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In Memoriam: Joe Moakley

May 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we remember Congressman Joe Moakley, who died today of leukemia. Earlier this year, after Moakley had announced his illness, Kwame Holman profiled the Massachusetts Democrat and the district he served for almost three decades. Here is an excerpt.

KWAME HOLMAN: John Joseph Moakley was born into South Boston’s Irish American enclave 74 years ago. At 15, he joined the Navy and served three years in the South Pacific. But it was at the right arm of another legendary Boston Democrat, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, that Moakley honed his political skills.

REP. JOE MOAKLEY: 1952, I was first elected to the Mass House. Speaker O’Neill was elected to the U.S. House that same year, and a young fellow named Jack Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate. That was a good year, 1952.

KWAME HOLMAN: But 20 years later, Moakley faced what he calls his most difficult time in politics. Many of his friends and neighbors took to the streets to reject court-ordered school busing between predominantly white South Boston and the black community of Roxbury. Moakley too, opposed the busing order, but refused to join in the demonstrations. For that his South Boston constituents demonstrated against him.

KWAME HOLMAN: That was one of the worst times.

REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Terrible time. Terrible time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Demonstrations at your house…

REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Well, it was because my people thought that I should be out in the streets, and screaming and hollering and railing people. And I said look, I’m against it, but I’ll do my work in the halls of Congress. But that wasn’t enough. See, the whole thing was that the way that the remedy to busing was they were going to bus everybody from South Boston into Roxbury, and the school in each area, there was no difference. And there was just an exercise in futility. If they were going to bus them into areas where the school system was much better, fine. But this was just trying to equal the color situation by an artificial means, and there was no pot of gold at the end of it. The schools in Roxbury were no better than the schools in South Boston.

KWAME HOLMAN: Leonard Alkins is President of the Boston NAACP. He has known Joe Moakley for more than 30 years.

LEONARD ALKINS: He was one of the few politicians from the South Boston area who was not inciting to riot. He was responsible, and that’s why people of color have respected him for all these years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Moakley also is respected for his ability to steer federal money back home. By far Boston’s number one example is the Big Dig. The troubled harbor and freeway overhaul has seen projected costs double, then triple. Nonetheless, Joe Moakley and the rest of an influential Massachusetts Congressional delegation have kept federal dollars flowing to the largest single public works project in U.S. history. And it was Moakley who almost single-handedly secured the federal funds to erect the new U.S. courthouse in South Boston. An expert in urban programs, Moakley proudly says it’s helping anchor needed redevelopment.

REP. JOE MOAKLEY: It’s a state of the art courthouse, and people come from all over the world just to view it.

KWAME HOLMAN: After a ceremony on April 18, the courthouse will bear Moakley’s name. Moakley suggests his work largely is a function of where he came from.

REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Public service, you know, is the ability to help the most vulnerable in our society. And if you represent an area that has a lot of blue-collar workers, you’re going to get a lot of people who are going to need your help.

MAN: And I always said Joe Moakley always took care of Southie and I hope the people realize that.


GWEN IFILL: Earlier this year President Bush saluted Joe Moakley as, quote, a man of strong opinions and brought respect. In this town, the President said, it isn’t always easy to combine the two.