IN THE FIFTIES, before the fight for black power made his ideas irrelevant, James Baldwin foresaw an imminent crisis for Negro politicians in the United States.
During the Truman and early Eisenhower years, his countrymen had been preoccupied with communists, whom they battled abroad and burned at home. The question of race was a quiet one. But beginning in December, 1955, with the Montgomery bus boycott, black frustrations burgeoned; certainly the Sixties would see an explosive showdown.
Baldwin was desperately optimistic. He could imagine only two possible outcomes to the apocalypse--a fragile birth of brotherhood, or disaster, the Fire. Surely, white men and black men would feel compelled to choose the first alternative.
Brotherhood would spawn the crisis for the Negro politician. As the races slowly mixed, the politicians' positions would disintegrate. There would be less need for black leaders as such; the roles would largely disappear, or at least, evolve. Could the Negro politician adapt to the change, and expand his base of power?
Of course the change hasn't occurred. The hope of reaching racial harmony soon is probably less than it was ten years ago. Baldwin, the integrationist, has passed out of fashion, though he makes a belated attempt in his latest novel to catch the times.
Additionally, his ideas on black politics were apparently wrong. Some black politicians, at least, have been able to expand their power bases not only in spite of the isolation of their race, but also because of it. As the "black community" has solidified, its leaders can take its unprecedented voting strength more and more for granted.
Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts saw his opportunities. In 1964, when the Republicans nominated him for the Senate, the response was electric. Blacks and white liberals flocked to help him. No matter that his opponent, Endicott Peabody, had been an exceptionally liberal governor, and was the more progressive candidate. Brooke lay back, played the statesman, and won the conservative votes with the liberal support to boot.
Brooke's campaign was very instructive. Thomas Atkins, a black Boston City Councillor from Roxbury and Harvard Law School, must have been watching. He's apparently learned the technique very well, though he was slower than Brooke to apply it.
ATKINS did not stage a Brooke-like campaign. As a student in the Law School, and a former militant executive of the Boston NAACP, Atkins ran for the Council last year as a progressive spokesman for Roxbury. In a mild upset, he came in seventh among eighteen for one of the nine city-wide seats.
Atkins has proved to be one of the most intelligent and dynamic Councillors. His stature as leader reached a high point one evening last April in hot, smoky Boston Garden. It was the day Martin Luther King died. Atkins, Mayor Kevin White, and James Brown stood on the stage and looked up at the tiers of young people, mostly black, and asked them to control their anger. The plea and the James Brown concert were televised, and Roxbury didn't explode that time.
Since then, Atkins and White have radically parted ways. The Council has relatively little prestige and influence compared to the Mayor, and in the past year it has tried to improve its position by vigorously challenging White's liberal programs, which require Council approval.
The Model Cities Program has occupied stage center for the last few months. The Model Cities area in Boston encompasses about 62,000 residents, mostly black, in the Roxbury, North Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain sections of Boston. White submitted an $18 million plan to the Council, including provisions for community control of schools within the area and replacement of police by neighborhood "security patrols."
The Council Committee on Urban Renewal, which Atkins chairs, had jurisdiction over the program, and Atkins objected strenuously to its controversial sections.
He rapped White for not consulting more extensively with Boston's conservative patrolmen's association in drafting the community-police provision He himself consulted with the group, and then revised the program to eliminate any official participation by the security patrols, which presently operate on an informal basis. The police have been given total law enforcement power in the area.
Astonishingly enough, several days ago and little more than a week after his action, Atkins addressed the Massachusetts Conference of Social Welfare, saying, "Communities must set up their own self-policing organizations" because "the policeman has become the major irritant and the major catalyst for riots."
Atkins also objected to White's ideas on a community role in education. With his approval, the Boston School Committee and the teacher's union examined the education clauses, and objected to the aggressive wording of the crucial passage, which established a committee to study possible "decentralization" of area schools. Atkins changed the sentence to read "parent involvement."
SEVERAL rationales exist for Atkins' actions. He has won a "consensus" on the Model Cites program, which is a very democratic accomplishment. The implementation of the program will be easier. The Council has demonstrated its power. Perhaps, the program wouldn't have passed the Council even if Atkins had supported it, but that's impossible to say because Atkins was its most energetic opponent.
Doubtlessly Atkins has grown stronger politically. Little criticism of his actions has come from other blacks, yet Atkins played the leading role in curbing liberal Mayor White, an endearing fact to lower-class white Bostonians. Reactionary City Council President William Foley of South Boston praised Atkins' work on Model Cities as the best of any renewal committee chairman that he could remember.
Atkins has reason to be mindful of his political strength, of course. His seventh place finish last year left him only two slots above the cut-off point. He has to run again in 1969, without the aid of a huge liberal turn-out for White, in a more racist atmosphere than existed in '67. And he will probably face all the incumbents plus a drove of challengers including Louise Day Hicks, White's unsuccessful mayoral opponent.
Atkins is still one of the most progressive members of the City Council. He does suport a greater Boston community role in government, though with his peculiar requirements for consensus. But he is no "spokesman" for black aspirations, which, as Baldwin reasoned and Brooke proves, is probably very healthy for his career.