A Conversation with Lee Pelton

On Boston’s History and Promise

“The events from 1974 to 1976 painted Boston nationally as an unwelcoming, racially divided city. We’re working very hard to change that perspective. And it’s not based on what we hope to be. It’s based on what we have become and are becoming.”

Lee Pelton has been President and CEO of the Boston Foundation for a little more than two years now. TBF News spoke with him about the conversations he’s been having with the diverse group of people he’s been meeting with throughout our city and region as well as his thoughts about the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action. Before joining TBF, Pelton was President of Emerson College for 10 years. He has been one of the most sought-after local leaders for his thoughts about affirmative action because of his experience in academia and his current role as a civic leader. He spoke at a forum on GBH-TV and was asked by Globe Magazine to write an article about the court’s ruling.

You have been meeting with people throughout our city and region over the last two years. Is there a topic that comes up frequently? 

Most recently, there have been conversations about the evolution of Boston since the busing era, which began on June 22 of 1974 when Judge Garrity ruled that our schools needed to be desegregated, and escalated when the first incidents surrounding busing actually began on September 12. Next year, on the anniversary, I know we will be witness to many conversations and programs regarding what has happened in Boston during those five decades. 

M. Lee Pelton

We all know this is not the same city that it was a half century ago. It is remarkably diverse—in a way that it was not then—in just about every aspect of community enterprise. We have a female Governor, a female Lt. Governor, a female Attorney General who is African American. We have a female Asian American as our Mayor—and Harvard now has its first African American female President. 

The events in 1974 and the following years marked Boston nationally as an unwelcoming, racially divided city. We’re working very hard to change that perspective. And it’s not based on what we hope to be. It’s based on what we have become and are becoming.

During a discussion on GBH-TV about the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, the first thing you said was, “This is a backlash.” Could you expand on that? 

Whenever this country has sought to move forward and make good on its promise of equality and civil rights—and extend those rights to folks of color and women and others—there is an inevitable backlash. We saw that vividly in what is now called the “First Reconstruction,” shortly after the Civil War, which then created a horrific backlash that led to upheavals and lynchings and what we now have come to call “Jim Crowism.” 

We saw a backlash in the 1960s and 70s with the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. brilliantly led. This is often referred to as the “Second Reconstruction.” And we see it in what some people now are calling the “Third Reconstruction,” as people of color and others are on the ascendency. The two motivating factors for the backlashes are the elements that comprise the most toxic forces in human existence, not only in America, but across the globe: fear and ignorance—of which hate is a natural outcome.

It is reflected in outrageous, ungenerous, conspiratorial behaviors that seek to disrupt real progress and an unwillingness to sit down with both sides and have a conversation. In an essential sense, the Supreme Court’s decision is another kind of backlash that seeks to turn back the tide of progress.

When current trends are discouraging, what is your antidote?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I believe that. We’ve made a lot of progress in this country, in my view. I remain hopeful. Being engaged in that project of hope for the future is what gets me up in the morning. Every day, I ask myself a simple question: “How will I improve lives and strengthen communities today?” That gives me hope.