Louise Day Hicks, an icon of Boston’s racial politics during the bruising busing battles of the 1960s, died Tuesday after a period of poor health. She was 87.
Hicks dominated Boston politics for two decades as a member of the school board, the City Council and Congress. She gained national prominence as one of the earliest Northern critics of school busing, a stand that led James Farmer of the Congress for Racial Equality to call her “the Bull Connor of Boston"-- an unflattering comparison to the Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner who attacked civil rights workers with fire hoses and dogs.
Yet the tall, matronly Hicks avoided the overtly racist rhetoric of other staunch anti-integrationists, preferring more mannerly slogans that framed her opposition to busing as support for neighborhood schools.
“No one in their right mind is against civil rights, against integration. Only, let it come naturally,” not by force, she once told Look magazine.
She often cited her father, William J. Day, as the most influential person in her life. A popular Boston district court judge, Day heaped attention on his daughter after her mother, Anna, died when she was 14. “He thought anything I said was the answer to the atomic bomb,” Hicks told the interviewer from Look in 1967.
She briefly taught elementary school after graduating from Wheelock College in Boston in 1938, retiring when she married John Hicks, a design engineer, in 1942. She went back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from Boston University in 1952 and a law degree in 1955.
“My best friends at law school were a Negro girl and a Jewish girl,” she once recalled. “One time the three of us said a novena together. They were both praying to find a husband, and I was praying to pass the bar exam. All three of us got what we wanted.”
Hicks practiced law with her brother John until 1961, when she won a seat on the Boston school board. She avoided controversy until 1963, when the local NAACP demanded acknowledgment of de facto segregation in Boston schools. Hicks tried to stymie debate, causing blacks to boycott classrooms for a day and demonstrate outside the board’s offices.
Their protests only bolstered Hicks’ popularity. That year, she won reelection with an impressive 74% of the vote.
Within a few years, her face appeared on the cover of Newsweek, and national pundits took notice.
“Outwardly, she suggests a middle-aged Pollyanna, sweetly plump and sweetly smiling, genteelly befurred and genteelly crowned with a hat like a brown velvet pudding,” political columnist Joseph Alsop wrote in 1965. “In hard reality, however, she much more resembles the late Joseph R. McCarthy dressed up as Pollyanna.”
In 1967, Hicks became the first woman to run for Boston mayor. She emerged from the primary to face Kevin H. White, the liberal Massachusetts secretary of state and civil rights advocate. The New York Times and the Washington Post editorialized against her candidacy, with the Post declaring that her victory “would give Boston a bigot as its chief executive.” She lost by 10,000 votes after campaigning on the slogan, “You Know Where I Stand.”
Her defeat did not stem her ambition. In 1969, she trounced a field of 18 candidates to win election to the Boston City Council. In 1970, she won the seat in Congress that had been held by longtime House Speaker John W. McCormack, who was retiring. She spent the next two years on legislation dealing with such issues as voluntary prayer in schools, tax credits for private school attendance and delaying court-ordered busing.
Although she sided largely with conservatives, she also supported the Mansfield Amendment, which called for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. She belonged to the National Organization for Women and fought for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
She lost her House seat in 1972 after reapportionment weakened her base and she returned to Boston, where she was reelected to the City Council. She ultimately would serve five terms on the council and in 1976 became its first female president. She relished running for office, once telling a reporter that her constant campaigning was like “being a bride.”
She lost her seat in 1977, when she came in 10th in a race for the nine-member council. She was so stunned by her defeat that she went into seclusion for days.
Analysts said her loss signaled a major shift in Boston politics. The same election brought the victory of John O’Bryant, the first black in 100 years to win a seat on the city’s school board. A court order to desegregate Boston schools had been in place since 1974.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), then a liberal state legislator from the Beacon Hill area, said at the time that Hicks’ supporters had “always believed Louise when she said, if you just hold your breath and kick your feet, busing will go away.... Busing wouldn’t go away, and people got tired of listening.”
She was appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council in 1979 but failed to retain the seat at election time. She never ran for another office, and spent her last decades out of public view at her childhood home in South Boston.
Widowed in 1968, she is survived by a son, William.