Cambridge's black mayor

Our view : Election of Jackson-Stanley shows times have changed

July 11, 2008

Race Street runs through the center of Cambridge, and for much of the town's history, it was a physical as well as a symbolic divide: Whites lived on one side, blacks kept to the other. That is why the election this week of Victoria Jackson-Stanley, a 54-year-old social worker, as Cambridge's first black mayor marks a historic turning point for the town that's just a few miles from Harriet Tubman's birthplace.

In 1967, Cambridge's biggest employer was a canning factory and segregation was a fact of life despite Congress' passage of landmark civil rights legislation earlier in the decade. Blacks couldn't use the swimming pool, skating rink or other public facilities. More than a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools, the town maintained separate schools for blacks and whites.

So tensions were running high on July 24 of that year, when black power activist H. Rap Brown arrived in town to give a speech that touched off a night of violent unrest, leading Gov. Spiro Agnew to send in the National Guard. Mr. Agnew blamed "outside agitators" for the problem, and his tough response helped him run as a law-and-order candidate for vice president with Richard Nixon the next year. But President Lyndon Johnson's panel on civil disorders laid the blame squarely on Cambridge's oppressive treatment of blacks.

That history was surely in Ms. Jackson-Stanley's mind when she said her election "shows just how much things have changed in Cambridge since the 1960s." The town has seen a downtown development boom and an influx of new residents; its new mayor was supported by a biracial coalition. More than 40 years after the violent clashes that captured the nation's attention at the height of the civil rights movement, Cambridge is moving to put its troubled past behind it.

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