtime rival of White’s, objected. 

White barely won re-election as mayor in 1975, and he began building a political machine that many said was modeled on that of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Supporters said White never turned his back on neighborhoods; he successfully fought the expansion of Logan Airport and a proposed highway that would have cut a swath through Boston’s communities. But critics saw White’s increasing focus on the downtown business district in the second half of his administration as a detriment to the rest of the city. 

White considered the redevelopment of the city’s financial and commercial sectors as crucial to Boston’s prosperity. And Faneuil Hall, right outside his office window, was the catalyst. The hall had hosted some of the first debates for American independence, but the surrounding area had become a dilapidated collection of meat and produce markets. White envisioned a historic urban setting that showcased the best his city had to offer—a cobblestoned festival square with shopping, dining and outdoor entertainment. When Boston financiers passed on the idea, White went to New York to get the money.

The marketplace, which today draws 18 million visitors a year, was an instant success upon opening in August 1976. It was the crown jewel among a host of projects White would build in the downtown during his tenure: 38 new office buildings, 50 major renovations and 17 built or planned hotels. Prior mayors had drawn up plans to revitalize Boston, but “Kevin White was the man who sold it,” said Thomas O’Connor, a Boston College history professor, in an interview with the Review prior to his death in May. “He was the one who in many respects put the new Boston on the map.” 

Still, by the 1980s, White’s hold on the city’s affections was weakening. Increasingly, he spent time not at City Hall but at the Parkman House, a city- owned mansion that he had renovated with $600,000 in public money and private contributions to host official functions. The press and political rivals chafed at his chauffeur-driven limousine and the lavish, catered dinners he hosted there at taxpayer expense. White countered that Boston needed to act like a world class city in order to become one. 

He was also being pursued by an ambitious federal prosecutor, William F. Weld, who would become Massachusetts governor a decade later. More than 20 city employees and nearly as many businessmen were convicted on a range of charges, including bribery, extortion, perjury and obtaining fraudulent disability pensions. White was investigated for soliciting contributions from city employees for a lavish birthday party for his wife, which he was forced to cancel. 

White maintained his innocence, but polls predicted his political demise. In 1983 he announced he would not run for a fifth term. He started teaching at Boston University and enjoying the company of old friends. He was neither bitter nor brooding about how it all ended. “It wasn’t like the job made my father,” says Mark White, the eldest of White’s five children. “He had a big personality before he took that job, and his personality was still there after he left that job. He was still the same guy.” 

In 1989, five years after White left office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office closed its investigation without filing any charges against him. 

***

When White’s family publicly acknowledged that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease a decade ago, many looked at his achievements in a new light. His supporters, deeply entrenched in civic life, had never left him. The Boston of today—far more inclusive and cosmopolitan than anyone could have imagined upon White’s election in 1967— decided it owed him a debt of gratitude. 

Williams College also honored White, a former trustee, with its Bicentennial Medal for distinguished achievement in 2004. Though ill, he was able to accept the award in person. 

Growing up, White struggled with dyslexia and graduated near the bottom of his class at Tabor Academy, where he was class president and captain of the baseball team. The headmaster convinced Williams to take a chance on him. “My father always looked back … and thought in many ways Williams gave him his first real break,” Mark White recalls. “He became a lifelong learner. … It gave him the confidence that when he was in the room with other people that went to Williams, Harvard, Amherst, he had already seen that world. He was not intimidated.” 

In 2006, Boston unveiled a 10-foot- high bronze statue of White near Faneuil Hall. The statue, by sculptor Pablo Eduardo, depicts the former mayor confidently striding away from City Hall, his coat slung over his left shoulder. White and his family attended the ceremony, and old friends and aides had tears in their eyes. 

The fingers on the statue’s right hand have since been worn shiny and gold by the untold numbers of people who have touched them. The monument stands between statues of Samuel Adams and James Michael Curley, another legendary mayor. The placement, and the fact that it was unveiled while he was still alive, Mark White observes, “says volumes about what the city thought about him.” 

David Kibbe is a freelance writer based in Boston. 

TIMELINE
Sept. 25, 1929: Kevin Hagan White is born in Boston
June 15, 1952: White graduates from Williams and goes on to earn a law degree from Boston College
Nov. 8, 1960: White is elected Secretary of the Commonwealth after serving as Suffolk County prosecutor
Nov. 7, 1967: White narrowly defeats Louise Day Hicks, an opponent of school desegregation, to become Boston's mayor
April 5, 1968: To avert a riot after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., White arranges to have a concert by James Brown broadcast live on Boston public TV
May 6, 1970: White unveils plans for Faneuil Hall Marketplace, his signature development, which opens to fanfare in August 1976
Nov. 3, 1970: White loses a bid for governor to incumbent Republican Francis W. Sargent
July 8, 1972: White persuades the Rhode Island governor to release the Rolling Stones, being held on drug charges, to his personal custody for a scheduled concert at the Boston Garden
Oct. 1, 1974: Court-enforced busing to desegregate Boston's neighborhood school system is under way
July 11, 1976: White welcomes the Tall Ships and Queen Elizabeth to Boston to celebrate the nation's Bicentennial
Dec. 30, 1983: White serves his last day as mayor after four terms in office
April 14, 1989: The U.S. Attorney's Office ends a long-running corruptions investigation of White's administration without filing charges against him
Sept. 4, 2003: White's family reveals that he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease
Nov. 1, 2006: The city unveils a statue of White outside Faneuil Hall
Jan. 27, 2012: White dies in his Beacon Hill home at the age of 82