Mrs. Hicks of Boston.
THE re-election of a city school committeeman, however successful, rarely has meaning for the national scene. But when Louise Day Hicks was elected to the Boston School Committee for the third time last November in a deluge of votes, her massive victory attracted attention throughout the North. “A little bit of democracy died in Boston yesterday,” remarked a defeated Negro candidate. Columnist Joseph Alsop called it “a sinister election,”
Mrs. Hicks had done what few successful candidates in the big Northern cities dared to do; she had sharply drawn the battle lines on one of the most important issues of the day, the problem of de facto segregation in the schools. She stood strongly against any “artificial” means of ending racial imbalance in public schools. She stood against busing and against redistricting. She stood for “the neighborhood school” — that is, for keeping things the admittedly inadequate way they are. And a 65 percent majority of Boston’s voters stood with her. The voters knew what they were voting for. What their ballots said about prejudice and backlash in all likelihood spoke for a substantial bloc of white Northerners in most of the big cities.
While her hometown newspapers called her feat “a victory for prejudice and bigotry” and “a mandate for the status quo,” Mrs. Hicks called it “a vote of confidence by people who believe in the good quality of our education.” As a woman of forty-eight with acute political savvy, Mrs. Hicks doubtless knows that her success has more meaning than that.
When she first ran for office in 1961, Louise DayHicks says she thought of herself as a liberal and a reformer. Her father, the abiding hero of her life, had been a prominent figure in Boston, a municipal judge, a pioneer in the Youth Service Organization, a staunch Democrat for whom a boulevard near Mrs. Hicks’s home is named.
Her life has been male-dominated. Her mother died when she was in her teens, leaving Louise the only girl, with three brothers and a handsome, dynamic father, who doted on her as she did on him. When she married John Hicks, she did not greatly change her way of life. For though her bridegroom had rented an apartment for them in Weymouth, Judge Day had, during their honeymoon, fixed up quarters for the young couple in his South Boston house; Louise opted to “stay home,” and South Boston is where she has stayed since.
Mrs. Hicks refers rather ambiguously to her husband as a “design engineer"; she is consistently noncommunicative about her sons, Bill, nineteen, who lives at home, and John, the older, who is married and has two small daughters. The Hickses like to fish, to hunt, and to relax on their forty-foot power cruiser. A yacht club just across the boulevard, where their boat is moored, is also the focus of their private social life. “Jay thinks I’m the greatest,” Louise Hicks says of her husband, “but he hates to go to official gatherings with me.” On the infrequent evenings they spend alone at home, the Hickses mostly watch television and go to bed early since both are 6:00 A.M. risers.
Life has always been crowded for Louise Day Hicks; she has never been content to stay home and be just a wife and mother. Until her father’s death in 1950 she worked as his law clerk, although she had no formal legal education. Then she went back to school, and earned both a law degree and a B.S. in education from Boston University.
South Boston is an Irish Catholic enclave, and a breeding ground for local politicians. As her father’s daughter and a product of her environment, Louise Day Hicks gravitated naturally into public life. She jokes that her father had once said of her, “Wherever Louise is, confusion is,” and she decided that the school committee was the place where she would cause the least trouble.
The school committee was a place where a reform candidate could do a lot of good, and it was badly in need of new blood. The Citizens for Boston Schools, a progressive, reform organization, was beating the bushes for likely candidates, but when they interviewed Louise Day Hicks as a possible recipient of their endorsement, they were not greatly impressed with her potential as a vote-getter. She was inexperienced; she was a loner, not associated (then or now) with any political machine; and her image was not entirely in her favor.
“God knows I’ve never won an election on my looks,” Mrs. Hicks says ruefully, and indeed, her round, outsized baby-doll face, her high-pitched, singsong voice and elocution-school manner, and her orchid-corsage style of dress could hardly be called political assets. Still, the public liked her, and she won easily in 1961, although by a modest plurality that did not presage things to come. In her first years on the committee she did not create any particular stir, though if she had cared to, there was much over which she might have become agitated. Boston’s once famous school system was in an abysmal condition; the former high level of its public education had deteriorated into mediocrity or worse. College entrance records and elementary-school reading levels were well below national averages. Gifted new teachers were not being attracted into a system which had lost prestige and which was being staffed administratively by hidebound, unprogressive insiders. The physical plant was in a shocking state of disrepair and obsolescence.
AN UNPARALLELED opportunity for dynamic change was offered to the new school committee member, but instead of the challenge, Mrs. Hicks chose the status quo; instead of implementing reforms to correct the school system’s faults, she chose to defend its few remaining virtues. Relying on the professionals, she backed proliferation of jobs and pay raises, which made her popular in the school environment but did little to lift the administrative tone of the committee. Publicly she continued to affirm the usual clichés — “our fine schools, our dedicated teachers, our devoted custodial staff” — in support of the school administration.
Nonetheless, in 1963 two things happened to start Louise Hicks on a path that would lead to glory in some eyes, ignominy in others. First, she became chairman of the Boston School Committee, and second, the problem, long swept under the rug, of Negro treatment in public schools flared up in all the great Northern cities. The term de facto segregation entered the lexicon.
It is doubtful if in the insular, homogeneous, ethnic atmosphere of South Boston the chairman of the school committee had ever had much reason or need to consider Negroes collectively as a problem or to concern herself very seriously with their situation. To most Irish Catholics of her milieu, the existence of a Negro ghetto had been taken for granted, and justified (if indeed a need for justification had even arisen in their minds) on the grounds that the Irish Catholics had themselves been ghettoized when they flocked to Boston in the 1850s after the potato famine in Ireland. They had been the lowest of the low, oppressed by Yankees, looked down upon by other minority groups who had been here longer (including, in some cases, the Negroes); they had clung together with the solidarity of necessity, moving from shanty Irish to lacecurtain nobility until, though still a minority, they were the top dogs who ran the city. And if the Irish had done it, why couldn’t the Negroes?
It is probable that until 1963 Mrs. Hicks to a large extent shared this attitude. But in the spring of 1963 she gave evidence of a growing concern about the plight of the Negroes, at least in regard to their schooling. For advice and guidance she turned to Paul Parks, a Negro engineer who was then vice president of the Citizens for Boston Schools. In May, Parks took Mrs. Hicks to a meeting at Freedom House in Roxbury, the heart of the Negro district, a meeting which had been arranged by the Citizens to allow the Negro parents to air their grievances, both about the archaic physical condition of the schools in their district and about the uneven quality of instruction their children were receiving. Mrs. Hicks says she was “deeply disturbed” at what she learned, and felt that the parents should be given an immediate opportunity to put their complaints before the entire school committee.
Impressed by her reaction, the president of the Citizens for Boston Schools at once sounded out Mrs. Hicks about becoming their endorsed candidate in the forthcoming November elections. Mrs. Hicks expressed interest, and if the wheels set in motion that evening had gone forward, the Citizens would have had a majority on the school committee and the picture might have been a very different one. For Boston has a comparatively low (just under 10 percent) Negro population. Its ghetto is geographically and numerically small, and unlike St. Louis’ Benniker district, for example, or Los Angeles’ Watts, it is not locked in. There is anger and hurt in Roxbury, but because the Negroes who live there can both look out and get out of their ghetto, there is perhaps less cause for despair. Given these relatively favorable circumstances and a progressive, reform-minded school committee, Boston might well have led the North in public school integration.
UNFORTUNATELY, circumstances shifted. The Freedom House meeting had been arranged by Paul Parks in His capacity of vice president of the Citizens for Boston Schools. But Parks was also on the education committee of the NAACP, and so what had started out as an airing of specific local grievances now shaped into a civil rights fight as the NAACP became the official spokesman for the Negro community. Nationally the NAACP was just beginning to turn its attention to the problem of segregation in Northern schools. The term tie facto segregation, now so familiar, was still new; its exact meaning, though obvious on the surface, was not sharply defined. As an attorney, Mrs. Hicks had thought of the term de facto only in its strictly legal connotation. In the school context she interpreted the phrase not as a noun but as a transitive verb which implied deliberate discriminatory action by the school committee. A meeting between the school committee and the NAACP was set up for June 11, and by that time the two factions were already far more deeply committed to a collision course than any of the participants realized.
The facts were indisputable. Despite Boston’s long-standing open-enrollment policy, which permits any pupil in the city to go to any school where there is an open desk, over half of the Negro students were in schools — mostly elementary and junior high — which had a nonwhite population of between 81 percent and 99 percent. Yet the majority of the school committee, led by Mrs. Hicks, was unwilling to call this situation de facto segregation because they maintained that the NAACP by its militant threatening tone — “equating Boston to Mississippi” — was giving the term sinister overtones which implied that the school administration was knowingly, even purposely, offering inferior education to Negro children. And so an impasse of far-reaching consequences was at hand.
The NAACP announced that a one-day boycott of public schools would take place in a week unless their demands were met. In an atmosphere fraught with explosive possibilities, the school committee and NAACP representatives met again in an eighthour session to try to remove the single stumblingblock to an entente. When the school committee admitted to “racially imbalanced, predominately Negro schools,”the NAACP contended that those phrases obviously meant de facto segregation and why wouldn’t the committee say so in those exact words. Mrs. Hicks maintains that because the national NAACP was masterminding the strategy of its Boston office, there was no clear leadership, and the final answer was always “out of somebody’s hands.”In point of fact, it was the chairman of the school committee who came closest to achieving it solution. On the morning after the fruitless executive session, she offered a statement of her own which today, in the light of her present reputation as a racist and a bigot, seems hard to credit to Louise Day Hicks. What she said in its entirety was:
Because of social conditions beyond our control, sections of our city have become predominantly Negro areas. These ghettos have caused large numbers of Negro children to be in fact separated from other racial and ethnic groups. Ghetto living presents problems to the Negro family and to the Negro child which necessitate a total community effort to overcome and eradicate.
Ghetto living, in itself, makes unique problems for the Negro youngster. We recognize this as a fact and we dedicate ourselves to the sympathetic, cooperative solution of these problems.
In this city, so proud of its “Cradle of Liberty spirit and the home city of the President of the United States, it is only fitting and proper that we take the lead in recognizing the social revolution taking place across this nation for Negro equality. The dignity of all mankind demands that all of us work together with understanding, and it is to this end that we dedicate our sincere effort.
The NAACP was ready to accept this statement and to call off the boycott, but they insisted on certain word changes. According to Mrs. Hicks, they made the changes and gave the revised statement to a Boston newspaper without consulting her. When the paper called her at midnight to read her the story from their early edition, Mrs. Hicks was furious and withdrew the statement. And at that point negotiations broke off once and for all. The Stay Out for Freedom boycott took place as scheduled, fortunately without incident. Various other sit-in demonstrations followed.
Whether rightly or wrongly tHe die was now cast for Louise Day Hicks, who found herself in a position in which no politician should ever be, with her back to the wall and with no room to exert the politician’s indispensable tool — accommodation. From here on, her every action was to be firmly labeled as anti-Negro. With an election coming up in November, politicians shook their heads and told Louise Day Hicks she had committed political suicide by “going against the stream.” Mrs. Hicks herself was not sure how the electorate would react. She did not realize then what she says with certainty now: “Every time the Negroes demonstrated, they campaigned for me.”
HER victory in November, 1963, was a stunning one. She topped the ticket, drawing more votes than Boston’s Mayor Collins. The outcome of her mandate was that Mrs. Hicks was pushed back to her instinctive Irish Catholic Iet-them-earntheir-place-as-we-did posture. Basking in the popularity she now enjoyed with, as she puts it, “the common people,” she became their servant rather than their leader, gearing her thinking to theirs. It was not, apparently, a very difficult wrench for her; she and the people seemed to want the same thing — to be protected from encroachment, to keep the Negroes from driving them to the suburbs.
At her special table in her favorite downtown Boston restaurant, sipping a Coca-Cola, which is the strongest thing she usually drinks, Louise Day Hicks talked about the electorate which has put her into office. “A large part of my vote probably does come from bigoted people,” she admitted, “but after all, I can hardly go around telling them, ‘Don’t vote for me if you’re bigoted.’ The important thing is that I know I’m not bigoted. To me that word means all the dreadful Southern segregationist Jim Crow business that’s always shocked and revolted me.”
“Yes,” she admits, “I do think there’s a white backlash, and I honestly think at times it’s justifiable. I think there’s been too much appeasement of Negroes. We have all these laws to protect their rights, but what about the white workingman — like the fellow who’s moonlighting two jobs at once to make ends meet? Doesn’t he need someone to worry about his rights too?”
“It isn’t that Louise is anti-Negro,” a friend said recently. “She’s just terribly pro-white.”
Mrs. Hicks is well aware, however, that the Negroes have serious grievances. She believes they need help, but she has failed to understand the kind of help they need. She has chosen to assign to them the role of a disadvantaged, “culturally deprived,” homogeneous ethnic group, and to assume toward them a sort of missionary noblesse oblige attitude. At best, this can only result in separate but equal — or as she prefers to put it, “separate but better than equal” — treatment.
The “better than” means compensatory education, a concept which Mrs. Hicks strongly favors, not the least of her enthusiasm for it being based on the fact that it draws its funds from the federal government and therefore doesn’t come out of the school committee budget. In Boston all the money granted for compensatory education is being spent in twelve Negro schools in a program called Operation Counterpoise; its aims, to raise aspirational levels, to develop latent abilities and self-pride, are laudable, but will amount to little more than pious hopes unless they are translated into clear operational terms, and so far they have not been.
One gets the impression that in an area where there are no easy answers Mrs. Hicks has far too many. She likes to articulate her views in uncomplicated positive terms. “I’m in favor of neighborhood schools,” she keeps intoning publicly. “I believe that little children should go to school near their homes. It’s as simple as that.”
She also claims that she is for integration “if it can come naturally.” Busing of schoolchildren to reduce racial imbalance is an “artificial solution” to which she is unalterably opposed. For one thing, she believes it is potentially harmful to Negro children. She says, “When you put them on a bus and take them out to a white school aren’t you telling them, ‘You’re not good enough to live here. You’re different. So we put you on the bus and take you back where you came from’?” Her other objections to busing — undemocratic, unworkable unless you cross-bus white children into Negro neighborhoods — are shared by many thoughtful liberals and are familiar to school administrators in all Northern cities. In fact, in almost no major city — except New York, which has done a token amount of busing — has this method of reducing racial imbalance been adopted. But Louise Day Hicks’s opponents are troubled by the fact that they believe she really does not want comingling of whites and Negroes, and that she is strengthened in her unequivocal stand against busing or redistricting by the knowledge that the majority of her constituents don’t want it either.
In 1965, another election year, she was challenged by two bitter controversies in which she crossed swords not only with the Negro community but with the white Establishment as well.
The first was her clash with a blue-ribbon panel of civic leaders and educators who had been appointed by State Commissioner of Education Owen Kiernan to study racial imbalance in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In April of 1965 the Kiernan report was published. It stated in no uncertain terms that racial imbalance existed in fortyfive Boston schools and recommended, among other remedies, some cross-busing of students in grades three through six. Louise Day Hicks lost no time in calling a press conference, at which she blandly dismissed the findings of college presidents, newspaper editors, prominent industrialists, Boston Brahmins, and Cardinal Cushing as “pompous pronouncements of the uninformed.”
With a certain relish, Mrs. Hicks adds a footnote on Cardinal Cushing, whom she has known for years. One evening when she was driving home with the Cardinal from a meeting, he told her that he had been under considerable pressure at the time of the numerous demonstrations against the school committee to join the marchers. Mrs. Hicks reports saying to him. “Your Eminence, if you had done that, I hope you would have marched right upstairs to my office on the third floor so that I could have handed you my resignation in person.” The Cardinal expressed surprise that a woman of her courage would even consider resigning from the school committee under fire. “No, Your Eminence,”Mrs. Hicks told him, “I didn’t mean from the school committee. I mean my resignation from the Catholic Church.'
Louise Day Hicks notwithstanding, the Kiernan report was transformed into an omnibus bill and voted into law in August, making Massachusetts the only state in the Union to have legislation on its books against racial imbalance.
Mrs. Hicks also came out second-best in her battle against a determined and resourceful group of Negro mothers in Roxbury, who in the lace of her refusal to bus their children out of three crowded schools in their district decided to find a way to transport their children themselves to other schools which had open desks. With few resources or private cars, the mothers somehow scraped together enough money to hire buses and to take 290 children out of the Roxbury area on the opening day of school. Thus Operation Exodus came into being and won immediate public sympathy at Mrs. Hicks’s expense. This enterprising grass-roots group now transports 490 Negro children to fourteen white schools, proving that one-way busing can work and work harmoniously. That Operation Exodus must be supported by widespread private contributions instead of by city funds is to many people a continuing public shame for which Mrs. Hicks is largely responsible.
Despite these two noisy hassles, when the votes were counted last November 2, Louise Day Hicks appeared to be nothing short of invincible.
Since then there has been persistent talk that she is planning to run for mayor in 1967. When asked to comment on this possibility, Mrs. Hicks smiled and said, “Well, if that Mrs. Gandhi can be a prime minister, I don’t see why a woman can’t be a mayor.” She is certainly considering the mayoralty. she admits, and she thinks she’d have a pretty good chance of being elected. What about the men? Would they vote for her? “I’m very big with the longshoremen,”she says with a laugh.
Power, if not greatness, has been thrust upon this shrewd, tough-minded, stubborn, and often likable woman. It is a strange irony that if, at the watershed period of her career, she had come to terms with the NAACP and then gone to re-election as a reform candidate of the Citizens for Boston Schools, Louise Day Hicks would probably not have had the power she now holds.
But though the might-have-been is tantalizing and illuminating, the end reality is that Mrs. Hicks stands today as a bulwark against the Negro equality toward which she was prepared, as she said in her 1964 statement, to dedicate her sincere effort.
She’s for neighborhood schools, but neighborhood schools as they exist today can only mean a continuation of predominately Negro schools unless new schools which cut across district lines are built. She is against the state’s racial-imbalance law, “a hasty, ill-conceived law,” she calls it, and has recently introduced legislation (so far without success) to have it repealed. Meanwhile, as a result of the school committee’s failure to comply with the law by proposing a workable plan to reduce imbalance, four million dollars of state funds are currently being withheld from Boston’s school system. To save these funds Mrs. Hicks has said she may have to agree to busing Negroes to the suburbs, but that she will do it only to get around the state law. Against it or around it, but in no case, it seems, will she work for the law or for the spirit which led to its adoption. In her failure to act for racial equality she is far from alone, however. She has the majority of Boston’s electorate behind her. Whether her many supporters will stay with her if she tries for City Hall is another question. Many astute local politicians maintain that Bostonians would not carry backlash to that extreme, that Louise Day Hicks has gone about as far as she can go. Mrs. Hicks does not necessarily agree.