The NAACP's 'finest hour'

Howard Manly | 2/1/2011, 6:09 p.m.
The birth of the Second Suffolk senatorial districtHoward Manly ...

The birth of the Second Suffolk senatorial district

As historical footnotes go, this one is gaining modern relevance.

The Second Suffolk state senatorial district has always been about the numbers.

But it’s also been about race, and, most important, how state governments devise race-neutral remedies for past racial ills. How that process starts is usually the result of organized community action — and the threat of federal lawsuits.

The issue was very black and white in the early 1970s.

That’s when a group of Roxbury residents decided to wage a legal fight against what the courts later ruled were unconstitutional voting districts across the state.

The result, after three years of legislative fits and starts, was the Second Suffolk. While very few in these days of political correctness would openly characterize a public office as “black,” even fewer had a problem doing just that back then.

Such was the case with Gov. Francis Sargent in 1973. He ultimately had the last word on political redistricting, and he promptly vetoed the first Statehouse plan, drafted by state Sen. Joseph DiCarlo. By most accounts, DiCarlo’s plan was awful, largely because his one “black” district was actually whiter than the one it was supposed to replace.

Creating a “black” district would take three more months and three more drafts, but it happened and was considered a coup for white and black politicians alike.

None were happier than George Keverian. Once described as “an outrageously funny state representative from Everett,” he helped draft the final districts and quipped, “Better than the one blacks wanted.”

That plan, the one that forced the state Legislature to create districts that upheld the democratic principle of “one man, one vote,” was born in the office of the Boston branch of the NAACP.

The problem was clear. Though five blacks held office in the state House of Representatives, none held seats in the state Senate. The reason for the problem was also clear — voting districts.

Blacks accounted for only 16 percent of the state population. As it was, the major black communities scattered throughout the South End, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan were virtually powerless because they were contained within strong Irish and Jewish wards.

What was needed — at least, according to the conventional wisdom of the time — was a plan that reconfigured the wards and precincts with heavy concentrations of minorities into one district that passed constitutional muster.

“It was the NAACP’s finest hour,” said Melvin B. Miller, an attorney and publisher of the Bay State Banner. “The Second Suffolk would not be possible without the extraordinary work and drive and enthusiasm of the NAACP.”

Miller played an integral role in the legal process. He and a group of other black community leaders — including Jean McGuire, at the time a Boston school guidance counselor — filed a petition in state Supreme Judicial Court to prevent elections for the state Senate on the grounds that the voting districts violated the democratic goal of one man, one vote and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.