Revolution, Part Two

Hegel’s Dialectic. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. Social revolution begets counterrevolution. Their struggle begets a new reality with elements of both. Southern Man begets Sweet Home Alabama. Warren Zevon brings it forward with Play It All Night Long.

The Civil Rights movement begat white backlash, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and “reverse discrimination.”

It was an ugly time.

Young white men, one spearing a flagpole with the American flag, attack a black man as he crosses City Hall Plaza.  Stanley Forman’s shocking, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 picture, The Soiling of Old Glory, captured the turmoil of Boston’s school desegregation.

It is merely one of the literally countless shocking images from this country’s history of racial conflict. 1974: 109 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, 106 years after ratification of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, 20 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, 19 years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, 10 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 9 years after the Watts riots in L.A., 7 years after rioting in Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other U.S. cities, 7 years after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional laws banning miscegenation (mixed race marriages), 6 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. 1974: 18 years before the Rodney King riots in L.A., 40 years before Ferguson, 41 years before the deaths of Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, and many others. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

How one thinks about U.S. race relations usually turns on where one sits. I have lived in Boston since 1971. The psychic toll of court-ordered busing, and the racial tension of the 1970’s and 1980’s, are ancient history for white, suburban, professionals like me. I live in subjective ignorance of what daily life is like for a person of color. Or, obviously, for a woman, or a Muslim, or an LGBT person, or an Asian, or an undocumented immigrant, or anyone else who confronts legal, social, or attitudinal hurdles with which I don’t contend.2

Today, Half of America Thinks We Live in a Post-Racial Society . . . It is undeniable that outward racism is less socially acceptable than it was a half century ago. Consider 42-The Jackie Robinson Story, about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947.

Consider others with similar themes: Remember the Titans (integration in 1971 of a high school football team in Alexandria, VA), The Great Debaters (all-black Wiley College debate team takes on the Harvard debate team in the 1930s), and The Help (sympathetic white writer explores the lives of domestic help in 1960’s Mississippi). Their depictions of casual, blatant racism shock modern audiences. That’s good. Such overt racism, and use of the “N word” (putting aside the complex norms governing its usage by black speakers or in aspects of popular culture) are not tolerated in mass media and most civil conversation. The shock of the unfamiliar in such films might make one believe racism is, at most, a small problem: things are so much better today. Or, the shock might make one believe racism is hidden and more subtle today. Is subtle racism better, or worse, than overt racism? Yes—it’s both better, and worse. It’s less in one’s face, but it continues to limit choices and opportunities, and to tarnish everyone it touches.

Nevertheless, however slow and however incomplete, there has been progress. We look briefly at two campaigns for social change. The Civil Rights movement was long and slow, with roots in the abolitionist movement of the 1830’s. It has not truly ended, but the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act are two of its culminating events. The 1969 Stonewall riots instigated the gay rights movement, one aspect of which culminated in the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, extending the Constitution’s protection of substantive due process to include same-sex marriage.

Both movements merit long and deep study. We can’t do justice to either, but we’re not looking at them as ends in themselves. One open-ended question is whether social attitudes about death and dying could be changed by a movement relying on grass-roots organization, protests, lawsuits, public relations, lobbying, and social media. Another is what backlash would such a movement engender. We can’t answer either, but the first step is to ask the questions.

  1. The headline continues  “. . . the Other Half, Not so Much.”
  2. Which, some say, includes everyone who is not a white, heterosexual, economically secure male.


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Sidewalk Sam

Few of AFC’s younger readers are likely to know of Sidewalk Sam, although they may have seen his work–colorful, faithful chalk reproductions of iconic and lesser known paintings on sidewalks and plazas around Boston. Sidewalk has been creating his public art for more than 40 years. I came to Boston in 1971 so I cannot remember the city without the delight of stumbling upon his art. He is still working, despite a mid-1990’s accident which paralyzed his legs. Sidewalk is Robert Guillemin, a mid-1960’s graduate of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, and BU Today has an article and video about his work and career.

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Dogs in the City

Judy, the dogs, and I enjoyed yesterday’s gorgeous late-summer weather on a walk along the Esplanade from Kenmore Square to the Public Garden, then back through the city. At least 15 people stopped us to ask “what kind of dogs are they?” (Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers.  Tollers, for short.) We stopped for coffee at the Newbury Street Starbucks near Mass. Ave, where Chordially Yours, a female a cappella group from BU, serenaded passersby, human and canine. The dogs know the location; a now-graduated dog sitter used to take them to the adjacent JP Licks for ice cream, buying a small dish for each to eat on the sidewalk. They got no ice cream from us.

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Whitey Bulger

Those not from Boston, those who’ve not lived in Boston for decades, and those too young for it to have registered must wonder why we are so caught up in Whitey Bulger’s arrest after 16 years on the run.  It’s a rare thing when discussion with my morning coffee buddies settles on a single topic for more than ten minutes.  Rarer still is when there is one inclusive conversation rather than two, three, or four small-group conversations.  Today nine of us talked about Whitey for more than a half hour.

I first heard of Whitey Bulger in 1973 or 1974.  I’d dropped out of college and found work in Spalding Printing Company, running an Ozalid blueprint machine (it was surrounded by a miasma of the ammonia used to fix images) and working the bindery.  Richie, the delivery guy, was my age, from South Boston., and a natural story-teller whose material all related to his hometown:  growing up in Southie, dating in Southie, hanging out with friends in Southie, fighting outsiders who strayed into Southie, going on his only trip outside Massachusetts with Southie friends and fighting people they met who were not from Southie.  From Richie I learned both the official lyrics to Southie is My Home Town–

I was born down on “A” Street, Raised up on “B Street, Southie is my hometown;

There is something about it, Permit me to shout it, It is tops for miles around;

We have doctors and flappers, Preachers and scrappers, Men from the Old County down;

They will take you & break you, But they’ll never forsake you; For Southie is my hometown

And his twist on the final stanza:

If you want to stay healthy, stay the hell out of Southie, because Southie is my hometown.

Whitey Bulger was one of the colorful, outsized characters in Richie’s stories–a legendary tough guy, brother of one of Boston’s most adept politicians (brother Billy did not become president of the Massachusetts Senate until 1978), a fiercely loyal Irish Robin Hood who Took Care of His Own, a fierce defender off Southie from all outsiders.  Richie told stories of Bulger’s financial generosity and contempt for outsiders.

With this vivid portrait lodged firmly in my consciousness in early 1975 I started doing paralegal work in MCI-Walpole, the state’s maximum security prison.  (Years later at the behest of Walpole’s image handlers the state changed it’s name to MCI-Cedar Junction, but to me it will always be MCI-Walpole.)  There I met many Irish mob guys and learned more of the culture.  They were loyal to their crime partners, murderous to their enemies, and abhorred rats.  I heard more whispered tales of Whitey. His portrait became more ominous and shadowy.

With this background every story about Whitey compelled my attention.  His co-purchase of a winning Mass Lottery ticket and his strong-armed takeover of a South Boston liquor store show different his different faces: the irreverent maverick and the stone gangster. (The first story provides some flavor of the ambiguity of Bulger’s reputation in late 1980’s, although its author misses the sarcasm in the Mike Barnicle column he quotes.) The idealized gloss of Richie’s portrait faded.  Bulger was a plain hood, not Robin Hood.  But I was still shocked by the claimed extent of Bulger’s murders, and then by revelation of his long-time cooperation with the Boston F.B.I. An informant? Bulger?  In the code of honor (such as it was) that I learned from my old Walpole clients, nothing is more despicable than a rat. Murdering 19 people, according to the government indictment, is bone-chilling. Murdering 19 people while cooperating with the F.B.I. requires incomprehensible, cold-blooded, calculating duplicity.   How does a person live a lie of that magnitude?  Boston is hanging on this story’s latest chapter.

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