By Jim Smith
BOSTON — Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s perennial refusal to march in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is not sitting well with some members of the city’s Irish-American community, who say it is time for the mayor to put aside his differences with parade organizers and join the line of march.
“It’s become an insult and a slap in the face not only to Irish Americans but to the entire city,” David Burke, national director of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, said last week. “It’s obvious he’s been pandering to gay activists by refusing to march, but the Supreme Court has spoken and the mayor should respect that decision. He’s letting this go on too long, and it’s really unfair to South Boston.”
The parade has been organized by the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council since 1947, when Mayor James Michael Curley first gave that group the authority to run the event. Controversy erupted in 1992 when a group calling itself the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston applied to march in the parade. When the veterans denied the application, the group sought and received an order in Suffolk Superior Court compelling the veterans to include GLIB in the parade.
History of litigation
That same scenario played out in 1993, with the state court again ordering the veterans to include GLIB in the event. After a four-day trial in Superior Court in late 1993, a permanent order against the veterans was issued, prohibiting them from excluding GLIB from future parades. The veterans then appealed that ruling to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, claiming that they had a right under the First Amendment to exclude any group that sought to advance a message antithetical to the views and values of the parade organizers.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
On March 11, 1994 the SJC upheld the permanent order against the veterans, who then startled the Boston community by canceling the parade one week before it was to take place. At that time, Mayor Menino, who in November 1993 had broken a succession of Irish-American mayoral victories and became the city’s first Italian-American mayor, expressed disappointment with the veterans’ decision and said that he had recently asked a number of other citizens groups in South Boston to take over the parade but that none of those groups agreed to do so.
“Nobody stepped forward when I asked them to step forward,” Menino said at that time. “We’re losing a lot of Boston’s tradition by not having a parade. We have to go ahead. Next year we’ll have a big parade.”
Meanwhile, the veterans, led by Parade Adjutant John “Wacko” Hurley and attorney Chester Darling, vowed to take their case the U.S. Supreme Court. They were buoyed by a dissenting opinion of SJC Judge Joseph Nolan, who concluded that the Superior Court judge had flagrantly violated the Veterans’ right to free speech by ordering the Veterans to include GLIB in the parade.
In July 1994, Darling told the Echo that the mayor and his staff were stalling over issuing a permit to the Veterans. The Veterans then took their case to the U.S. District Court in Boston, and in January 1995 Federal Judge Mark Wolfe ordered the City to issue the Veterans the permit to conduct the upcoming parade. In issuing that opinion, he noted that the organizers were planning to inject an element of protest into the parade’s theme, thereby setting it apart from previous parades and giving it the expressive purpose that the state courts had previously found lacking.
Also, in January 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the petition of the Veterans to review the SJC decision. In March 1995, the Veterans held the “St. Patrick’s Day Protest Parade,” with black flags and signs condemning the state courts’ intrusion into the organization of the parade.
Three months later, in June 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the veterans. The 24-page opinion written by Justice David Souter stated that “the issue in this case is whether Massachusetts may require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message the organizers do not wish to convey. We hold that such a mandate violates the First Amendment.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Menino, Carol Brennan, told the Echo last week that Menino’s continuing refusal to march in the South Boston parade is based upon his conviction that “a segment of our city’s population has been excluded from that parade.” She said that Menino continues to have excellent relationships with the parade organizers and Irish-Americans throughout the city.
“He participates in the St. Patrick’s Day breakfasts in South Boston each year, and he attends other similar events throughout the city,” she said. “If some new information about the parade is brought to his attention, he’d be willing to reevaluate his position.”
Some Irish-Americans, however, believe that Menino’s avoidance of the parade is perpetuating negative stereotypes about the South Boston community. Boston City Councilor Jim Kelly said that he is disappointed that the mayor’s office is suggesting that gays are not welcome in the parade.
“I have no doubt that gays and lesbians have been marching in this parade since its inception,” he said. “What the veterans don’t want are groups marching with banners proclaiming their sexual preferences. That’s not what this parade is about. It’s about celebrating Irish traditions and culture.”
Chester Darling told the Echo that Menino should apologize to the veterans before he is ever allowed back into the parade. “The veterans have never expressed any animus toward gays, and the mayor knows that,” he said.
The parade controversy recently resurfaced during the Congressional race to fill the vacant seat of the late Joe Moakley, who died of leukemia on Memorial Day. Two of the candidates, Cheryl Jacques and Brian Joyce, publicly stated that they would not march in the parade until it became more “inclusive.”
Stephen Lynch, on the other hand, said that he would continue to follow in Moakley’s footsteps by marching in the parade “even if I had a broken leg.” Lynch went on to win that election and will be marching in this year’s parade as a U.S. congressman.
Parade organizer Hurley said he resents any implication that the Veterans are anti-gay. “Anybody who thinks that should read the Supreme Court decision,” he said. Hurley said that this year’s parade will feature a contingent of New York City firefighters, police and EMTs. The theme of this year’s parade is “For God and Country.”
Among those who think that Menino should march in the South Boston parade is Ray Flynn, the former mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
“The organizers of this parade do a tremendous job, and we should all congratulate them for the work they do,” said Flynn, who now hosts an afternoon radio program on WROL AM in Boston.
“I believe that Tom Menino should march in the parade, but I don’t think this is about him,” he said. “It’s really about the office of mayor, which clearly should be represented in the parade. I think the people of South Boston would respect him more if he showed some respect for the traditions of this parade and the people who work so hard to put it together.”