People’s History, Episode 3: “Rent Strike”
People’s History Podcast an audio series about struggles in the United States, produced in collaboration with Jacobin and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Each six-episode season covers one local story, told from the viewpoint of working-class people.
Our first season, The Point, traces a social history of Boston from the urban rebellions of the 1960s, through busing in the 70s, into the Clinton era. People’s History Podcast was created with listening in mind, so we encourage everyone who is able to listen to the audio either below or via Jacobin Radio. A transcript of this episode is available below.
Theme music: “Bella Ciao” by Marisa Anderson
Tenant 1: See what types of resources we have in Columbia Point. None! We have none, and that’s what we’re asking for.
Tenant 2: 5,000 people. With nothing to take care of them, y’know. Nothing.
From Jacobin Magazine, this is People’s History.
Tenant 3: People from the inside experienced Love, Tenacity, Willpower.
You’re listening to our first six-episode season, called The Point: Rebellion and Resistance in Boston Public Housing.
Tenant 5: The Point was not valued like it is today, in terms of being a piece of property.
Tenant 6: They’re like we want this property, we want people gone.
Tenant 7: Splitting families, c’mon now! That’s wrong!
Tenant 8: This is real intimidation. This is honest to goodness… this is life or death, here.
Tenant 9: The police invaded Columbia Point, so the men picked up their arms.
I’m Alejandro Ramirez, this time reporting with my co-producers Conor Gillies and Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez. This is Episode Three: Rent Strike.
[sound of fire and sirens]
Detroit resident 1, 1967: Now let’s get with it. This is going to happen all over America. It’s going to be a hot world, not a hot summer. It’s a hot world! But brother, America better wake up to this. ’Cause if they don’t, we’re going to burn down America. Or they’re going to kill 22 million negroes.
Alejandro: By 1967, the US Government was working hard to contain unrest across Northern cities.
Lyndon Johnson, after the Detroit rebellion: We will not tolerate lawlessness. We will not endure violence. This nation will do whatever it is necessary to do, to suppress and to punish those who engage in it.
In Boston it was a turbulent year, marked by an uprising at the Grove Hall welfare office. It was also an election season.
Kevin White: All of us here tonight to pay tribute to one of the greatest Americans, Doctor Martin Luther King. [applause]
Conor: Kevin White — an Irish-Catholic Democrat from Jamaica Plain — became mayor of the city, partly by positioning himself as an ally of Civil Rights. The night after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the newly-elected Mayor White urged non-violence to a TV audience, watching a James Brown concert.
Kevin White: 24 hours ago, Doctor King died. For all of us, black and white. [mixed reaction] We in Boston will honor Doctor King in peace… [applause…]
But Kevin White was talking one game and playing another. The night before in Franklin Park, black people had gathered, and police charged violently into the crowd. Donna Haskins, a Columbia Point resident, remembers the scene.
Donna: We was in Franklin Park. There used to be this gazebo. And we were all standing there. It was me, my, mom, my dad, and my sister. And all of a sudden I saw a man run on the stage, and he said “Martin Luther King has just — has just got shot.” And everybody started screaming and hollering.
Dorothy: Oh, it was terrible.
Donna: Panic just came over my mom and my dad, and they were saying that the police are coming down that road with horses. So we ran to the car, and I look back [crying]. I see them riding the horses, and my mom and dad put me and my sister into the car and they said, “Whatever you do, don’t look out the window.” And me, as curious as always, I get up and look out the window. I see dogs eating people. I see people getting water hosed. People screaming. I had nightmares for days. For days I had nightmares.
Archive voice: They’re fighting about King’s death!
Chuck Turner remembers.
Chuck Turner: There were skirmishes with the police and businesses were attacked. And there was just a sense of disillusionment and anger.
The popular myth was that Kevin White and James Brown subdued the black masses with their music. But the truth was more complicated. On Friday, thousands demonstrated on the Boston Common and thousands more marched in Roxbury. Along Blue Hill Avenue, an uprising raged until Saturday morning. The night of the concert, tenants from the Bromley Heath housing project went into the streets with clubs and chains. Around another housing project, Orchard Park, another housing project, people looted furniture stores. They stoned police cars and other symbols of the establishment. 400 young protesters charged a high school near the Grove Hall area in Roxbury. They burned an American flag and trashed a picture of John F. Kennedy.
Turner: People were out on the streets, there were things being burned down and a reaction — just, you know, an emotional reaction to his death and the sense of oppression and outrage just at the man who had struggled so much in a way that was peaceful and not violent. There was a lot of that anger expressed itself, through people going into the streets.
Chuck Turner met with Stokely Carmichael, now known as Kwame Ture. They decided, in that moment, to start the Black United Front — an umbrella group of black organizations unified around common causes.
Turner: April 3rd the Front forms. April 4th King is assassinated. On the 5th the front meets.
They began issuing demands, which Kevin White flatly rejected.
They went from. White owned businesses need to be closed. highway needs to be stopped, to the radio station… that was a practical nuts-and-bolts struggle. There was a big rally up at White Stadium, a real strong sense of solidarity.
Alejandro: Anger was growing all over the city, especially around issues of housing. More and more tenants were organizing: challenging urban renewal, highway construction, rising rents, and deteriorating neighborhood conditions. In the South End — which stood on the front lines of urban renewal — people used increasingly militant tactics.
Bill Cunningham: Firebombings on both sides — bombing back and forth. One of a landlord’s house, one of a tenant’s house. There was a couple of more than suspicious firebombings of tenant leaders in the South End.
In the same area, a 6,000-strong Puerto Rican community started an Emergency Tenants Council, to stop displacement and gain control over several blocks of land.
Archive chanting: BRA, go away! BRA, go away! BRA, go away! No nos moveramos! No nos moveramos!
Conor: The newly formed South End Tenants Council organized squats, occupying vacant brownstones that landlords were trying to flip. The council also pushed for rent strikes.
National Tenants Organization archive sound (1969): Tenants should bring a check to association headquarters in amount of their monthly rent. The association will keep the checks from the landlords until the apartments meet the regulations set down by the city of Boston housing codes. The association also plans to seek reparations from landlords for those services not provided.
The Black United Front led a surprise takeover and occupation of a site where homes had recently been bulldozed. Hundreds of supporters joined the occupiers for rallies, music, and donated food. The days-long occupation, which included impromptu soup kitchens and temporary housing, was known as Tent City. It was to protest the onslaught of commercial and luxury development.
Rollins archive: This project must be stopped, there’s no question about it. The only question is whether we go back onto the street tomorrow and on Sunday and Monday, and whether we have to go to jail again and whether we have to face those police again and do whatever is necessary to stop the project.
They’ll be many many more people involved now, there will be a great deal more pressure coming to bear on the Boston Redevelopment Authority from various political sources to call on Mayor Kevin White to stop that project, to reevaluate what is happening, and to develop it in a way that takes into consideration essentially the needs of people as opposed to the needs of property owners.
Mel King: We took over this lot and a bunch of us got arrested for doing that.
King and Turner eventually staged a sit-in at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They successfully got them to build affordable housing, even if they failed to stop gentrification in the long run.
Alejandro: In Cambridge and Somerville, the mood was the same. Tenants blocked evictions and packed city hall meetings.
Bill Cunningham: What was our strategy? It had nothing to do with rent control, we thought that was lost.
Bill Cunningham was a member of the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee — or “CTOC.” They were both anti-slumlord and anti-war. Their main mission: blocking evictions.
We’re going to do eviction blocking, setting up the telephone tree, that’s going to be our main work. Try to start tenants unions if possible, but mainly we are a militant group that’s going to fight evictions.
One evening, Bill got word about a large, working-class family, The Marchettis, who were being evicted the very next day:
Cunningham: Tomorrow morning the truck’s coming so we have to do something. We went out in teams into the neighborhood and alerted people by word of mouth, door to door: show up tomorrow morning at 8.30.
So I got there about quarter of nine and there were already 100 people picketing. The moving truck comes and it rams right in — the crowd just has to move… But then up comes Ted Parrish’s crew from the south end that had been fighting over there where there were bombings going on and squattings — and then come on and one of them knows one of these guys, so they just go up to them and say “look brother — you take this truck, and you park it over here, and then you lose your keys.”
The eviction blocking works. The cops won’t arrest anybody, the truck doesn’t operate, the eviction doesn’t happen.
Alejandro: Tenants were mobilizing for better housing conditions, and against displacement by urban renewal. Throughout the 60s, tens of thousands of apartments in Chinatown and Roxbury had been lost to highway construction. But now a broad movement was fighting back…
Chuck Turner: There were a group of people. A network of people that came together.
Chuck Turner, from the Black United Front, helped lead that anti-highway movement, too. The Front and their allies occupied a strip of land cleared for a highway known as the Southwest Corridor.
Chuck Turner: You know we use one part of the land to put a trailer that the Black Panther Party used to establish a health center on part of the cleared land. And kind of a wooden house was built on another part saying that if there was no highway then we could use this land for housing, for health care.
According to the Front’s statement, these new buildings would quote “symbolize the commitment of the Black community to use its land for its own development.” The name of the anti-highway movement was inspired by some graffiti in Roxbury…
Chuck: On the wall that went along the train corridor, you know went down Columbus Avenue, it said “people before highways.”
That became the name of the movement: “People Before Highways.” It culminated on January 25, 1968, when nearly 2,000 residents from Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge stormed the Massachusetts State House. They were protesting plans for multi-lane highways that would further disrupt and displace households.
Conor: Politicians began to make concessions to the protesters. In 1970, the governor of Massachusetts placed a moratorium on new highway construction and passed an act enabling rent control. In 1972, he officially stopped the Boston highway plan, announcing “we were wrong” on television.
Frank Sargent: What we misunderstood was what those highways would create… billions of dollars spent, and more and more families uprooted and displaced.
Alejandro: At the city level, Kevin White responded to the increasingly militant tenant unions by enacting Rent Control in 1970. Similar regulations to put a cap on rents were enacted in Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Lynn.
Conor: The late 60s marked a time of dramatic protest and rent strikes at Columbia Point, which was home to 6,000 people… Point residents had won better education, welfare, and other community resources — but at the same time, they faced increasing discrimination and neglect when it came to basic neighborhood issues.
Even after the rebellion at Grove Hall in 1967, the city government was failing to respond to basic needs, like building repair. In fact, the government was using tactics of racial segregation to basically ensure that buildings deteriorated.
Charlie Titus: I mean, if no one’s cleaning the hallways and there’s trash piled up for days, that’s a problem. My early memories outside is that there was grass. And the grass got cut. And then later on it just became weeds. You know?
With tensions at their highest Point residents — along with public housing tenants across the city — decided to take their growing dissatisfaction — and aim it squarely at their landlord: the Boston Housing Authority.
Excerpt from “Ballad of a Landlord” by Langston Hughes. Performed by the jazz group, United Front.
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?
My steps are broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you,
till you fix this house up new.
What? You gonna get eviction orders?
Turn off my heat?
Take my furniture and throw it in the street. [drums]
You talkin high and mighty.
Talk on, till you get through
You won’t be able to say another word, if I land my fist on you.
Melnea Cass: You had those people without any heat for 2 or 3 days in that housing project, and nobody went there to do nothing!
Alejandro: In May 1962, the president of the NAACP in Boston, Melnea Cass, filed a complaint to the state. She claimed there had been, and still was, a pattern of segregation in public housing: 17 of the 25 projects in Boston remained 99 percent white, while African-Americans were confined to just eight projects. Some of them, like Columbia Point, were mixed ethnically, while others, like Mission Hill Extension, were designed entirely for black people. These projects all received worse treatment and services.
Responding to pressure from Civil Rights groups, and the wider black freedom movement, President John F Kennedy signed an executive order to prevent racial discrimination in subsidized housing. But like other civil rights legislation, strong language was followed by weak enforcement. The perfect example of this could be found within the Boston Housing Authority — the city office responsible for managing projects.
Historically, the BHA was a tool of political patronage, and throughout the 50s and into the 60s it showed no indication of changing. The entire bureaucracy acted according to personal favors, and ignored what they labelled “non-white” projects.
Larry Vale: There’s a two-tiered system in the sense that some places are actively being protected and had protectors.
Larry Vale is a historian of public housing in Boston.
Vale: If you knew somebody, or if your local representative was well connected, there would be all sorts of ways to get your place secured. Certain people had quotas, whether from church, or union, or local elected official, it didn’t matter, there was a sense you could get into public housing because of who you knew, not just because of your needs.
This was a standard feature of Boston politics since the 30s. Under Irish mayors, well-connected Irish-Americans got priority in the best projects, like Mary Ellen McCormack in Southie. Conditions were kept up by supportive managers and administrators. But at Columbia Point, the maintenance simply stopped. As services became more unreliable, white residents often asked to leave — to transfer to South Boston projects. There are many letters to the mayor’s office asking for transfers. In a typical one from 1964, Catherine Murphy said: “Up until 6 months ago, this place was bearable, but now, I can’t go on living here any longer. I work for the Phoenix Insurance Co. and my pay will not permit me to live anywhere, only in a project… Do you think it possible for me to get a transfer to Old Harbor Village in South Boston?”
Jim Vrabel: It was a kind of a conscious segregation, a lazy segregation.
Jim Vrabel, a historian of local community movements, describes the BHA’s practices.
Vrabel: It was easier to kind of steer blacks into certain public housing developments and whites into others. They didn’t want trouble, they didn’t want to have to deal with any potential racial problems.
Charlie Titus: You gotta ask yourself that question: Why? Why Columbia Point? Why did Columbia Point deteriorate like that and those two places didn’t?
Charlie Titus remembers what was happening in Columbia Point during the 1960s.
Charlie Titus: If you go up the road a mile you got Old Harbor and Mary ellen McCormack housing projects; you didn’t see the same deterioration there you saw at Columbia Point. They could make a call and get a fence fixed. They could make a call and get a door fixed. They had access to power and resources, so their housing did not deteriorate. The people who lived in Columbia Point didn’t have that same access. I mean I think the Boston Housing Authority just let it go, they just let it go.
Management was harsher to non-white projects — for example, they’d retaliate if tenants kicked up a fuss. When Point residents picketed the city dump, the Boston Housing Authority and mayoral staff labelled the events “interracial riots.” They responded by evicting several black families. The NAACP was going to push discrimination charges against the Boston Housing Authority, but they backed down during negotiations with mayor. It seemed that, once again, Columbia Point residents would need to take matters into their own hands.
Joann Ross: Our interest was not in the political structure. Our interest was very naive then and very simplistic: please close the dump, get out of our lives, we want this community to ourselves. Some 500 people came out to the streets.
Conor: This is Joann Ross. In 1963, she and other Point residents formed the T.A.C., or Tenant Association Council. It was formed with the seven other non-white projects.
Ross: I profited tremendously by being one of the outspoken at Columbia Point — one of the organizers of that community. It just changed my whole way of doing things and my whole style of living and the kinds of things I was willing to accept now as a woman alone.
The council, formed mostly of people of color, was designed to pressure the BHA to end, quote, “isolated racial and economic ghettos.” People were noticing that a lot of the fundamental problems had to do with the BHA’s system of discrimination, because you could see it right there in the project.
Charlie Titus: You had segregation within the development…way up Mount Vernon street was mostly elderly white. Entering the projects at the other end of monticello, was mostly white. Up Montpellier was mostly black.
Charlie Titus again.
Titus: When you have people who move in an apartment gets trashed and it doesn’t get fixed. Those kinds of maintenance issues were happening all the time.
So you had 28 families living on top of each other and not a lot of maintenance going on not a lot of care for the place, kinda hard to have pride of place where you live in that kind of a situation. So you know as the maintenance deteriorated, as the policies of placement continued, the place started deteriorating.
Rats were becoming more and more of a problem. This became one of the first issues for the Tenant Association Council. A rat actually bit a baby at Columbia Point, in 1967. After that, Point leaders, including a woman named Inez Middleton, went directly to the housing authority. They testified that there were atrocious conditions at the project, due to neglect. The BHA promised to start a rat extermination program.
Meanwhile nearly 3000 residents at Orchard Park, a black housing development in Roxbury, started experiencing heating issues across several years. When their 30-year boilers started to break down, residents joined up with the TAC, who flooded the BHA with calls to get the boilers replaced.
But the BHA just wasn’t being responsive enough. Heat was still going on and off, and services like snow shovelling were basically nonexistent. Many tenants didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Nora Priest, a spokesperson for TAC said, “Tenants are afraid to bring their problems to the management, fearing hostility and retaliation.”
Tenants at Columbia Point began holding regular meetings about the rats. And they were also organizing around other issues like displacement. Specifically, neighbors were being sent eviction papers without any reason or advance warning. With each broken promise, the BHA was proving to be Boston’s biggest and most brutal slumlord.
In October of 1967, the tenants council met with BHA and declared there had been “breakdown in relations between tenants and local management.” They asked for big changes, like, for example, participation at the policy-making level of the housing authority. Partly because of these tenants, and partly because of the rebellion at Grove Hall, liberal politicians could no longer ignore the demands coming from public housing tenants. HUD, the housing administration that started under Johnson, actively encouraged management and tenant councils to negotiate, and gave money to support that effort.
Alejandro: But then Kevin White, the mayoral candidate from JP, came into office… He defeated Ed Logue, the former redevelopment authority member, as well as Louise Day Hicks, the notorious, pro-segregation School Board member. Housing was a big part of his political campaign. One of his slogans: “When landlords raise rents, Kevin White raises hell!”
But White did nothing to address issues at Columbia Point. In October, 1968, the residents lost heat for a week during an unexpected cold spell, as the result of poorly maintained boilers. That was the last straw. Here’s one of our co-producers, Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez.
Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez: In 1968, the scene at Columbia Point was getting more desperate. Sandy Young was an early community leader at the project. This is from an oral history recorded in the 1980s:
Sandy Young: I remember when we had roaches, and there were rats. As tenants we were being shafted. We were being criticized. We weren’t — our rights were being denied!
This is the days when we were not getting from BHA what we were supposed to be getting. This is when you saw the broken windows and the broken glass in the street, and the trash in the streets, and the trash in the hallways. The broken doors, doors hanging off the hinges, that was BHA’s responsibility, and they were not fixing them.
Former resident Donna Haskins remembers this exact thing: the buildings breaking down, and the Housing Authority failing to do repairs. She’s a former tenant of Columbia Point. We spoke with her and her mom, Dorothy.
Donna: I remember one day the tenants were coming and complaining about the apartment and condition of the apartment and how the windows were needed to get fixed, the doors, the holes in the wall, and all the rodent problem, the roaches. And they started complaining and everything. And my mom and all of them decided hey you know we’re gonna do a Rent Strike.
Dorothy: We went on a rent strike because the apartments needed things fixing.
This is Dorothy Haskins, one of the key figures in welfare rights.
Dorothy Haskins: We were the strongest organization out there.
Dorothy says that when the heat went out, she helped circulate a petition around one of the buildings, 119 Monticello Ave. “We will refuse to pay rent,” the petition said. “Until the elevator is fixed” and “the hall and stairwells are properly lit and cleaned.” One by one, tenants signed the petition, adding their own issues in the margins. “No heat,” one note said. “Toilet overflowing,” said another. “Mailbox broken.”
Conor: How do you go about organizing that?
Dorothy: You go door to door. And. You get a copy of their rent book, with all the information in it. And you have the lease. And you just meet on it. Meet with the key people.
The journalist Alan Lupo covered the story. He reported how 20 families in the building decided to stop paying rent until the BHA met their demands. The residents got their rent money together, held it in an escrow account, and refused to pay it to the BHA until they got the necessary maintenance done.
It was a short-term success, in that it got some repairs to happen, and actually pressured Ellis Ash, the BHA administrator, to get more maintenance funding from the federal government.
Kevin White, the mayor, was starting to feel the heat. In 1969, he made one small concession. Two years after tenants had demanded it, the mayor finally reformed the 5-member board of the Boston Housing Authority. White appointed two public housing tenants and a labor organizer. Together, the three called themselves the “tenant-oriented majority.” One of those newly appointed members spoke to us about the BHA’s system of patronage.
Doris Bunte: I’m Doris Bunte. I lived in Orchard Park for 16 years.
Every development wasn’t treated equally nor were the resources distributed evenly. It all had to do with who you knew — the condition and upkeep were all a part of that system.
So if you had somebody to stick somewhere, or you had a job you promised somebody, we got them at the BHA. and those people back then had tenure, So it was very, very difficult changing the BHA because you could change the policies but you couldn’t change behaviors. Once the three of us were there, it couldn’t be business as usual. To turn things around, you had to get to the root of things.
Doris Bunte, who is an African-American, witnessed racist hiring practices within the BHA. The conservative old guard was still giving jobs to friends, over, say, tenants who actually lived in the community.
Doris Bunte: There was a young man who said he had been applying to be a laborer for something like 8 years. And he said “I never hear from them. But I fill out an application every year.” And so I went down to personnel and I asked them to look up his name and sure enough there was this folder and there were like five years worth of applications and in the comment area in very large letters it said N-O-N hyphen W-H-I-T-E. They had checked all his references and everything but they never responded to him all those years.
The tenant-oriented board proposed several basic reforms, like ensuring maintenance was kept up in all projects and making BHA jobs more open to residents. They also tried to make tenant selection a better process — making sure the neediest got good housing. But their ideas weren’t being implemented. Part of the problem was the BHA was under more financial stress.
Tenants at Pruitt-Igoe, a famous public housing project in St. Louis, had recently gone on a rent strike themselves, in protest of rundown apartments. In response, the Massachusetts senator Ed Brooke, introduced an amendment for public housing that capped the amount of rent at 30% of household income. While this helped to alleviate the burden on renters, lower incomes meant smaller maintenance budgets. From 1950 to 1975, the income of the average public housing tenant declined by half. Without a subsidy from the government to make up the difference, public housing lost most of its funding.
Columbia Point residents were not satisfied by the new progressive managers of the BHA. Despite the new “tenant-oriented majority,” conditions were still declining. Even after renters went on strike, rats were still infesting apartments and common spaces. Mothers at the project decided to take their issues to the local press, announcing a serious problem: The BHA had promised rat extermination years ago, but clearly that wasn’t happening.
Mary Manning: We had a lot of the rats and the roaches and things like that. And we had to fight to get the exterminators to come in. So in order to get BHA to do something they had to do something to get the attention.
Mary Manning was another welfare rights advocate. She and the other Mothers decided to make a statement. During a Christmas-time meeting of the BHA in 1969, they brought Doris Bunte and the rest of the board a gift. Historian Jim Vrabel recalls the episode.
Jim Vrabel: There was a scene at a Christmas meeting of the Boston Housing Authority meeting, Christmas time meeting of the BHA board when they brought in presents which included… dead rats hanging from a small Christmas tree and cockroaches in glass jars that were still wriggling.
Manning: I’m not sure exactly who started it but I know they were catching them and saying, look this is what we’re gonna do. you know and it was interesting because they set it up on the desks in the office. And you know it wasn’t pleasant, I’m a big baby too much but I mean it woke up people’s eyes and it made sure that they knew we weren’t going to stand for it, that people in the project were not going to stand for that anymore. That they wanted something done and they want it done right then and there.
It wasn’t just pest problems. Tenants complained that they suffered break-ins because their locks were shoddy. The buildings, now 15 years old, were literally falling apart. When the BHA administrator toured Columbia Point after Christmas, he saw leaky roofs and cracked sidewalks — disrepair and vermin. He saw hundreds of vacancies, a result of poor living conditions. Sandy Young told a reporter: “It could be very beautiful here, if we could just correct some of these problems.”
A few days later, Columbia Point residents went further. On New Years, they presented the board with another gift: This time, just two stale cookies and a note that said: “Thanks for nothing.”
Then, a severe snowstorm hit Boston. For three days, Columbia Point residents were stuck in their homes without light, heat, or telephone service. The mothers, disobeying the official rules laid out for Tenant Policy Councils, marched into a BHA meeting, disrupting it and carrying a broken door that had fallen off one of the apartments. Sandy urged the board to come down to the point, to hold their next meeting on the peninsula, to see what was really going on. Some tenants were afraid. Their stuff was getting stolen. The BHA didn’t provide the most basic things, like doors with working locks.
At the meeting, tenants wore armbands with their apartment numbers written on them. One of the Columbia Point leaders spoke up. They said, “If the new majority represents a change,” it should be to treat residents as individuals… not numbers.’”
Doris and her allies on the board knew something was seriously wrong. They said they were constrained, both financially and bureaucratically. Proposed reforms were thwarted and delayed by a new BHA administrator, Dan Finn, a conservative lawyer close to Kevin White.
Doris Bunte: We wanted Dan Finn to go away because the policies that we came up with weren’t being implemented — things that would make life better for residents.
More specifically, Finn delayed reforms and, according to the Boston Globe, quote “introduced an austerity program that would cut already inadequate services for tenants.”
As tensions rose between Kevin White and the tenant-oriented board, things became personal. Knowing that the board was unhappy with Finn, White and Finn alleged that John Connolly, the other public housing tenant on the board, had illegally used public money for private use. Connolly denied the charges, saying they were politically motivated. Doris defended her fellow tenant Connolly. And then, going a step further, they held a press conference, where they fired Dan Finn, live on television.
Doris Bunte: And so the following morning my phone rang about 7 o’clock and it was the herald, and they asked “how do you response to the charges?” and I’m like “Charges? What charges?” They said the mayor proffered five charges of misconduct in office against you. I said “I haven’t read the charges I don’t have any response at this time.” And the phone just kept ringing and ringing.
After Dan Finn’s firing, Kevin White wanted Doris out. And he wasn’t just going to wait for her term to end. White was going to have her removed.
The only way for a mayor to remove a housing authority member was by proving quote “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or misconduct of office” at a hearing. However, the law providing for the removal procedures doesn’t say much about what the trial should look like. So Kevin White drew up five misconduct charges against Doris, and designed a trial himself… where he would act as both prosecutor and judge.
The trial took 13 days and generated thousands of pages of transcripts. By day 11, Tom Atkins — the only black city councilor — called the trial “a clear example of a kangaroo court.”
Jim Vrabel: It led to a spectacle that went on for weeks and gravitated everyone’s attention to city hall and to the issue of public housing. The testimony revolved around the mileage amount that you could charge for using a BHA vehicle, uh, stationary, travel, stamps, I mean they were very very small potatoes in the scheme of things. And public housing tenants and their allies and especially people in the black community — because Doris Bunte was African American woman — revolted against White.
But the spectacle of all these mostly white men who were politicians sitting in judgment of a black woman from public housing was kind of a raw, naked image of what the administration the White administration and most city administrations at the time were all about. And it really galvanized support for Mrs. Bunte a lot in the black community of course but across the city as well. They saw that this was the real Kevin White. And no one liked it in the neighborhoods.
Here’s how Doris remembers it.
Doris Bunte: It was all the media available in the city and there were residents from every development in the city. Every day they came and every day they all brought flowers.
At the end of the trial, Kevin White found that there was substantial evidence to rule against Doris on three charges, amounting to misconduct in office. He recommended her removal, which the Councilors narrowly confirmed.
Doris: We had the hearing and I lost in the hearing 7–6, and of course rumor has it Gerald O’Leary who had been a city councilor had gotten 50 summer jobs in return for his vote, he was a swing vote. And so I was removed. And then my lawyer took it to the superior court and the superior court found me not guilty and ordered my reinstatement. And the mayor appealed to the state supreme court, who upheld the superior court and ordered my reinstatement. And then we had to threaten to take out contempt of court charges against the city councilors, the ones who didn’t want to put me back in.
Doris was restored to her position in 1972, though Kevin White never spoke to her again.
Doris: He said, “Doris is my biggest political mistake.”
This trial marked the point when Kevin White turned against public housing. Here’s Jim Vrabel.
Jim Vrabel: It symbolizes the politics against community respect and the idea that politicians and those in public office were arrogant enough to think that they should call all the shots and that they didn’t have to listen to people in the neighborhoods and especially the people who lived in public facilities at all. It was kind of a litmus test for him, that if you push back against him he’s more about controlling things and concentrating power in the mayor’s office than sharing power with the neighborhoods.
Not long after Doris moved on, the BHA retrenched back to being a patronage network, for the mayor and his friends. In 1971, Kevin White sought out a new public housing policy: one of austerity, law, and order. At Columbia Point, conditions continued to slide.
Conor: If Doris won the battle, White won the war. Because when Kevin White placed a black woman on the stand, he effectively accused black women in general of cheating the system. He was tapping into a familiar trope:
Rhonda Williams: Black women have for decades, decades even before Nixon, are seen as the breeders of social ills.
Rhonda Williams is a historian at Vanderbilt currently visiting at MIT. She’s the author of Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century as well as a book called The Politics of Public Housing.
Rhonda: Black women have been the optimal symbol for all that’s wrong with America, and therefore removing the onus of the social ills, the inequalities, the racial demonization, hiding it and removing the onus from the state, in terms of how people were treated or not treated. They get blamed for having children out of wedlock—as if white women don’t have children out of wedlock, as if white middle-class women don’t have children out of wedlock.
They’re being blamed for all that’s going wrong in urban areas. They’re being blamed for all that’s going wrong in public housing because these low-income women, low-income black women become the majority of public housing complexes. And things go down. Let’s not talk about demise of funding, let’s not talk about racial inequality, non-access to job market, differences in wages, access to minimal, limited services to survive. Let’s not talk about how suburbs were off limits to African American families and women trying to raise their families. Let’s not talk about the educational system didn’t serve African American families, which also impacts, jobs, which also impacts wages.
Let’s blame it on black women having kids. Or let’s just all blame it on women in decrepit housing—and the blame is on them instead of the decrepit housing. It’s a shortcut it’s not dealing with racism, capitalism, and the role of the state in perpetuating inequality in the United States.
We can think of Kevin White’s scapegoating of Doris Bunte as just one example of the ways in which politicians were starting to blame structural problems on the individual behavior of poor people. While these so-called “culture of poverty” arguments arose under Kennedy and Johnson, it was Nixon who actually used the myth to justify policies that dismantled public housing and built up the carceral state.
Nixon: As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other.
Alejandro: Across the country, public housing was in the crosshairs like never before. In 1972, the year Nixon was re-elected, Pruitt Igoe was demolished. It was where the major rent strike had happened, just four years before.
News reader: [In background: 10, 9, 8…] Today is demolition day at Pruitt Igoe, the wrecking company will explode the supporting columns from an 11 story vacant high-rise… […3…2…1 sounds of explosions]
In January 1973, Nixon declared an 18-month moratorium on federal housing subsidies, which meant no funding for Columbia Point.
In short, austerity made organizing conditions at Columbia Point far more difficult. During 1973, families at another building, 15 Montpelier Road, once again tried to get a rent strike going. They demanded the removal of lead paint, repairs to broken elevators, and the replacement of broken locks. The protest spread to two other buildings. But this time, the BHA didn’t seem to mind that tenants weren’t paying rent. A lot of the residents were behind on payments anyway. Under these conditions, a rent strike would not be effective. The BHA could just ignore their demands, and they did.
For tenants, it was clear: As the terrain shifted, resistance would need to take on a different shape.
People’s History is produced by Alison Bruzek, Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez, Alejandro Ramirez, Conor Gillies, Rosie Gillies, and Qainat Khan.
Research and production help from Patrick King, Caitlin Rose, and Ed Paget. Fact-checking and editing from Laura Foner and Bill Cunningham. Editorial help from Ben Shapiro, Alissa Quart, and David Wallis.
Our theme music by Marisa Anderson. Our score is by Visitor, which is a project of Liz Harris and Ilyas Ahmed.
People’s History Podcast is an independent radio series.It is not associated with Howard Zinn’s book or related projects.
It is presented by Jacobin magazine with help from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Thank you for listening.
Conor Gillies is an audio producer at Radio Open Source and specializes in cultural documentaries.
Co-published with Jacobin.