Louise Day Hicks

Louise Day Hicks

Image source: Library of Congress

During the 1970s, inner city Irish-American enclaves were experiencing the same anxiety toward the growing African-American and Hispanic population as Anglo-Americans experienced during the great wave of Irish-Catholic immigration in the mid-1800s. The catalyst for much of the anxiety was the concern over court-ordered busing and school desegregation, and the most egregious events surrounding the former took place in the City of Boston. During the turmoil associated with Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s ruling in 1974, which sought to enforce the Racial Imbalance Act passed by the Massachusetts State Board of Education (1965) specifying that no school in the Boston Public School System could have more than 50% white students (or 50% black students), Louise Day Hicks became a hero to some and pariah to others during one of the ugliest periods in the history of the city of Boston.

Before the protests over court-ordered busing, Louise Day Hicks had already been a prominent figure in Boston’s politics for many years, especially to her Irish-American constituents. Louise Day Hicks was a second generation Irish-American, born and raised in the Irish immigrant enclave of South Boston. Her grandparents, John and Julia Day settled in South Boston where as early as the 1860s, became the distinctive neighborhood in Boston for Irish immigrants. Just as in any other immigrant neighborhood, the Irish immigrants to South Boston settled in sections of the neighborhood according to income distribution: the middle class settled in the City Point area, while the poorer settled in areas called Little Galway or the Lower End.

The Days settled in the Lower End, yet their eldest son, William J. Day, became the exemplar of the first generation of Irish-Americans’ experience in the new country. Day worked his way through Boston College and Boston University Law School and built a successful law practice representing labor and trade unions and several banks in Boston. In 1910, he married fashion model Anna L. McCarron and within a few years of their marriage, bought a three-story, eighteen-room house on Columbia Road, back in South Boston, facing the sea – barely a thirty-year journey from the squalor of the Lower End to the splendor of the Point. Appointed as a Special Justice of the South Boston District Court in 1915, Judge William Day became one of the wealthiest men in South Boston through his banking and real estate interests. Although he was well suited for politics, he never ran for office. It could be said that Judge Day was the king of South Boston, and his daughter Louise was the princess.

Born Anna Louise Day on October 16, 1916, her mother died when Louise was fourteen years old, and consequently she became very close with her father and held him in high regard, later calling to him as “the greatest influence of her life.”  Louise was educated in parochial schools, attended Simmons College for a year and received a teacher’s certificate from Wheelock College. She taught first grade for two years and then worked in her father’s law office and married John E. Hicks in 1942.

Later in her life, Louise said that her father “must have been the creator of women’s liberation because he felt there were no limitations to what I could do or the opportunities I should be exposed to.” After her father’s death in 1950, Louise attended Boston University Law School, earned her law degree and passed the bar examination in 1956. In what Thomas O’Connor defined in his book, The Boston Irish as “an era before it became fashionable, she was an independent professional woman, owned her own law firm and a was working mother.”

In 1961, Mrs. Hicks announced her candidacy for the Boston School Committee. Traditionally, this was the only political office for which women were considered to be well-suited, as they were personally involved in their children’s education. She won a seat on the committee, was elected to a second term in 1963 and was later chosen by the committee as chairperson.  

In 1965, the Racial Imbalance Act was passed, and the Boston School Committee used every means possible to resist implementation of the act. Mrs. Hicks was considered to be the leading spokesperson for the “white backlash” which was sweeping the city. Throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1970’s, the Boston School Committee would clash many times with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Mrs. Hicks was denounced as “the Bull Conner of Boston,” an allusion to the police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama who turned police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful civil rights marchers. 

In 1967, armed with the slogan “You Know Where I Stand,” she ran against Kevin White, an Irish-American from West Roxbury for mayor of Boston. Newspaper reporters made fun of Mrs. Hicks’ hats, her beehive hairdo, joked about her blue-collar supporters as “characters in a Moon Mullins comic strip,” and dismissed her as an inconsequential “tea party candidate”. The busing mandate in Boston set up a juxtaposition between the two halves of the Irish-American community: those who continued to live in the traditional Irish-American neighborhoods, and those who had suburbanized. In his book that delved into the busing issue in Boston, Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukasdefined the issue as “a feud in the Irish political family, taking on conceptions of what it meant to be Irish in contemporary Boston.”

The feud became apparent in the city’s mayoral election that year. Mrs. Hicks lost the election to Kevin White by 12,000 votes, while in 1969 she won an election to the Boston City Council by an overwhelming majority and was elected to the City Council again in 1973 and 1975.  In 1970, she won the Democratic nomination to the 9th Congressional District seat and served one term in Congress from 1971-1973. Mrs. Hicks was assigned to the Committee on Labor and Veterans’ Affairs and the Committee on Education, where she proposed a system of tax credits for parents of children in private schools and backed the Higher Education Act of 1971, which expanded federal aid to public universities and colleges. Yet her efforts to impose a federal ban on busing were halfhearted: Mrs. Hicks was not even present for a debate on whether to strike an anti-busing provision from an education appropriations bill.  

A friend of Mrs. Hicks once confided to a writer profiling her, “Being mayor of Boston is the only job she’s ever wanted.”  In June 1971, she announced her candidacy for the mayoral race against incumbent mayor Kevin White, but was overwhelmed by a margin of 40,000 votes.

As a member of the Boston City Council when the court-ordered busing decision was handed down in 1974, Mrs. Hicks was a stalwart supporter of her constituents in South Boston who opposed the mandate, as she felt that the desegregation of the schools should “come naturally.” She openly criticized white liberals (fellow members of the Democratic Party) who lived in the suburbs of the city but supported busing as a remedy for educational inequalities in urban neighborhoods.  Mrs. Hick’s formed ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights), a coalition of neighborhood groups who opposed busing and attempted to achieve a constitutional amendment to outlaw it, but the group’s efforts were met with opposition from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), Sen. Edward Brooke (R), and Congressman Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill (D), all representatives from Massachusetts.

Despite all her accomplishments, including as the first and only woman from Massachusetts to hold a congressional seat, Mrs. Hicks is most widely remembered and despised because of her opposition to the forced busing mandate. Many labeled Mrs. Hicks and the Irish-American community of South Boston as racists while, others saw the value in their effort to preserve the long established Irish community that was slipping away. The Boston schools were never fully integrated, as white-flight and the turmoil associated with busing sent many Irish-American families to parochial schools or the suburbs of Boston.  New York journalist Jimmy Breslin, quoted in the book, Boston Against Busing, once wrote that the controversy surrounding busing was “the perfect fight for the Irish.” “They were doomed before they started; therefore they can be expected to fight on.”

An article written by Thomas M. Keane just a week after Mrs. Hick’s death in 2003, questioned the reason she had been left off of the Boston Women’s Memorial, which coincidentally, was dedicated on the day she was buried. The memorial honored Abigail Adams, an early advocate for women’s rights, Phyllis Wheatley, one-time slave and author of the first book ever published in America by a black author, and Lucy Stone, an abolitionist and suffragist; all influential women to be sure. In his article Keane wrote, “Hundreds applauded the lives of three women who lived centuries ago. Meanwhile, most of Boston was doing its best to ignore the just-finished life of one of the city’s most prominent.”

Louise Day Hicks lived out the rest of her 87 years in the home her father purchased on Columbia Road in South Boston.  

Works Cited

Feeney, Mark, “Louise Day Hicks, icon of tumult dies,” The Boston Globe, October 22, 2003, accessed March 3,2016,

Keane, Thomas., Jr.   “Memorials must be for the deserving,” Boston Herald, October 31, 2003: 027. Business Insights: Essentials, accessed April 8, 2016, 

Lukas, J. Anthony, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, New York: Random House, 1985.

O’Connor, Thomas H.  The Boston Irish: A Political History, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.