Thursday, January 20, 2022 Jan 20, 2022
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What the Boston Irish Can Tell Us About Dallas Blacks
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Edwin O’Connor’s classic political novel The Last Hurrah, published in 1956 and adapted to the screen by John Ford, was inspired by the career of longtime Boston Mayor James M. Curley. In its depiction of the last days of an old-style Irish politician, I find much that is instructive about African-American politics in our city at the end of the century. (The book is still in print from Little, Brown, and the movie, starring Spencer Tracy, is on the shelves at Blockbuster.)

The waves of Irish immigration first hit Boston and the East Coast in the 1850s and continued well into the 1880s. These Irish were unschooled, destitute, and often drunken, stepping onto our shores straight from the appalling conditions described by Frank McCourt in his best-selling book Angela’s Ashes. This Celtic invasion of the unwashed was not met with open arms. Shopkeepers posted “Irish Need Not Apply” signs to ward off the constant importuning of impoverished job-seekers. The Irish took the only jobs they could get, their women working as cooks and servants to the upper classes, their men cleaning sewers and hauling garbage.

By the beginning of the century, so many Irish had flooded into Boston that they made up a majority. The heyday of the Irish politician-and modern urban politics-began. Mayor Curley was elected in 1914. and already the formidable machine the Irish had constructed was busy replacing the politics of privilege with the politics of patronage. The fellow who the day before had been a lowly grunt in the sanitation department was now the head of it. Patronage lifted an entire generation out of poverty into the middle class; and by the next generation, the graduating class of Boston Latin School, the city’s most prestigious, was peppered with Irish names. Soon thereafter, so was the graduating class of Harvard College.

Then a strange thing happened, and this is the phenomenon recorded in The Last Hurrah with a poignancy that is often heartbreaking. The new class of Irish wanted nothing to do with the old meat-and-potatoes-on-the-dinner-table crowd that had swaggered its way into control of government. When the indictments began-over such things as briber)’, extortion, and kickbacks-the new class not only turned their backs but were often the ones bringing the charges.

I first thought of the Boston Irish metaphor when longtime racial activist Kathleen Gilliam was defeated for school board by a young black man whose only campaign plank was to rid the schools of racial politics. A year ago that election was a thunderbolt from black voters, shocking and unexpected; today it is hardly remembered because it fits so naturally into a course that seems to be unfolding before our eyes. I thought of it again when Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb told the press he was under investigation by the FBI, and when a planned protest rally on his behalf could only turn out a handful of supporters. I see it again in the new language being employed by John Wiley Price on his KKDA talk show when he talks about business investment, capital needs, and entrepreneurship, employing a vocabulary and a mode of thinking that could come straight from Steve Forbes.

If the Kennedys exemplified the new generation of Boston Irish who distanced themselves from the old-style ward-heelers of Mayor Curley’s generation, Ron Kirk exemplifies the new generation of Dallas blacks. He nods politely in the direction of the older generation, winces at their occasional bursts of racial rhetoric, and, like the Kennedys, doesn’t mind oiling up the old machine when it’s necessary to turn out votes. But Kirk has moved decisively in a new direction, catching the wave of generational change long before anyone else even noticed it. That alone may explain his remarkable success.