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The NAACP’s ‘finest hour’

Howard Manly

The birth of the Second Suffolk senatorial district

As historical footnotes go, this one is gaining modern relevance.

The Second Suffolk state senatorial district has always been about the numbers.

But it’s also been about race, and, most important, how state governments devise race-neutral remedies for past racial ills. How that process starts is usually the result of organized community action — and the threat of federal lawsuits.

The issue was very black and white in the early 1970s.

That’s when a group of Roxbury residents decided to wage a legal fight against what the courts later ruled were unconstitutional voting districts across the state.

The result, after three years of legislative fits and starts, was the Second Suffolk. While very few in these days of political correctness would openly characterize a public office as “black,” even fewer had a problem doing just that back then.

Such was the case with Gov. Francis Sargent in 1973. He ultimately had the last word on political redistricting, and he promptly vetoed the first State House plan, drafted by state Sen. Joseph DiCarlo. By most accounts, DiCarlo’s plan was awful, largely because his one “black” district was actually whiter than the one it was supposed to replace.

Creating a “black” district would take three more months and three more drafts, but it happened and was considered a coup for white and black politicians alike.

None were happier than George Keverian. Once described as “an outrageously funny state representative from Everett,” he helped draft the final districts and quipped, “Better than the one blacks wanted.”

That plan, the one that forced the state Legislature to create districts that upheld the democratic principle of “one man, one vote,” was born in the office of the Boston branch of the NAACP.

The problem was clear. Though five blacks held office in the state House of Representatives, none held seats in the state Senate. The reason for the problem was also clear — voting districts.

Blacks accounted for only 16 percent of the state population. As it was, the major black communities scattered throughout the South End, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan were virtually powerless because they were contained within strong Irish and Jewish wards.

What was needed — at least, according to the conventional wisdom of the time — was a plan that reconfigured the wards and precincts with heavy concentrations of minorities into one district that passed constitutional muster.

“It was the NAACP’s finest hour,” said Melvin B. Miller, an attorney and publisher of the Bay State Banner. “The Second Suffolk would not be possible without the extraordinary work and drive and enthusiasm of the NAACP.”

Miller played an integral role in the legal process. He and a group of other black community leaders — including Jean McGuire, at the time a Boston school guidance counselor — filed a petition in state Supreme Judicial Court to prevent elections for the state Senate on the grounds that the voting districts violated the democratic goal of one man, one vote and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The first line of attack was the numbers. As drawn in 1970, the state’s Senate districts were at odds with the population. The median population for the state’s 40 voting districts was 132,382. But in the Third Suffolk, the number was only 84,382, while the number for the largest district — Middlesex-Worcester — was 211,265.

Both were huge deviations from the median and what was permissible under federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court had recently ruled that the total spread between the district with the highest population and the one with the lowest could not exceed 5.96 percent; a wider spread meant a violation of the Constitution.

Based on those numbers, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled on June 8, 1970 that the distribution of Senate seats was unconstitutional and invalid.

“It is highly unlikely,” the court ruled, “if tested in the federal courts, [that] any distribution of seats in a statewide legislative body, having any avoidable disparity between the district with the highest population and that with the lowest, will be found to satisfy federal constitutional requirements …”

The NAACP had a plan that avoided the disparities. It reduced the overall variances in the state’s voting districts to only 3.83 percent. The Senate’s plan was 5.01 percent.

The second line of attack was racial discrimination. As configured, the NAACP and others argued, the voting districts diluted black voting strength.

The state’s plan had called for placing Ward 14, along with Ward 18, in a district with Canton and Sharon. The other predominantly black wards, 8, 9 and 12, would have been combined with South Boston and the Savin Hill section of Boston.

Ward 9 was particularly troublesome. It cut through the South End and Lower Roxbury and included the homes of Laurence Banks, Boston’s first black city councilor; Lincoln Pope, a state representative; and Shag Taylor, whose drugstore on Tremont Street was the headquarters of Democratic politics in the black community going back to the days of Mayor James Michael Curley.

Ward 9 also was home to the Harriet Tubman House, the black Professional and Business Club, and Tent City, the site of a 1968 protest led by Mel King over the demolition of housing on the corner of Dartmouth and Columbus streets in order to create a parking lot.

“It was impossible,” Miller said at the time, “for the black community to be represented in the Senate, since our voice and vote will be overwhelmed by the interest of the other group in the two Senate districts dividing the community.”