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Political activism is part of black Boston’s DNA

Howard Manly
Editor’s note: As part of last week’s National Urban League Conference, UMASS-Boston’s Trotter Institute released its “State of Black Boston 2010 Report.” Sponsored by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the Boston branch of the NAACP, the report includes a section on Civic Engagement. Here is the final excerpt.

The idea of public service is nothing new among Boston African Americans. In 1867, Edwin Walker and Charles Mitchell were elected to the state legislature and became the first black state legislators in the United States. From then until 1902, 13 different black men served at various times in the general court, most serving more than one term.

Given that foundation, grounded in law and forged in black political protest, most recently during the Sixties and the city’s busing crisis, it is not surprising that black leaders have adapted to the political realities of their day. Federal and state courts are well-versed in issues of discrimination and racism. Left undone for the majority of blacks is a way to reverse the present course.

“Black America’s main problem is neither overt racism nor more subtle ‘societal’ racism,” the conservative black scholar John McWhorter wrote in 2004. “Lifting blacks up is no longer a matter of getting whites off our necks. We are faced, rather, with the mundane tasks of teaching those ‘left behind’ after the civil rights victory how to succeed in a complex society — one in which there will never be a second civil rights revolution.”

A younger generation of leaders has emerged but they inherit deep-rooted problems that in many respects are stubborn to resolve. Partly the result of political frustration, scores of grassroots community groups have emerged to tackle specific problems.  

For example, leaders from Sociedad Latina and other youth-oriented community groups hosted a hearing at City Hall to raise awareness about advertisements promoting unhealthy lifestyles, like smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, in the storefront windows of Boston establishments.

“It is your responsibility to protect us,” Shanaya Coke, 18, of the youth-led Breath of Life: Dorchester (BOLD) Teens organization told the Council.  Another youth-led lobbying effort was a 2009 city law banning the sale of cigarettes in educational and health care institutions, including pharmacies and drug stores.

Hyacynth Dixon was one of the BOLD teens that led the fight. The law also bans in all locations the sale of blunt wraps — flavored tobacco leaves that are often used as drug paraphernalia and are marketed heavily to teenagers. “It took a long time,” Dixon said. “We did a lot of protesting. [But] it was a contradiction for pharmacies to sell cigarettes.”

It’s that sort of grassroots engagement that several of the recently elected officials have proclaimed their dedication. Felix Arroyo says he was inspired to run for office by the ascension of former community organizer Barack Obama to the White House, and wants to bring a similarly fresh approach to Boston’s City Council.

“I think it’s time for a new politics in Boston,” he told the Bay State Banner. “Our campaign is based on collaborative politics — bringing people together so we can all have a voice in government.”

Ayanna Pressley has a similar tact. She explained in a published interview that she will draw on her personal experiences to advocate for social justice issues including education reform, affordable housing and improving public transportation. While the public transportation falls under the purview of state government, Pressley notes that the city contributes $74 million a year to the MBTA. As a result, city councilors can use their office as a bully pulpit to make sure their constituents’ needs are met by local, state and federal government.

“It’s very important that the community is heard and our views are respected,” she said. “This job is a partnership. I really want to improve the relationship between people and government.”

Not all of Boston’s leaders have been people-persons. W.E.B Burghardt Du Bois, for instance, was a reluctant leader, unwilling to engage in the back-slapping world of politics. “I was no natural leader of men,” Du Bois wrote years later. “I could not slap people on the back and make friends of strangers. I could not easily break down an inherited reserve; or at all times curb a biting, critical tongue. Nevertheless, having put my hand to the plow, I had to go on.”

To Du Bois the goal was clear. “I believed in the higher education of a Talented Tenth who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into higher civilization,” Du Bois wrote in Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. “I knew that without this the Negro would have to accept white leadership, and that such leadership could not always be trusted to guide this group into self-realization and to its highest cultural possibilities.”

Gov. Deval Patrick has become just the latest in a long-line of the Talented Tenth who have made their impact on Boston. That list includes E.B. Jourdain, one of the “original twenty-nine” who attended the first meeting of what became known as the “Niagara Movement.” In fact, he was typical of these original founding members who were unabashedly opinionated when it came to the topic of Booker T. Washington and equal rights for African Americans at the turn of the 19th century.

“We respect Mr. Washington’s devotion to the educational interests of his race; we admire his genius in rearing such a beacon light as Tuskegee, in the dismal swamp of ignorance and degradation, the great black belt,” Jourdain wrote one of Washington’s confidantes on Aug. 19, 1902. “But we cannot follow his lead when he counsels ‘nolo contendere’ in the matter of manhood and citizenship rights. We doubt not his sincerity in the belief that he ‘stoops to conquer’ but we don’t admire, agree with or respect his position of passive surrender of all rights in order to win them.”

Overall, the Niagara Movement was the most progressive faction of the Negro middle class, wrote Manning Marable in his 1986 biography, “W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat” — “the group most willing to jeopardize its material and political security in the effort to achieve democratic rights for the Afro-American people.”

One of the Movement’s founding members was William Monroe Trotter, like Du Bois, a Harvard man and the editor of the Boston Guardian. Together they drafted the Movement’s Declaration of Principles.

“Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty,” they wrote in 1905.  “ … We black men have our own duties … to respect ourselves, even as we respect others. But in doing so, we shall not cease to remind the white man of his responsibility. We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults.”

At this point, Patrick doesn’t have to make race an issue. Nor do other African American elected officials. What is needed are community leaders and organizations that can hold elected officials accountable to the needs of their constituents. Yes, voters always have that power, but in recent years, many  have stayed at home.

To his credit, Patrick made sure that didn’t happen. He knew how to count.