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The NAACP’s ‘finest hour’

Howard Manly
The NAACP’s ‘finest hour’

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 Statehouse 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.”

As it was, four state senators represented sections of the black community. John Moakley served wards 8 and 9; Samuel Harmon had Wards 12 and 14; Robert Crawley had Ward 11 and Oliver Ames held Ward 4.

The arguments were persuasive; the only problem was the timing. The courts refused to grant an expedited hearing to force the state Legislature to use the NAACP’s plan in time for the 1970 elections. As a result, the state Senate remained all white.

But the point was made, and the Statehouse got the message.

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department delivered more messages after receiving a complaint from Miller and other prominent community leaders. Maurice Donahue was the Senate president in 1970 and he said a new plan would be developed by the recently created Legislative Redistricting Committee.

The next year, Len Alkins, who would later become president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, was working his way up in the State House as a legislative assistant in the office of Senate President Kevin Harrington. There, he saw firsthand the politics of redistricting.

It was Harrington who enlisted the help of Everett state Rep. Keverian to help devise a third plan. It wasn’t perfect. But a fourth was done and finally approved.

The resulting district stretched from the South End through Roxbury and North Dorchester to Mattapan and included most of Boston’s black community. Born in August 1973, the Second Suffolk became the highest office in the state that a black candidate could theoretically win.

 “They knew they needed to make the districts more uniform and give people of color the opportunity to win a Senate seat in the Legislature,” Alkins said. “It was definitely looked upon as a black senatorial seat, but it was also known that they couldn’t carve out a seat and then guarantee that seat to any racial or ethnic group.”

There were no guarantees, but most everyone strongly believed that the new seat was state Rep. Royal Bolling Sr.’s for the taking.

He and Harrington were collegial, and Bolling was the senior member of the newly formed Massachusetts Black Caucus that included the South End’s Mel King, Springfield’s Ray Jordan, Cambridge’s Saundra Graham and Roxbury’s Doris Bunte.

According to King and James Jennings in “From Access to Power: Black Politics in Boston,” redistricting was a major priority. In fact, they wrote, “the major accomplishment of the caucus in the first two years was legislating a black senatorial seat through redistricting.”

The unintended consequence of a well-intended plan was the bitter fight for the seat between Bill Owens and Bolling.

Owens won, but as Jennings and King wrote, “the conflict between Owens and Bolling not only split the community, but seriously weakened the caucus as well … The campaigns were not fought on the basis of the issues, but deteriorated into personal politics taking precedence over the needs of the community.”

Owens held the seat until 1982 when Bolling finally defeated him. Owens reclaimed the seat in 1988, but lost it in 1992 to Dianne Wilkerson. Sonia Chang-Díaz was elected to replace Wilkerson.

The Second Suffolk has survived over the years, and has kept its core despite several redistricting plans, lawsuits and political shenanigans. The most recent ended with then-Senate President Thomas Finneran pleading guilty to perjury.

But the most blatant occurred during the mid-1980s, when then-Senate President William Bulger tried to move Ward 9 to his district in Southie.

It was Bolling who was most vocal on that attempted move and boldly called Bulger’s thinking the result of “plantation mentality.”

“The Senate president is playing with black history,” Bolling told reporters at the time. “It’s as if he has adopted a plantation mentality that says: ‘I’ll take a little of this, a little of that, some yuppies, a few Hispanics, a handful of Asians and just enough blacks so they’ll never have any real say in my lovely new district.’”

Alkins said he still believes that blacks would have been better served by trying to establish voting strength throughout the city.

The assumption, Alkins explains, is that blacks would be able to forge coalitions with other minority groups and whites. But that was way before Deval Patrick, the state’s first black governor, was around — and certainly well before anyone could imagine the election of an African American president.

“Blacks had voting blocs in Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roxbury,” Alkins recalled. “But we gave it all up by bringing blacks into one district. It was almost a guarantee to white politicians that they didn’t have to listen to their black constituencies.”

But Alkins is quick to point out that blacks in the 1970s were caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Second Suffolk was better than nothing at all.