Political Boss

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As good an operator as he was, Flynn’s most important contribution came in the field of race relations. At a time when Southern Democrats were an important constituency, he pushed the party leftward on civil rights. Did he do it simply because blacks were an important voting bloc in New York? Perhaps. But that shouldn’t matter, at least not very much. Flynn supported Truman’s moves to desegregate the armed services and to make lynching a federal crime. And at the fractious Democratic National Convention in 1948, Flynn sided firmly with those, like the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, who believed that the party needed to make a firm stand on civil rights for blacks. The stand, of course, produced a boss’s nightmare—it split the party on the eve of a national election—but to Ed Flynn the party had no choice, for it was the right thing to do.

Some would describe Edward Joseph Flynn as the antithesis of a midcentury American boss, but that would be hasty and incorrect. Yes, he was better educated than many others, and more sophisticated, and certainly closer to national power. Nevertheless he ruled the Bronx just as surely and as firmly as the Pendergasts ran Kansas City and as Frank Hague ruled Jersey City. Flynn was a hard-boiled political professional with a great store of contempt for those he dismissed as “amateurs.” He represented, however, an often ignored side of the machine. In his hands the machine was not a vehicle for personal enrichment but a means of bringing democracy to the old urban neighborhoods (and of instilling a little discipline in the party ranks).