"The vision of New Boston must extend into Roxbury. We shall overcome inequality and school segregation; justice will roll down like great waters and righteousness like streams."
-Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston Common, April 1965
In January 1965, Joe Smitherman, the newly elected mayor of Selma, Alabama, was preparing for an incoming wave of voter registration drives and the violent white mobs that would follow them. He had watched similarly situated police chiefs and sheriffs in Birmingham, Hattiesburg, Montgomery, St. Augustine and other cities meet non-violent demonstrators with fire hoses, attack dogs and beatings, only to have press contingents reveal every shameful detail to the world.
Realizing that more violence would only attract the press and hurt the segregationist cause, he experimented with another idea. In his second of three essential texts on America during the Martin Luther King years, Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch recalls of Smitherman, ‘…I tried to make a deal with’ black leaders to pave their streets if they would oppose King’s campaign. ‘…We did what we thought was a good job trying to defuse it and keep him out of here.’”
Ultimately, Smitherman’s plan failed. At the time, concessions of any kind to black leaders were politically ruinous for elected officials. But times changed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, the segregationist movement went underground and the once politically impossible development of black neighborhoods emerged as the go-to practice for calming racial tensions.
For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than today’s Boston. Throughout the years, Boston has done an incredible job of developing its minority neighborhoods. The city has turned Grove Hall from a vacant lot into a thriving commerce center, renovated the Strand Theater, turned Ceylon Park into a gorgeous soccer facility, constructed a beautiful library branch in Mattapan and planned to revitalize Dudley Square. The list of the city’s development accomplishments is long; our leaders, and particularly our sitting mayor, deserve great credit.
Throughout this same period, however, as the city has marched steadily towards a minority majority, the city’s neighborhoods have remained deeply segregated. Mistrust between police and minority residents is dangerously high, to the point where police and community leaders must beg for help to solve serious crimes. Young black men are largely excluded from the workforce and are constantly followed, stopped and frisked by the police, often despite no wrongdoing. Their frustration is palpable. The percentage of minorities on construction sites, despite steady population growth, has declined over the last seventeen years. Minorities are underrepresented in the police and fire departments, and especially at city hall, where only three of the city’s top thirteen cabinet posts are filled by people of color. Nearly three-quarters of the city’s schools, where almost 90 percent of students are minorities, have been classified as “in need of improvement.”
The truth is that robust development in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury has done little to address underlying racial disparities throughout the city. Despite the fact that development makes it look as though things are improving, particularly when one looks at buildings like the stunning new library in Mattapan, the truth is that Boston is not only stalled but going backwards in areas that are far more important to its long-term progress than development: integration and inclusion.
In April 1963, as marchers prepared to march head long into high-powered fire hoses in order to register to vote in Greenwood, Mississippi, James bevel walked up to the fire chief and said, "There's a fire going on inside of us, baby, but you can't put it out." Shortly thereafter cities from Boston to Selma began trying to drown that fire with cash.
Today, those with the audacity to speak up -- particularly on Boston’s failure to integrate its departments or keep pace on other important racial issues -- lose their program funding and development. City Hall is renowned for its retaliation against those who direct so much as an unkind word in the direction of Government Center. And if speaking up means losing your programs, who in their right mind would?
As a result, much-needed, highly-visible development in minority neighborhoods has created the illusion that broader racial progress is being made and, perhaps worse, silenced the voices of those that would point out that we are not making nearly as much progress as we think we are.