Saturday, 2:15 PM
Thomas I. Atkins, champion of equality, dies at 69
Eric Moskowitz, Globe Staff
Thomas I. Atkins, a driven, intellectually fierce champion of racial equality, rose from rural Indiana to become Boston's first African-American city councilor and a local and national NAACP leader. The Harvard Law School graduate knew that access to education had enabled his rise, and he fought to provide opportunities for others, first through the court-ordered desegregation of Boston's public schools and then in similar cases across the country.
Thomas I. Atkins
"He was clearly the most brilliant and insightful civil rights lawyer, both in Boston and beyond, to take on the challenges of school desegregation," said Ted Landsmark, who worked with Mr. Atkins as a lawyer on civil rights matters at the law firm Atkins and Brown. "He was a great humanist."
Mr. Atkins, who died Friday night at 69 a decade and a half after being diagnosed with the degenerative muscular disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was a humanist, but he was also a man with a steely resolve.
As a central figure in the city during a turbulent era, he received regular death threats and fortified his Roxbury home to protect his family, running chicken wire over the windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout the seven-bedroom house to connect hoses for fighting fires, said his son, Thomas Atkins Jr.
"He was pretty instrumental in what became a pretty tumultuous time in Boston," said the son, who spent the last eight years living with his father in Brooklyn and aiding him as the disease eroded his body and his speech but not his mind.
Mr. Atkins amassed an impressive roster of accomplishments -- as the first African-American candidate to win citywide office in Boston and the first to serve as a state Cabinet member, as the executive secretary of the NAACP in Boston, as a mayoral candidate, and as the lead lawyer for the NAACP nationwide, among other roles -- but his sons begin with the busing case and his fight for equal education when discussing his legacy.
"It was a cause very near and dear to his heart," said Todd Atkins, Mr. Atkins's older son, who lives in North Attleboro. "He realized just how important education was and what a dividing line it set between those who have and those who have not."
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