In the shadows of a racist past, Boston braces for a far-right rally

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Barricades on the Boston Common, where a rally in solidarity with the victims of Charlottesville, Va., will be held on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2017. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

BOSTON — The Parkman Bandstand sits in a quiet corner of Boston Common, well away from the park’s iconic swan boats and the frog pond where little kids by the dozen are known to splash in the fountains during the warm summer months. It is an advertised stop along the city’s storied Freedom Trail, a walking tour of the spots that gave birth to American democracy and helped shape the country’s identity as the land of the free and home of the brave.

But those ideals — particularly the right to freedom of speech — could be put to the test this weekend, as Boston braces for a controversial rally hosted by far-right groups that many here worry could turn violent.

The rally, billed as the “Boston Free Speech Rally,” is scheduled for Saturday, just one week after a protest at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly. One woman was killed and dozens were injured after a white supremacist allegedly plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters that was clashing with white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching against the removal of a Confederate memorial.

Organizers of Boston’s march, planned since July, have insisted that their group has no links to hate groups involved in the Virginia melee, but at least two of the announced speakers have extremist ties. The rally has prompted at least two counterprotest marches, including from the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, which also plans to converge on the Boston Common — prompting warnings from city officials and law enforcement they will not tolerate violence from either side.

On Friday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh strongly urged hate groups to stay away and called for the city to embrace unity — invoking the history of other speakers who have taken to the steps at the bandstand to promote inclusiveness and equality.

“From that stage in 1965, Martin Luther King spoke the words that still ring true today, that it’s not a battle of white people versus black people, but a struggle of the forces of justice and injustice. From that stage about 10 years ago, Barack Obama was running for president of the United States of America, and we began to imagine the idea of our country with its first black president,” Walsh said. “Those are the words we will remember.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses civil rights marchers on historic Boston Common April 23, 1965 after a demonstration to protest segregation in schools, jobs and housing. (Photo: AP)

Echoing King, he added, “We don’t respond to hate with hate. We respond to hate with peace.”

But Boston’s pushback against hate groups comes as the city has grappled with its own reputation of racism that it has long struggled to shake. Though it is considered one of the country’s most politically progressive cities — one that twice voted for a black president, Obama, and a black governor, Deval Patrick, whose two terms in the Massachusetts state house ended in 2015 — Boston’s racial issues continue. That includes a high-profile episode in May when Boston Red Sox fans used racial slurs to heckle Adam Jones, an all-star center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles during a game at Fenway Park.

Black players have repeatedly complained about racial epithets being hurled their way by Red Sox fans at the iconic ballpark. But the abuse made headlines when Jones, who is black, said Boston fans repeatedly insulted him with racial slurs and threw a bag of peanuts at him. Jones described it as one of the worst experiences of his 12-year career. Boston leaders condemned the incident and Red Sox management threatened lifetime bans for any fans caught using racial epithets at the park. Jones later received a standing ovation from Red Sox fans at another game and apologies from Walsh and others who said the behavior was not reflective of their city.

But the incident revived an age-old question for residents here who have long viewed their increasingly diverse city, which has gone from roughly 82 percent white in 1970 to 54 percent white today, as cosmopolitan and enlightened because of the large number of universities and research institutions here. “Is Boston racist?” a Boston Globe headline asked earlier this summer.

In July, the paper in coordination with Suffolk University posed the question to 500 Boston residents. The poll found the city nearly split: 45 percent said Boston is not a “racist city,” while 42 percent said it is, results that were within the survey’s 4.4 percent margin of error. Thirteen percent were undecided. Broken down by demographics, the results were predictable: Blacks and Latinos said Boston is a racist city; whites overwhelmingly said it isn’t.

But Boston’s ugly racial history dates back to the time when the Irish and other immigrants were discriminated against and even quarantined during the early 19th century by the wealthy Brahmin elite. While monuments around Boston celebrate the city’s heritage of being anti-slavery and encouraging freedom for blacks, the city struggled longer than most when it comes to relations between blacks and whites.

“The Soiling of Old Glory” A white teenager, Joseph Rakes, is about to assault black lawyer and civil rights activist Ted Landsmark with a flagpole bearing the American flag. The photograph was taken in Boston on April 5, 1976, during a protest against court-ordered desegregation busing. The photo won the1977 Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography. (Photo: Stanley Forman/stanleyformanphotos.com)

The Red Sox was famously the last major team to racially integrate — waiting until 1959 to add a black player to its ranks. But perhaps the most enduring symbol of strife dates to the 1970s, when white residents violently resisted a federal order to desegregate local schools by busing in black students. They hurled rocks at buses while some attacked city officials, including some who were black. The tensions continued well into the 1980s, when the New York Times published a 1983 article about racism in Boston. The story was a stain against a city that by then was regarded as liberal and educated, home of some of the nation’s top universities.

But even now racial tensions endure. The city remains largely segregated — with many minority residents living outside of central Boston. Though mayors before him have tried and failed to bridge the city’s divide, trying to solve Boston’s race issues has been one of Walsh’s priorities at City Hall.

Late last year, he convened a series of forums mixing residents of different races from all over the city and encouraging them to talk about racism and how it has affected them or not. These events came after Walsh’s 2013 mayoral campaign, in which he was confronted by a voter who asked him if he thought Boston was a racist city.

Walsh, a Democrat who is the son of Irish immigrants, struggled to answer. He told her he thought Boston was better than it used to be — a response he instantly felt was insufficient. Walsh has since been more outspoken. “We have racism in the city of Boston that we have to deal with,” he said last year. “We talk about one Boston, but we don’t see one Boston in the city of Boston right now.”

Last month, Walsh unveiled a report called “Resilient Boston” aimed at promoting racial equity in Boston, including more investment in black communities, hiring more minorities for city jobs and encouraging more discussions among Boston residents on the thorny issue of race. It’s a plan, he has said, that will likely take years to implement.

Mayor Marty Walsh, right, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker arrive to speak at a press conference to discuss a controversial rally planned for Saturday on Boston Common. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Ahead of Saturday’s rally, Walsh and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker have presented themselves as a united front against racial division. Both were quick to condemn President Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville and the rhetoric he later used in defending white supremacists who sparred with counterprotesters, whom Trump described as equally violent.

Speaking to reporters at City Hall on Friday, Walsh said he would spend Saturday away from Boston Common, touring some of the city’s black neighborhoods in a show of unity. He repeatedly said he wished that he didn’t have to approve a permit for the Boston Free Speech Rally organizers — but acknowledged it was their “right to gather, no matter how repugnant their beliefs are.”

Walsh repeatedly called for peace in the city and bemoaned the attention that hate groups have gotten in recent days. But, he added, “We can’t look away, the children of our city are watching. The young people of our city. … We have to make it clear what we stand for in the city of Boston. We have to stand together.”

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