Thomas I. Atkins, Boston City Councilor

[caption id="attachment2570" align="alignleft" width="300"]<a href="">Thomas Atkins giving speech Thomas Atkins gives a speech in 1969. Watch the full story.[/caption]

Boston City Councilor Thomas I. Atkins strove throughout his life to break down barriers and become a political leader, despite being faced with mid-century American racism. Reading through his biography, one can’t help but notice the repetition of the phrase “First African American to...” He was the first African American student body president at his high school and again at Indiana University (which also made him the first African American student body president in the Big 10). After coming to Boston to study at Harvard, he became the first African American elected to Boston City Council, and later in his career, he was the first African American to serve as a Massachusetts Cabinet Secretary.

Atkins’s accomplishments go beyond setting new precedents for African American leaders. He did important work on the Boston City Council, on the Boston and National NAACP boards, and on the Morgan v. Hennigan case. The day after MLK’s assassination, Atkins is credited with persuading Mayor Kevin White to famously not cancel the James Brown concert, which was instead broadcast live on WGBH-TV. Atkins even ran for mayor of Boston in 1971, although he came in 4th place overall.

Elected to the City Council in 1967, Atkins was in office during the rise of the school desegregation crisis. He went on to serve as the associate trial counsel for the plaintiffs in the Morgan v. Hennigan case, fighting against the de facto segregation in Boston, especially its public schools. This case was assigned to Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, and resulted in the court-ordered busing plan, which was so controversial in Boston through the 1970s.

Mentions of Thomas Atkins’s work and contributions are sprinkled throughout the Boston TV News collections. Most of the news stories involving him directly haven’t been digitized yet. One extremely interesting piece that is already available is this WHDH excerpt from a speech he gave at the Northeastern States Youth Citizenship Conference in 1969. He talks about the social role of the church, which he thinks can be powerful, although it hasn’t been doing enough lately. He says this is the context of the recently published Black Manifesto, which opens

“We the black people… are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor. For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world. We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world.”

It goes on to demand white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million reparations to the African American community for their mistreatment in the last century. In his speech, Atkins mentions specifically the interruption of a service at the Riverside Church in Harlem. He says that it was James Farmer, although I believe he misspoke and meant James Forman, who is the author of the Black Manifesto, and who did interrupt a Riverside Church service to read the Manifesto and demand reparations. The full-text of the Black Manifesto can be found in the Archives of the Episcopal Church.

This is one of many news stories about Thomas Atkins. If you’re looking for more coverage of his life and career, read through our full catalog and choose a story that you’d like to sponsor for digitization.