Sunday, June 29, 2008

Civil rights trailblazer Atkins dies at 69

The Boston Globe
June 29, 2008
By Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, Globe Staff

Thomas I. Atkins, a hard-driving champion of racial justice who rose from rural Indiana to become Boston's first black at-large city councilor and faced off against opponents of busing in the 1970s as an NAACP leader, has died at 69.
The Harvard Law School graduate knew that access to education had enabled his rise and fought to secure opportunities for others, first in Boston and later in desegregation cases across the country.
"He was clearly the most brilliant and insightful civil rights lawyer, both in and beyond Boston, to take on the challenges of school desegregation," said Ted Landsmark, who worked with Mr. Atkins in the late 1970s as a lawyer at Mr. Atkins's Boston law firm, Atkins and Brown. "He was a great humanist."
Mr. Atkins died Friday night at a nursing home in Brooklyn, N.Y., after struggling for nearly two decades with the degenerative muscular disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
He was a humanist, but he also had a steely resolve. As a central figure in the city during a turbulent era, he received repeated death threats. He fortified his Roxbury home to protect his family, running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout the seven- bedroom house to connect hoses for fighting fires, said his son Thomas Jr.
"He was pretty instrumental in what became a pretty tumultuous time in Boston," said the son, who lived with his father for the last eight years.
Mr. Atkins amassed an impressive roster of accomplishments: first black candidate to win citywide office in Boston and first to hold a state Cabinet post; executive secretary and president of Boston's NAACP chapter; mayoral candidate; and lead lawyer for the NAACP nationwide.
But yesterday, when his sons were asked about his legacy, each started with Mr. Atkins's leadership role in Boston's busing case and his fight for education equality.
"It was a cause very near and dear to his heart," said Todd Atkins, Mr. Atkins's oldest son, who lives in North Attleborough. "He realized just how important education was and what a dividing line it set between those who have and those who have not."
Mr. Atkins never shied from controversy. He called Malcolm X's death "as much of a loss to America as that of President Kennedy," and he criticized Cardinal Richard J. Cushing for not doing more "to dispel racial prejudices on the part of church members." He led a sit-in at the office of School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks.
Yet Mr. Atkins had a pragmatic side. Elected to the City Council in 1967, while a Harvard Law student, he emphasized such bread-and-butter issues as trash pickup and constituent services.
"Power is colorless," he liked to say. "It's like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it."
Mayor Thomas M. Menino called Mr. Atkins a political trailblazer who motivated activists but also drew votes from diverse constituencies and worked to help all residents.
"He was just what an elected official should be," Menino said. "Tommy Atkins was about helping people. He didn't care if they were black, white, yellow, or brown."
Not everyone agreed. In his memoir, "While the Music Lasts," former Senate president William M. Bulger described Mr. Atkins as "bright, but flawed by a veiled desire not merely to advantage blacks but, in the process, to revenge them on whites."
To allies, though, he was an unparalleled strategist. "I don't think there was anybody around who was as astute as he was," said Mel King, activist, educator, and former mayoral candidate. "There is no place - and I say this with all due respect to the Creator - there's no place where Tom Atkins wasn't influential, and I'm sure where he is now, they're going to know it."
Mr. Atkins could be a mediator and a negotiator. After urban renewal projects razed neighborhoods in the West End and Roxbury and displaced residents, protesters clustered in a tent city near Dartmouth Street and Columbus Avenue to decry a similar proposal in the South End. Mr. Atkins used his clout as a city councilor to halt the proposal, calm the gathering, and give residents a say in determining the fate of neighborhoods, said Kay Gibbs, who worked as an aide to Mr. Atkins on the City Council.
"He was an extremely brilliant man, but he was also a pioneer in Boston city politics," Gibbs said of Mr. Atkins's at-large win. "He opened the door really to the notion that people of color could in fact be representatives of the whole city and not just of their own community." [To see the entire obituary, go to: ]

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