Boston City Councilor Thomas I. Atkins
Elected to the Boston City Council in 1967, Atkins was the first African-American elected to the that body. The Spokane Daily Chronicle article, “Negroes Wins Many Races” states the following about the historic win:
In Boston where the race issue was an often unspoken factor in the mayor’s race, Thomas Atkins, 28, a Harvard Law student, was elected to the City Council – the first Negro to sit on that body in modern memory.
While attending Harvard University prior, he had served as executive secretary of Boston’s NAACP office:
“It’s hypocritical to fear violence from Negroes after so much violence has been done to Negroes for so long. The whites have created the situation.”
The day following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (April 5th, 1968), it was Councilor Atkins who convinced then Mayor, Kevin White, to proceed with a concert featuring James Brown at the Boston Garden:
In Boston, violence on the night of the shooting was limited to a few broken windows and stoned cars. City Hall and community leaders were worried, though, that the uneasy peace would collapse.
On April 5th, about 5,000 people marched in tribute from Boston Common to Post Office Square in King’s memory. At City Hall, a black City Councilor, Thomas Atkins, convinced Mayor Kevin H. White to let Brown’s concert at Boston Garden proceed as scheduled.
“I wanted to cancel it,” said White, who had been in office for a few weeks. “But the idea of going on television, having it covered and giving a lot of people the opportunity to see it at home at not go out, seemed to be an opportunity worth gambling on.”
“He realized that I had a lot of influence with the kids, that they listened to me,” said Brown.
White asked public station WGBH to broadcast Brown’s concert after urging the city’s youth to stay home.
For context, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a strong connection with the Greater Boston area attending Boston University from 1951 until 1955, and also speaking in 1964:
On Sept. 11, 1964, King came to Boston to announce the donation of his personal papers to his alma mater, Boston University. He spoke of racial injustice, even here in the North.
“This struggle, while we are based in the South, is a national struggle and it requires concern of people all over the nation,” King said. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. The problem is very serious in the North. Racial injustice does exist in the North in a very serious way.”
And in 1965:
Another milestone came on April 22, 1965, when he addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature. There is no known recording of the speech, but at the end he repeated, almost verbatim, the closing words of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in Washington two years before.
“We will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.’ ”
On June 8th, 1971, Atkins announced his candidacy for Mayor of Boston at a Press Conference at the Parker House, being the first African-American to run for the office. He is stated to not address himself to the “race issue” and that “it is a question that has to be dealt with in the hearts of the people” (Atkins to run for Mayor of Boston, Boston Globe, June 9th, 1971). Out of the nine-man council, six incumbents ran for re-election that year, while Atkins, Joseph F. Timilty, and John L. Saltonstall, Jr. decided to run for Mayor instead (78 politicians seek Boston offices, Boston Globe, June 21st, 1971). After a recent tragic murder-hold up at Freedom Foods, Inc. in Dorchester, Atkins insisted that criminals were not ‘brothers’ (Criminals are not ‘brothers’, Boston Globe, August 31st, 1971):
“We don’t consider criminals to be a brother. We consider them to be an enemy and they will be dealt with as such.”
He lost at 4th place, garnering only 11 percent of the vote:
Atkins blamed his loss on Mayor Kevin White, and chose to make no endorsements following his loss (Atkins blames White ‘fear campaign’ for loss, Boston Globe, September 19th, 1971):
“I haven’t decided what to do in November, but I am not one of those who salivates at the mention of Louise Day Hicks… If either shows the capacity to deal with the problems that face the city in manner that is effective, then it is conceivable that I might back one or the other… The black people in Boston are conditioned to be more opposed to Louise Day Hicks than they are to be supportive of anyone. That is what White exploited.”
In an effort to alter her image, Congresswoman and Mayoral candidate Louise Day Hicks is stated to have had an interest in taking Atkins into her cabinet if she gets elected (Mrs. Hicks tries to alter image, Boston Globe, October 7th, 1971):
“There is a definite place for Tom in the city. I would be very happy to have him in a Hicks administration.”
Afterwards Atkins was appointed to Secretary of Communities and Development by then Governor, Francis Sargent, by Congresswoman and Mayoral candidate, Louise Day Hicks, behalf on October 7th, 1971, via letter (Mrs. Hicks asks job for Atkins, Boston Globe, October 8th, 1971) describing Atkins as “highly qualified for the job and that Roxbury should be represented in governor’s cabinet.” He was sworn in on November 1st, 1971, being the first African-American to serve as a state Cabinet Secretary, on the heels of the General Election.
The results of the General Election are stated as follows (Vote reflects changing city, Boston Globe, November 3rd, 1971):
Two African-American candidates, A. Reginald Eaves and State Representative Royal Boiling remained out of the running (New faces, DiCara and Tierney Win Council seats; Langone defeated, Boston Globe, November 3rd, 1971):
Running for office as an African American in the city of Boston was described as “insurmountable obstacles” because of an “at-large election system,” “a 16 percent black population,” and a “powerful conservative voting bloc” (What chance do blacks have in Boston election?, Boston Globe, November 1st, 1971). Another major factor include “general apathy among black voters” which “helps to perpetuate this system.”
His last vote was to abstain on the new $6.8 million loan for a new “$26 million private redevelopment plan” for a new Boston Park Plaza in “the Park Square area” (Boston City Council approves $6.8m loan for new Park Plaza, Boston Globe, December 28th, 1971).
On July 16, 1974, Atkins was named interim president of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, succeeding Hansford Brown. Immediately, he announced his support for the Federal court ruling that Boston schools must be desegregated In the fall (Atkins says NAACP to ‘help’ on schools, Boston Globe, July 18th, 1974, Boston NAACP office at 451 Massachusetts Avenue):
“We are going to respond when needed and help translate to all communities what the meaning of court decisions are…. Just at the time when people think the NAACP is in trouble something happens. There is new young blood in the organization and we intend to intensify our efforts in the city of Boston… We are going to take our efforts to the streets to recruit new members from all the minority communities in the city… We have to meet the needs of the people who are seeking the help of the NAACP in the city.”
By July 1974, Atkins and White had to bury the hatchet in order to work together (Busing leadership must come from blacks, Atkins says, Boston Globe, July 21st, 1974):
“He (White) is the leader in this. He is the one who must bring the city through it… But the leadership must come from the blacks. We must take our hand and out it in theirs (the whites).”
This August 1974 article “Atkins: steady hand for NAACP as city moves to desegregate” is worth a read:
When Roy Wilkins, the NAACP national executive director came to speak in Boston on Sept 26th, Atkins was there (Roy Wilkins visits Columbia Point, says Boston situation ‘depressing’, Boston Globe, September 27th, 1974). He was also a speaker at a rally attended by Coretta King, widow to Martin Luther King, Jr., Congressman Robert Drinan, and Rabbi Roland B. Gitelson of the Temple Israel, Boston, at the Boston Common (Coretta King to speak at Boston school rally, Boston Globe, November 29, 1974).
He was elected to a full two-year term on December 18, 1974 (Atkins elected NAACP head, Boston Globe) defeating Jack E. Robinson 306-33, who was NAACP president from 1971 until 1972. And who lost to Marvin Harrell two years prior. The First Vice President elected was Charlotte Nelson, while the Second was George Guscott, on the 24 member executive committee. This meant that Atkins would have to step down from his job with the Sargent administration.
While serving as President of the Boston NAACP Branch, he also served as it’s chief desegregation counsel nationwide, including in Youngstown, Ohio:
Thomas Atkins, chief executive council for the NAACP in the case, said the civil rights group would file an appeal of counties’ decision in the next few days.
“It’s wrong. He is wrong on the facts. He’s wrong on everything,” Atkins said.
“The proposed did not even purport to effect systemwide desegregation and could not, therefore, have been viewed as meeting the burden to dismantle the dual system,” he concluded.
Atkins also criticized the Milwaukee’s School System reliance on so-called voluntary means to bring about desegregation saying that there was no president that such a method works.
“The District Court, in approving a settlement premised on such an unworkable and discredited approach, committed clear error and abused it’s discretion,” Atkins said. “The proposed settlement would begin, and predictably end, with a substantial part of the black students attending one-race schools.”
And Cleveland, OH:
Thomas Atkins, a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a recent interview: “We’re not going to stop because we don’t think we’re wrong. We’re not going to stop because we think the effect of our stopping would be genocidal for the minorities in this country.”
Mr. Atkins, now working on a case in San Francisco, said he believes arguments made by schools throughout the country represent an attempt to return to the days of separate facilities for blacks and whites.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1954, in the Brown decision, that the doctrine of separate but equal “has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” Mr. Atkins said.
“I think that the fear that many have is that there is group on the (Supreme) court which has strong reservations about the propriety of the Government’s support for efforts to desegregate schools.”
Atkins died on June 27, 2008 from complications from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at a Nursing Home in Brooklyn, New York.
Atkins contributions paved the way for such people like Bruce C. Boiling who served on the Council from 1982 until 1993, and served as Council President from 1986 until 1987; Charles C. Yancey, who has represented District Four since 1984, served as it’s President in 2001, and ran for Mayor in 2013; and Ayanna Pressley, the first African-American elected to the body in 2009, and ran for Council President in 2013 in a hotly contested race.
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