Throwback Thursday: How Racist Was Boston in 1982?

An interview with Tom Atkins, then chief counsel of the NAACP, as racial tensions boiled over in Boston.

Two men brawl before a KKK rally in City Hall Plaza. (Photo via AP)

Two men brawl before a KKK rally in City Hall Plaza, October 1982. (Photo via AP)

On March 13, 1982, William Atkinson and William Grady were walking down Savin Hill Avenue when a brown car with five men inside pulled up alongside them. “Hey nigger, we’re going to kill you,” one voice said to Atkinson. When Grady, a white man, said that Atkinson was his friend, the voice responded, “We’ll kill you too.”

Atkinson and Grady darted to the nearby MBTA station while the men in the brown car followed in pursuit, screaming slurs and threats, according to court documents. They ran down the steps to the platform, showered by broken glass hurled from above. Two men descended the stairs and knocked Grady unconscious as he tried to flee. Atkinson, left with no other means of escape, leapt off the platform and ran down the southbound tracks, where he was struck and killed by a Red Line train.

Tom Atkins, a Harvard-educated attorney and the second-ever black city councilor in Boston’s history, was one of people who pushed hardest for the NAACP to hold its national convention in Boston that same year, even as the busing crisis sent the city’s long-running aquifer of hate skyrocketing to the surface. As the NAACP’s chief counsel, Atkins was at the center of the city’s school desegregation suit, and called both an Uncle Tom by those who felt he was too conservative and a black militant by those who figured him too radical. Atkins died in Brooklyn in 2008.

In 1982, Boston senior staff writer Greg O’Brien sat down with Atkins—described as “a gentle man by nature, with a wide grin and a high forehead,” the “de-facto ‘attorney general for black people'”—in this home, a Roxbury three-decker, for an interview that paints a vivid picture of racism in Boston during the Reagan years.

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BOSTON: Mayor Kevin White on more than one occasion has called Boston a “racist” city. Is it?

ATKINS: Yes. Boston is a city in which there is a great deal of racism. Not everyone here is a racist. There are certain dangers in stereotyping a whole city because of the misdeeds of some of its people, but there is a greater danger in not understanding the impact a few can have on the lives of many.

BOSTON: Can you explain that?

ATKINS: Well, for instance, when people in South Boston, whom I know to be decent people, people who believe in elementary human rights—when these people are silent at a time when loudmouths are talking race and leading marches against black children attending schools in South Boston, then the rest of the city and the rest of the state gets the view that all of South Boston is against black children. And when people in Hyde Park, who I know to be thoroughly good, sit by silently while a handful of thugs leads a charge against black children coming into that community, the rest of the world thinks that all of Hyde Park is racist.

BOSTON: What do you want these “decent” people to do?

ATKINS: I say that if the good folks in South Boston do not want to be typecast with the things, let them separate themselves. I say that if the good people in Hyde Park don’t want to be painted with the same brush as the crazies, let them put a lid of their nuts, like the black community has to do. We in the black community have had our hands full over the years containing our crazies, but for the most part, we’ve been successful. We expect no less from the whites.

BOSTON: While you may have been successful in containing the “crazies” in recent years, it is said that Roxbury is on the verge of another explosion. Is that true?

ATKINS: Roxbury has been on the verge of an explosion for the past 21 years. You can’t take a community like this, subject it on a daily basis to humiliations and pressure, deny it the means with which to see itself, deny it the rights that others have, and expect it to be happy, stable, normal, and contented. This community is constantly near or at the boiling point, and it doesn’t take much to set it off.

BOSTON: Did the death of William Atkinson come close?

ATKINS: It most certainly did. Here you had a situation where a black man was chased by a bunch of white punks into a public-transit station, beaten with sticks or rocks, and then chased on the tracks. Now whether he was hit by a train or whether it was a rock that did the fatal damage, they killed him. Were it not for the fact that he was black, William Atkinson would be alive today. They killed him! And to see the prosecutor file only assault charges [manslaughter indictments were later handed down] tells Roxbury that the life of a black man ain’t worth much.

It’s an incident like this that has the capacity to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Had it been a hot summer, Atkinson’s death just might have done it. And the fact that it didn’t is a testament to the ability of this community to withstand repeated traumatic blows, but only a fool would think that this community is unwilling to fight for itself. And only a fool would not think it is capable of an explosion.

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BOSTON: There are racists everywhere; what other factors frustrate the black community?

ATKINS: City government. This community is very much aware that city government has failed it. This administration has not adequately involved blacks in across-the-board positions of authority in city government. Blacks who have held high positions tend to be assigned to the role of dealing with blacks, either as staff people or as a community. IT is important for us to have black penal commissioners, black assessors, blacks who occupy key positions in police and fire departments.

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BOSTON: Have conditions improved for blacks in Boston in the last 10 years?

ATKINS: I think it is important to recognize that progress has been made. There are, for instance, more black administrators in the police department. There are more black and Hispanic administrators in the school department. There are more blacks and Hispanics in the fire department. More blacks have gone from conditions of poverty to opportunities where they could make a decent living. Failure to recognize this makes us guilty of underestimating the impact of what we have done, what we have accomplished, and overexagerating the problems that are yet to be encountered.

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BOSTON: What do you think of [President Ronald] Reagan?

ATKINS: He’s anti poor and antiblack.

BOSTON: Do you expect him to seek reelection in 1984?

ATKINS: Who knows? Who knows what’s in the head of Ronald Reagan?

BOSTON: How would you assess his policies?

ATKINS: We’ve always taken the position that it doesn’t matter what his intent is if his impact is clear. If a truck runs you over and kills you, it may be of academic interest whether the driver meant to run you down. The fact is you are dead, and dead is dead. We, in the black community, are trying to prevent death.