Hicks, Louise Day

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Hicks, Louise Day

(b. 16 October 1916 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 21 October 2003 in Boston, Massachusetts), controversial Boston political figure who gained national attention for her strong defense of neighborhood schools and opposition to school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hicks was born Anna Louise Day, the third of four children of William J. Day and Anna F. (McCarron) Day. Her father was a successful lawyer, banker, and real estate investor, a part-time municipal judge, and a much-admired civic leader in the tightly knit Irish-Catholic neighborhood of South Boston. Her mother was a homemaker. Their only daughter grew up in comfortable circumstances and enjoyed special status in her community. She attended parochial schools, graduating from Nazareth High School in South Boston in 1934. After a brief stay at Simmons College in Boston in 1935, she completed a three-year course in early childhood education at the Wheelock School (later Wheelock College) in Boston in 1938. She then attended the Boston University School of Education from 1938 to 1939. Most biographical sources indicate that Hicks taught first grade in Brookline, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, sometime thereafter. She married John Edward Hicks, an electrical engineer, on 12 October 1942; they had two sons. John Hicks died of cancer in 1968.

After the deaths of her mother (1938) and an older brother (1941), Hicks became her father’s closest confidant in his last years (he died at age seventy-two in 1950). She was his part-time clerk for nearly a decade before enrolling at Boston College Law School in 1949. She remained there for two years before returning to Boston University, where she earned her BS in education in 1952. Hicks then went on to Boston University Law School, where William J. Day had studied at the turn of the century. One of only nine women in her class of 232 students, Hicks received her LLB in 1955 and passed the Massachusetts bar examination in 1956. In the same year she and her younger brother, John Day, established Hicks and Day, a law firm specializing in land and property transfers, in her father’s old office. She also ran a real estate business and became active in a number of professional and civic organizations.

In a departure from the example of her father, who had assiduously avoided political office, Hicks ran for the Boston School Committee in 1961. Campaigning as the “only mother on the ballot” on a mildly reformist platform, she finished third of ten in the election to win a seat on the five-member panel. After an uneventful first year in office, Hicks was elected to chair the committee in 1963. In the spring of that year Boston’s leading school-reform group issued a report stating that thirteen city schools were 90 percent black and that most were old and in disrepair, and the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) made the more sensational charge that de facto segregation existed in the public schools and demanded remedial action at hearings before the School Committee. The chairwoman and a majority of her colleagues were taken aback and refused to admit that segregation existed.

Hicks, who had earlier shown sympathy for the concerns of African-American parents, became a staunch defender of the status quo. She effectively blocked further efforts to raise the de facto segregation issue before the Boston School Committee and propounded the view that predominantly African-American schools were the result of housing and other conditions beyond the control of her panel and that school district lines were based upon the “neighborhood school concept without any consideration of race, creed, or color of the pupils.” Hicks was denounced as a racist by African Americans and opposed in the municipal election of 1963 by a coalition of reformers and civil rights leaders. At the same time she was cheered in the white neighborhoods that felt threatened by the advancing black minority. Resoundingly reelected with 74 percent of the vote, she ran nearly 20,000 votes ahead of Mayor John F. Collins, who won a second term. Bitten by the political bug after her victory, Hicks tried to unseat the incumbent state treasurer in 1964. She lost the Democratic primary but carried Boston by more than 20,000 votes.

In 1965 a blue-ribbon advisory committee appointed by Owen B. Kiernan, the state education commissioner, applied new pressure on Hicks and the Boston School Committee by declaring forty-five Boston schools racially imbalanced and suggesting cross-busing as a possible remedy. The Massachusetts state legislature then passed the nation’s first racial imbalance law, which provided for the withholding of state funds from school systems refusing to remedy out-of-balance classrooms. Responding to this new challenge, Hicks called the Kiernan report’s conclusions “the pompous pronouncements of the uninformed” and its busing proposal “undemocratic” and “un-American.” The chairwoman then led her committee in flouting the imbalance law and lobbying for its repeal. Although under constant attack from newspaper editorial writers and dogged by demonstrators, Hicks campaigned against those she disparaged as racial agitators, social engineers, and meddling suburban legislators; she won reelection with 64 percent of the vote. The national media noted her robust triumph and portrayed her as the personification of “white backlash.”

When John Collins eschewed a third term as mayor in 1967, Hicks entered the race to succeed him. A tall, heavy woman who wore hats, white gloves, and kelly green dresses and spoke in a high-pitched voice, she was the first female candidate to seriously contend for the Boston mayoralty. Running on the slogans “You Know Where I Stand” and “Boston for Bostonians,” she captured 28 percent of the vote to lead nine other candidates in the non-partisan preliminary election. Kevin H. White, the Massachusetts secretary of state, placed second with 20 percent and also qualified for the November ballot.

In the final election Hicks’s one-note campaign stumbled when she was forced to confront other issues. Contradictory promises of large pay raises for police and lower property taxes for city residents and other ill-conceived fiscal proposals damaged her candidacy. While retaining working-class votes, she lost some middle-class supporters who thought her better suited for the Boston School Committee. White, who had the backing of Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy, Republican governor John A. Volpe, the Boston Globe, Boston’s black community, and the city’s business establishment, prevailed by 12,500 votes.

Hicks campaigned for public office with greater frequency after 1967 with mixed results. She won election to the Boston City Council in 1969, 1973, and 1975 and captured the congressional seat vacated by U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack in 1970. But in 1971 her lackluster effort attracted only 38 percent of the vote in a mayoral rematch with a firmly entrenched Kevin White. A year later Hicks lost her congressional seat to J. Joseph Moakley, a South Boston Democrat who circumvented the party primary and ran as an independent candidate.

Hicks continued to seek legislative repeal of the racial imbalance law, and she organized the antibusing group Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) in 1974. Her influence waned, however, and younger, more militant figures assumed the leadership of the anti-busing movement in the aftermath of a ruling by the federal district judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., declaring Boston’s school system unconstitutionally segregated and subsequently requiring thousands of children to be bused. She suffered a landslide defeat in the race for Suffolk County register of deeds in 1976 and was an also-ran in Boston City Council elections in 1977 and 1979.

In 1980 Hicks, who had formed a political alliance with her old rival White in the 1970s, was appointed by the mayor to the City of Boston Retirement Board, which oversaw municipal pensions, and when she left this post in 1982 White found her a part-time job in the city’s public facilities department. She died of colon cancer and is buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery in the West Roxbury section of Boston.

Even in death, Louise Day Hicks remained a polarizing figure in Boston. William M. Bulger, who had represented South Boston in the state legislature in the 1960s and 1970s, eulogized her as a woman of principle, “exemplary in her willingness to come to her own conclusions and really bravely act on her convictions.” Conversely, Paul Parks, a former Massachusetts secretary of education who was a leading figure in the Boston NAACP in the 1960s, viewed Hicks as a “political opportunist, who tapped into something she could not control.”

The most detailed portrait of Hicks is in J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985). Thomas H. O’Connor covers the history of her ethnic neighborhood and political milieu in two works: South Boston, My Home Town: The History of an Ethnic Neighborhood (1988) and The Boston Irish: A Political History (1995). Studies of school desegregation in Boston that ably discuss Hicks and her role are Emmett H. Buell, Jr., with Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., School Desegregation and Defended Neighborhoods: The Boston Controversy (1982); and Ronald P. Formisano, Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (1991). Articles on Hicks include Ira Mothner, “Boston’s Louise Day Hicks: Storm Center of the Busing Battle,” Look (22 Feb. 1966); Peggy Lamson, “The White Northerner’s Choice: Mrs. Hicks of Boston,” Atlantic Monthly 217, no. 6 (June 1966): 58–62; and Martin Nolan, “Louise Day Hicks Gets Out the Vote,” The Reporter (19 Oct. 1967). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald (both 22 Oct. 2003) and New York Times (23 Oct. 2003).

Richard H. Gentile