RIP, Kevin White

Today saw funeral services held for Kevin White, one of Boston’s most prominent mayor who led the city into world-class status yet failed in one of the most important social issues of his time.

The West Roxbury native was the son and grandson of City Council presidents who led Boston from 1968 to 1984, a pivotal period in the city and the nation’s history.

Along with contemporaries like John Lindsay, New York’s chief executive during the early part of White’s tenure, White represented a new breed of civic leader.

Urbane, cool, and forward looking, White stood in sharp contrast to fellow Irish-American Richard J. Daley, who embodied all the machine politics big cities had run under for decades.  Although these practices had ensured Daley’s re-election, by the late 60s he was seen by many as out of step with the times, and, during his last two terms, retreated to more and more thinly veiled racial rhetoric.

White was quite the opposite.

While hailing from the same Irish political culture, White acted most famously as a racial leader and healer in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968.

James Brown twice called him “a swingin cat” during a concert right after King’s assassination, and, for the first half decade of his time in office, White retained a healthy respect among both black and white Bostonians.

Until busing came.

The legal decision rendered by Judge W. Arthur Garrity meant that black students from Roxbury were bused across town to predominantly Irish-American communities South Boston and Charlestown.

In one of my favorite books of all time, J. Anthony Lukas wrote in painful detail in Common Ground about how White essentially punted during that most turbulent time in the city.

Julian Bond narrates the Eyes on the Prize episode that gives a thorough recap of that period during which White did not acquit himself admirably.

Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls gives a view from Southie about what that time was like from the inside-a perspective that is largely absent in the Henry Hampton film.

The toll busing took on White was significant, but it did not stop him from running and winning twice more, or, once elected, from continuing his efforts to move Boston forward.  Lukas and others noted that he focused during his last two terms on downtown development like refurbishing Faneuil Hall at the expense of the neighborhoods he had championed during his original campaign.

That said, White achieved much during his 16 years in office-as evidenced by the many tributes that have been offered since his death early this week at his Beacon Hill home at age 82.

“He was a giant among mayors,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino in a Boston Globe article. “I lost a good friend. I offered my condolences to Kathryn and the entire family. It’s a sad day for the city. But Kevin left an indelible mark that will never, ever be replaced.’’

On this last point, few can disagree.

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