Thomas I. Atkins

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Thomas Ignatius Atkins (2 March 1939 - 27 June 2008)

Atkins, who was raised in rural Indiana, became Boston's first black at-large city councilor. During the 1970s as an NAACP leader, he opposed the opponents of busing.

Early Years

He was born in Elkhart, Indiana, the son of Norse Pierce Atkins, a Pentecostal minister, and Lillie (Curry), a domestic.

Atkins contracted polio when he was 5. Told that he would need crutches the rest of his life, he walked unassisted three years later. "One thing [polio] did was convince me that nothing was impossible," he said in a 1982 Boston Globe interview.

He attended a segregated school in the first and second grades and, by accident because integration of the races came to Elkhart schools, the blacks-only school collapsed, and the town couldn't afford to replace it. Fearing attacks from white classmates, Atkins told The Globe that he carried rocks in his pockets during the first 10 days of third grade.

Instead of attacks, Atkins drew accolade and became the first black student body president at Elkhart High School. He made Phi Beta Kappa at Indiana University, where he was the first black class president and first black student body president at a Big Ten school.

The Activist Lawyer

Atkins was described by the Massachusetts Historical Society:

  • A graduate of Harvard Law School, Atkins served as Executive Secretary of the Boston branch of the NAACP and later as President of the Boston branch. In 1967, he became the first African American elected to the Boston City Council in the twentieth century. He also served as Secretary of Communities and Development under Governor Francis Sargent. Atkins was Associate Trial Counsel for the plaintiffs in Morgan v. Hennigan, the Boston school desegregation case, and later served as General Counsel in the national office of the NAACP.

The Humanist

The Boston Globe, in a story about his being a civil rights trailblazer who died at 69, wrote,

The Harvard Law School graduate knew that access to education had enabled his rise and fought to secure opportunities for others, first in Boston and later in desegregation cases across the country.
"He was clearly the most brilliant and insightful civil rights lawyer, both in and beyond Boston, to take on the challenges of school desegregation," said Ted Landsmark, who worked with Mr. Atkins in the late 1970s as a lawyer at Mr. Atkins's Boston law firm, Atkins and Brown. "He was a great humanist."
He was a humanist, but he also had a steely resolve. As a central figure in the city during a turbulent era, he received repeated death threats. He fortified his Roxbury home to protect his family, running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout the seven- bedroom house to connect hoses for fighting fires, said his son Thomas Jr.
"He was pretty instrumental in what became a pretty tumultuous time in Boston," said the son, who lived with his father for the last eight years.
Mr. Atkins amassed an impressive roster of accomplishments: first black candidate to win citywide office in Boston and first to hold a state Cabinet post; executive secretary and president of Boston's NAACP chapter; mayoral candidate; and lead lawyer for the NAACP nationwide.
But yesterday, when his sons were asked about his legacy, each started with Mr. Atkins's leadership role in Boston's busing case and his fight for education equality.
"It was a cause very near and dear to his heart," said Todd Atkins, Mr. Atkins's oldest son, who lives in North Attleborough. "He realized just how important education was and what a dividing line it set between those who have and those who have not."
Mr. Atkins never shied from controversy. He called Malcolm X's death "as much of a loss to America as that of President Kennedy," and he criticized Cardinal Richard J. Cushing for not doing more "to dispel racial prejudices on the part of church members." He led a sit-in at the office of School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks.
Yet Mr. Atkins had a pragmatic side. Elected to the City Council in 1967, while a Harvard Law student, he emphasized such bread-and-butter issues as trash pickup and constituent services.
"Power is colorless," he liked to say. "It's like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it."
Mayor Thomas M. Menino called Mr. Atkins a political trailblazer who motivated activists but also drew votes from diverse constituencies and worked to help all residents.
"He was just what an elected official should be," Menino said. "Tommy Atkins was about helping people. He didn't care if they were black, white, yellow, or brown."
Not everyone agreed. In his memoir, "While the Music Lasts," former Senate president William M. Bulger described Mr. Atkins as "bright, but flawed by a veiled desire not merely to advantage blacks but, in the process, to revenge them on whites."
To allies, though, he was an unparalleled strategist. "I don't think there was anybody around who was as astute as he was," said Mel King, activist, educator, and former mayoral candidate. "There is no place - and I say this with all due respect to the Creator - there's no place where Tom Atkins wasn't influential, and I'm sure where he is now, they're going to know it."
Mr. Atkins could be a mediator and a negotiator. After urban renewal projects razed neighborhoods in the West End and Roxbury and displaced residents, protesters clustered in a tent city near Dartmouth Street and Columbus Avenue to decry a similar proposal in the South End. Mr. Atkins used his clout as a city councilor to halt the proposal, calm the gathering, and give residents a say in determining the fate of neighborhoods, said Kay Gibbs, who worked as an aide to Mr. Atkins on the City Council.
"He was an extremely brilliant man, but he was also a pioneer in Boston city politics," Gibbs said of Mr. Atkins's at-large win. "He opened the door really to the notion that people of color could in fact be representatives of the whole city and not just of their own community."
Mr. Atkins's powers of persuasion helped minimize unrest in Boston after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when other cities erupted into riot. Mr. Atkins persuaded the mayor, Kevin White, to allow a James Brown concert to go on as scheduled at the Boston Garden and to televise it live.
After two terms on the City Council, Mr. Atkins made a quixotic run against White for mayor, then joined the administration of Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1971 as secretary of communities and development.
Mr. Atkins started his career in the mid-1960s as executive secretary of Boston's NAACP office. He returned in 1974 as chapter president, a role he held for six years while also working as a lawyer on school desegregation cases in Detroit, Buffalo, and other cities. He was a natural choice as NAACP general counsel, a job that drew him to New York in 1980.
As president of the Boston NAACP, Mr. Atkins was unflinching in his criticism of busing opponents and political leaders who had refused to address the de facto segregation of the city's schools.
Court-ordered busing, Mr. Atkins said in a 1994 Globe interview, "forced open the lid on Boston's poorly kept, nasty little secret, which was citywide racism. . . . Members of the School Committee placed their own political salvation over the welfare of the city or the school system or the schoolchildren."

Later Years

According to The Globe,

Atkins's race didn't prevent his rise to leadership, but it did prevent him from marrying in his home state. He had been a talented enough saxophonist to be named to the Indiana all-state high school orchestra. There he met his future wife, Sharon Soash. A few years later, they went to Michigan to wed because Indiana outlawed interracial marriage. They separated in 1984 and divorced four years later but remained friendly, his son Thomas Jr. told The Globe.
In addition to their two sons, the couple had a daughter, Trena, who died of breast cancer in 2006. Her death was especially hard on Mr. Atkins, a relentlessly positive individual who remained convinced that he could beat his own disease. He died on the second anniversary of Trena's death.
Though he grew up surrounded by religion, Mr. Atkins was spiritual but not religious. He had a colorful vocabulary and a sharp wit that he employed frequently, such as when he gave the grace at Thanksgiving dinner a few years back, when "The Sixth Sense" was in theaters. Scanning the other bowed heads, he tweaked the movie's signature line, saying, "I see . . . black people."
He worked long hours - often while listening to music, or with the television on in the background - and continued to assist on cases even after he needed his son to translate his slurred speech and a special computer arm to help him peck out sentences. He was never one to be idle. "I am not one to sit around and wait for miracles," Mr. Atkins told the Globe in 1996, a few years after his diagnosis. "I believe miracles are usually man-made."

After struggling for nearly two decades with the degenerative muscular disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, Atkins died at a nursing home in Brooklyn, New York.

In addition to his sons and former wife, Mr. Atkins leaves a sister, Anna Jane Millsaps of South Bend, Indiana; a brother, Pierce, of Elkhart; three granddaughters; and one great-granddaughter.

In lieu of a funeral, family and friends planned a service in his memory.