Political activism is part of black Boston's DNA

Howard Manly | 8/3/2011, 12:49 a.m.
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.”