Last Tuesday 124,000 Boston voters--or 41 per cent of those registered--gave a preliminary answer to a question of great interest to political observers throughout the nation: what is the white reaction to the civil rights revolution and what is the political significance of that reaction?
The overwhelming margin by which three Boston School Committee incumbents--all opposed to the NAACP's demand that the Committee recognize the existence of de facto segregation in Boston's public schools--led in the School Committee primary Tuesday indicates that there is a strong under-current of fear and segregationist sentiment among the white population in the Northern cities, at least in Boston.
Clearly, in the minds of Boston voters the School Committee primary was essentially a question of being for or against the increased integration of Boston schools, regardless of the truths and distortions in the dispute between the School Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Those voters Tuesday clearly endorsed Committee chairman Mrs. Louise Hicks Day and the two Committee members identified most closely with her, Thomas S. Eisenstadt and Joseph Lee, in their refusal to discuss the question of de facto segregation in the school system.
Three Outpoll Mayor
Mrs. Hicks, with 78,203 votes, led in the School Committee race, followed by Eisenstadt and Lee, both with more than 62,000 votes. All three outpolled Mayor John F. Collins (who led in the mayoral race with 57,000 votes), an almost unprecedented occurrence.
Arthur J. Gartland, the one School Committee member who has admitted the existence of de facto segregation in the schools, though he says it exists through no fault of the School Committee, placed fifth in the primary. He ran far behind the three leaders, with 30,135 votes.
Another incumbent, William M. O'Connor, who is allied with Mrs. Hicks, Eisenstadt, and Lee on the segregation issue, was fourth with 42,795 ballots.
King Runs Seventh
Melvin H. King, a Negro social worker who finished seventh in the election two years ago, tallied 25,239 votes to place seventh in the primary. He is strongly supported, unofficially, by the NAACP and was endorsed along with Gartland and two others by the Citizens for Boston Public Schools.
King's performance in Tuesday's election gives some idea of the shift in voter sentiment brought about by the current civil rights controversy.
Two years ago King got more votes in high-income, well-educated West Roxbury than he did in his own Roxbury. But Tuesday, King ran dead last in West Roxbury among the 11 candidates while carrying Roxbury's Negro wards by 5-to-1 margins.
King also slipped considerably in Back Bay's fifth ward, another upper-income community in which he did well two years ago. In Mattapan, with a large Jewish population, King ran behind Eisenstadt, Hicks, and Lee, though, as one NAACP official put it, there had been much "pre-election talk about the sympathetic Jewish vote for the Negroes."
King's chances for winning one of the five school Committee seats in the Nov. 5 election depend mainly on whether the NAACP can register an estimated 15,000 unregistered Negroes in Boston. At present, there are only 13,000 registered Negroes in the city.
Only one candidate, Alexander Socrates, was eliminated in the primary Tuesday.
Whether a political message of national significance can be drawn from the Boston School Committee primary is a difficult question. Boston is not the only city in which de facto segregation is an explosive social and political question: the same situation exists in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities.
The Boston primary clearly accomplished one thing: it probed voter sentiment in an area--segregation--which is rarely probed in the North. The results of that probe cannot be interpreted otherwise than that Northern whites are, at least for the moment, opposed to the changing of a traditional pattern of de facto racial segregation.
Several weeks ago President Kennedy said that he knew his forthright stand on civil rights had hurt him politicaly. Now that voters in his own back yard have indicated their differences with him, the question seems to be: how much