Forever Boston

Apr 19, 2013

After the mourning comes the reckoning. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on why Boston will not only survive, but thrive.

The year was 1976 and Boston, the nation’s birthplace, was celebrating the American bicentennial with paeans to liberty, equality and justice. But the city that spawned the abolition and women's rights movements was riven by racial division.

The image of Boston that flashed around the world that year was a photograph of a black man being assaulted by an angry white man using as a spear a staff with an American flag on it.

The scene of a young black man  beaten and bloodied, his nose badly broken, came to define a predominately white city’s raw and violent response to court-ordered busing to desegregate schools.

Then-Mayor Kevin White would say later that the city was having a "nervous breakdown.’’

Boston got through the busing crisis. In the years since, this cradle of American liberty has evolved into a city of ethnic and racial tolerance and become one of the world’s foremost centers of technological, medical and economic innovation. A city shaped by its immigrant past today draws the young and ambitious from around the world.

Now this most beautiful, historic and learned of  American cities is recovering from a stiletto to its heart – the carnage and senseless death spewed from two bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, an annual  spring rite, world-class athletic event and glorious civic celebration wrapped in one joyous holiday.

Boston’s story is familiar to school children. It  was founded by religious dissenters seeking refuge from an English monarchy that refused to allow the ideals of the Protestant Reformation to grow.

From the beginning, these Puritans cared deeply about government and the commonweal. Governor John Winthrop said famously that the common good would trump individual or private interests. It would be a culture that would neither "exalt the rich nor degrade the poor.’’

Boston has never been a place with a frontier sense of individualism.

By the early 19th Century, the city evolved into a center of learning and political and social activism. The movement to abolish slavery began among the Unitarian and Congregational ministers. Women’s rights, liberal Protestantism, the Irish-American political tradition, civil disobedience, environmental conservation and the philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism all sprouted from Boston roots.

Once a city limned by ethnic political and social rivalries among native Protestant Yankees and Irish and Italian immigrant Roman Catholics, Boston has evolved into a tolerant multi-cultural place. Yet, it is both wordly and parochial; the dons of Harvard and the foreign students at BU have little to do with the lives of the cops and firefighters who answered last week's tragic calls.

Along the way Boston grew to love its civic celebrations, ethnic festivals and sports teams. Thousands flock to the streets for its big New Year’s Eve First Night celebrations, the annual Boston Symphony Orchestra July 4th concert on the Esplanade, the florid St. Patrick’s Day parades through Southie, the duck boat rallies for the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox when they win championships. And of course, the marathon, that lovely celebration of amateur striving and world-class athlete.

We are shaken by the randomness of this terror. There isn’t any way that the free society we honor on Patriots Day can police an event such as the marathon in a manner that preserves its traditions and ensures no criminal acts. This applies to such other iconic New England events as the Bristol 4th parade, the Newport Jazz Festival and Bay Day at our beaches.

New England’s most storied city will move on. As Dennis Lehane, a son of  the city that has inspired his writing, put it, whoever set those bombs "messed with the wrong city.’’

What others see as insular New England smugness, we know as the attitude that has made this city flourish through wars and depressions, the immigration of people from around the globe and massive changes in the economy.

"Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things – blizzards, the bleachers at Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking place,’’ says Lehane. "What a Bostonian means when he says they messed with the wrong city is, 'You don’t think this changes anything, do you?'’’

This was the sentiment expressed by President Obama at Thursday’s interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. "When the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots, the Bruins are champions again – to the chagrin of New York and Chicago fans – the crowds will gather and watch a parade go down Boylston Street. And this time next year, on third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever and cheer even louder for the 118th Boson Marathon.’’

Scott MacKay`s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our 'On Politics' blog at