Mayor Kevin H. White, 1929 – 2012

This weekend we lost a giant of Boston and Massachusetts history, Mayor Kevin White.

White served as mayor of Boston for 16 years and saw the city through immense growth and renewal. He also governed the city through a period of great racial turmoil during the 1960s and 70s, culminating in the controversial desegregation of the Boston City Schools through busing in 1974.

In the WGBH Archives, we have many video and audio recordings of White during his time as Mayor, but a few stand out as examples of his leadership style in times of tension.

Last year, on the anniversary of the event Elizabeth Deane posted a piece about White’s work with soul singer James Brown and with WGBH to broadcast the performer’s concert live the night after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. In this video from that night, Mayor White, humorously dubbed “a swinging cat” by James Brown, pays tribute to Dr. King, “one of the greatest Americans” and asked the audience to help him “make Dr. King’s dream a reality in Boston.” This pivotal moment quite possibly saved the city from the riots and violence that plagued other cities in response to Dr. King’s death.

A second pivotal moment in White’s tenure as mayor came in 1974 when the U.S. District Court ruled that Boston’s schools were racially segregated and discriminatory and ordered the implementation of a controversial busing program to desegregate the system. The Boston School Committee, led by Louise Day Hicks, actively resisted the court ordered program and many white neighborhoods protested against their children being bussed across the city to integrate predominantly black schools, and against black children being bussed into their neighborhoods. Many parents, particularly in the neighborhood of South Boston, kept their children out of school in defiance.

In this clip, Mayor White answers questions from the press regarding violent flare-ups and the timetable for the busing program. A year later, having experienced the tumultuous and sometimes violent first year of desegregation through busing, he addressed the city and appealed to the community to act responsibly, and with restraint, to allow children to enter the schools safely as they opened in September of 1975.

Mayor White’s passion for redevelopment and his strong vision for the future of the city also left their mark on Boston, particularly in the growth of the downtown area and the eventual submergence of the central artery highway underground. Even thought the legacy of the desegregation crisis as a whole is still unsettled, White’s leadership as a peacekeeper and the voice of reason helped to maneuver the city through extremely tense times of anger and controversy.

Other remembrances: