File circa 1971
Paul Parks, a longtime activist in Boston's black community who served as state secretary of education and chairman of the city's School Committee, died today in his Mattapan home of cancer. He was 86.
"He was one of the first citizens of the city, no question about it," said Michael S. Dukakis, who in his first term as governor appointed Mr. Parks to be education secretary.
Praising him for his dignity and accomplishments, Dukakis said Mr. Parks served the Commonwealth on the state and municipal levels "at a time of great turmoil, great tension, when the city tried to find its way through a whole period of history and come out on the other side with some real values and without the hypocrisy we lived with for decades."
Mr. Parks, who grew up in Indianapolis, moved to Boston in 1951 to work as an engineer and soon became a key player in the city's civil rights struggles.
As a leader of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, he advocated in the mid-1960s for desegregation, then served as vice president of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities as plans were made for busing.
When Dukakis announced in 1974 that Mr. Parks would be the first black to join his Cabinet, some prominent white politicians criticized the education secretary appointment. But Dukakis called Mr. Parks "eminently qualified to chart the new educational course for the Commonwealth."
Doubts in some political circles weren't the only challenges he faced. As education secretary, he rode on buses alongside black students going to South Boston High School and shielded some as rocks crashed through windows.
"That was very scary, but I was more afraid for the kids," he told the Globe in 1992, recalling how he pushed students to the floor of the bus during some of those rides. "It was an awful thing for them to go through. It wasn't that easy for me, either."
In 1992, Mr. Parks became the first black to serve as chairman of the Boston School Committee. Raymond L. Flynn, then Boston's mayor, appointed Mr. Parks to the post at the time the committee had switched from an elected to an appointed body.
"When we went through the whole process of reorganizing and reforming public education in Boston, Paul stood shoulder to shoulder with me, despite the fact that it was quite unpopular to many people in the city," Flynn said.
He added that Mr. Parks "commanded a presence because he had this peculiar voice that when he spoke, people listened. It was almost like a voice from up high. When he spoke, you just turned around and listened to him, if not for what he said, then for how he said it."
Several years ago, Mr. Parks found himself in the public eye when his accounting of his military service during World War II was challenged.
Mr. Parks said he was detached from an engineer regiment and was at the Dachau concentration camp when it was liberated in 1945, but others in the military said that account was not supported by records.
Nonetheless, during a ceremony in Berlin in 2000, Mr. Parks was presented with an award named for Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands from Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.
The Berlin B'nai B'rith chapter, which honored Mr. Parks, looked into the conflicting accounts and announced nearly two years later that Mr. Parks could keep the award.
"Although there is no eyewitness support for Parks's claims, neither is there any eyewitness refutation, and his US military records are not inconsistent with his account," the organization said in August 2002.
Mr. Parks leaves his wife of nearly 38 years, Virginia (Loftman) of Mattapan; a son, Paul Jr. of Cumberland, R.I.; a daughter, Pamela Parks McLaurin of Milton; Stacey Parks Townsend of Canton, a daughter from his wife's previous marriage whom he adopted; a sister, Dorothy Jean Parks of Quincy; and four grandchildren.
A service will be announced.
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