Kevin H. White

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Kevin H. White

The reform mayor of Boston, Kevin H. White (born 1929), was concerned with the revitalization of the downtown area to make Boston a "world-class city."

Kevin Hagan White was born on September 25, 1929, in Boston of a family which was noted in city politics. His parents were Irish Catholics, and both his father and his mother's father had been Boston City Council presidents. He married Kathryn Galvin in 1956, daughter of another Boston City Council president. He was educated at Tabor Academy, Williams College (AB, 1952), Boston College Law School (LLB, 1955), and the Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration.

He first sought public office as a Democrat, as secretary of state for Massachusetts, supplanting Edward W. Brooke in 1960. He held that office for the next three elections and was subsequently elected as mayor of Boston in November 1967.

In 1967 White was a sample of the new breed of urban mayors: extremely liberal, impartial, concerned with equity, and, in the end, aggressive. White modeled himself after Mayor John Lindsay of New York, who lusted after a wider stage on which to display his talents. White could play to the crowd; once when the Rolling Stones were arrested on the way to Boston, the mayor released them into his own custody. "The Stones have been busted, but I have sprung them!" he told an audience at Boston Garden.

His opponent in 1967 was Louise Day Hicks, a popular anti-bussing spokeswoman. He defeated her with African American and liberal support. In 1970 he made an attempt to be governor of Massachusetts, but a Republican won. In his second mayor's election against Hicks (1971), he defeated her again. White was seriously considered as vice-presidential running mate to Senator George McGovern in 1972, but was passed over for Senator Thomas Eagleton (and later for R. Sargent Shriver, Jr.). In 1975 in his third election to the mayor's office, he won a narrow victory, and his attitude changed considerably, becoming more dictatorial, embattled, and cynical. In 1979 he won his last electoral victory. White served for 16 years in office as mayor of Boston, 1967 to 1983.

In the beginning White maintained a racial balance in his administration: liberals, Jews, African Americans, Italians, Irish, and some Hispanics. He pioneered by forming "Little City Halls" (as John Lindsay did) in the neighborhoods to decentralize power. For the summer months, he organized outdoor activities known as the "Summerthing." But the most important ingredient of his policy towards Boston was the revitalization of the downtown parts of the city, especially the shops and restaurants of Quincy Market near city hall. He believed that the downtown renaissance would make Boston a "world-class city."

In the mid-1970s Boston began to change. Federal efforts to integrate neighborhood schools, particularly in South Boston, turned the school system into an armed camp. In 1974 Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered bussing. White protected the schoolchildren from violence (with federal and state assistance) during the period of crisis. One school was taken into federal receiver-ship for a time to guard against social outbreaks.

The bussing issue nearly cost White the election in 1975. Gradually, he became an iron-fisted ruler. White closed his "Little City Halls"; he used instead a network of ward henchmen ("corner boys"), who gave city jobs and contracts to all who helped the mayor, notably in the election of 1979. At one time Boston's schools, jails, housing authority, and even part of its tax structure were under court jurisdiction, and the city was desperate for money; the desegregation and the bussing costs were onerous.

In 1983 the job proved too stressful for White, especially because seven aides to the mayor were under indictment on charges of fraud and extortion. White himself was not implicated in these charges, though the State Ethics Commission had an extensive 10-month enquiry which found "reasonable cause" that White had violated conflict-of-interest laws. In June 1983 White ("King Kevin, " as his enemies would say) dropped out of the race for mayor. Consequently, Raymond L. Flynn won the November election.

In a 1993 interview with Margo Howard, Boston Magazine, White characterized Boston as an "international, cosmopolitan lady." Later that same year he published "Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University" in the Journal of American History. White will be remembered as the man who changed Boston's downtown.

Further Reading

Alan Lupo, Liberty's Chosen Home: The Politics of Violence in Boston (1977) and Eric A. Nordlinger, Decentralizing the City: A Study of Boston's Little City Halls (1972) deal with some of the events of Mayor White's 16 years of administration of Boston. The Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 1820-1980, edited by M.G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones, contains an entry on White by R.H. Gentile. Macleans magazine (January 31, 1983) and Newsweek (June 6, 1983) include items on White. In Common Ground (1985) J. Anthony Lukas describes Boston's turbulent decade of school integration through the eyes of three families. An interview with Margo Howard appears in Boston Magazine (February 1993). Biographical information is provided by George Higgins in Style Versus Substance: Boston, Kevin White, and the Politics of Illusion, (1984). □