Former Boston Mayor Kevin Hagan White, who steered the city through the racial storm caused by court-ordered school desegregation and is credited with giving political access to blacks, women and gays, died late last month at his Beacon Hill home.
White, who was from a seasoned Boston political family and served four terms as mayor, was 82.
I was living in the city when he was elected to his first term as mayor in 1967. He defeated Louise Day Hicks, the loud-mouthed South Boston segregationist and anti-busing activist who galvanized the city's white, working-class neighborhoods with her racist views.
She proudly ran her mayoral campaign on twin slogans: "Neighborhood schools for neighborhood children" and "You know where I stand."
White defeated his Democratic opponent by a mere 12,000 votes. (White would be re-elected in 1971, with the election being a replay of the 1967 contest, then elected again in 1975 and 1979.)
Boston was already simmering when White took office in January 1968. Three years earlier, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had passed into law the Racial Imbalance Act, the first such law in the nation, which required schools to either desegregate or face losing state funding.
Adding to this, during the summer of 1967 there had been rioting in the city's predominantly African-American neighborhood of Roxbury.
On a wet and damp spring evening, I was sitting with a friend in The Hampshire House, the Beacon Street bar and restaurant that became the inspiration for "Cheers" and is seen in the show's opening credits, talking over a few beers.
It was April 4, 1968.
Around 8 p.m., the genial manager of the establishment approached our table and said there were news reports on the radio that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.
We were stunned. He said the bar was closing immediately: The city was under a curfew, all bars were to be closed and we were to go directly home.
I remember walking through those eerily quiet and deserted streets in a light rain on the way to my Back Bay apartment, wondering what consequences would arise.
In the city neighborhoods south of the New Haven Railroad tracks that divide the Back Bay from Roxbury and the South End, trouble was already brewing, with some rioting and fires being set.
The night after King's murder, White attempted to head off another night of unrest while fearing large-scale race riots.
His secret weapon turned out to be soul singer James Brown.
Brown was in the city to give a concert at the old Boston Garden. White at first lobbied for the concert to be canceled but then urged that it go forward as planned.
He then had the idea of broadcasting the concert live over TV.
A young African-American city councilman, Tom Atkins, joined White in this effort, which looked as if it might be derailed when Brown said he would lose about $60,000 if the show were televised.
White arranged for it to be broadcast over public television station WGBH, which kept many people at home and off the streets, and met Brown's financial requirements.
A tense moment emerged when a number of young black and white males interrupted the concert by climbing onto the stage, and Boston police began pushing them back.
Brown quickly defused the situation.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute — now wait," said Brown. "Step down now, be a gentleman. … Now I ask the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people."
It had the intended effect. Boston was one of the few American cities that did not explode that night. The city also experienced less crime than it normally would on a Friday night.
It became known as "the night James Brown saved Boston."
But White's trial by fire was far from over.
In 1974, U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered that the city's schools be desegregated, which meant busing thousands of students — black and white — away from their traditional neighborhood schools. Violence followed.
School buses transporting black students were stoned, racial epithets hurled, and fights broke out in schoolyards and school corridors.
Stanley Foreman, a photographer with the Boston Herald American, captured the ugliness of the anti-busing movement when he photographed an African-American lawyer being assaulted with an American flag wielded like a lance by a white man. It won Foreman a Pulitzer Prize.
This was a stain on the city that had been known as the cradle of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century.
Within several years after forced busing became law, the percentage of white students in Boston's public schools plummeted from 70 percent to 30 percent.
"I am for integration and against forced busing," White stated in a 1975 interview with U.S. News & World Report. "Eighty percent of the people in Boston are against busing. If Boston were a sovereign state, busing would be cause for revolution."
In 1976, White led a march made up of 30,000 citizens protesting racial violence.
Hamstrung in his ability to find a permanen cure a city that still suffered from occasional racial incidents, a frustrated White described Boston in 1980 as still being "racist."
After White's death Jan. 27, Rep. Barney Frank, who had been White's chief of staff in the late 1960s and later a Boston city councilman, credited him with bringing African-Americans, women and gays into the political process.
"City Hall was pretty much a whites-only — almost an Irish-only — place; he opened it up," Frank said in an Associated Press interview last week. "He opened it up, hired people of all races, genders" and embraced the gay movement. "He was just the first modern mayor."
Frank said Boston didn't explode after King's murder because White had "reached out to the African-American community."
While White wrestled with the city's racial problems, he is also credited with revitalizing Boston and giving it "world-class city" status.