By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – In 1948, Boston was a mess. Riddled with political corruption, paralyzed by class conflict between the Beacon Hill Brahmins and the growing Irish and Italian neighborhoods, Boston’s manufacturing jobs had moved south and west, and newer industries preferred the suburbs.

The State House was controlled by Republicans with little use for Boston’s ethnic Democrats. The city was, in one historian’s term, “a hopeless backwater.”

Seventy years later, Boston and Massachusetts are paragons of progressive politics, a hot spot for innovations in health care and social tolerance, a magnet for investment by the top names in American business.

What happened?

A new generation stepped in – and stepped up.

Mayor John Hynes began cleaning up the parochialism and corruption of the James Michael Curley era. The rise of Democrats in Congress like Tip O’Neill and John McCormack put Massachusetts back on the map for federal funding.

And then there were the Kennedys.

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President John F. Kennedy sits at the helm of the United States Coast Guard boat “Manitou” while sailing off the coast of Johns Island, Maine. (Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Other Irish-Americans had risen to power before, but John F. Kennedy gave Massachusetts newfound clout and charisma. And while he was ridiculed as a callow rich kid early on, Ted Kennedy rose to become one of his generation’s most powerful senators, a key architect of the health care and defense research sectors that drive the modern Massachusetts economy.

kerry How Boston Went From Hopeless Backwater To Shining City On A Hill

John Kerry (L) with Edward Kennedy (R) on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC in 2004. (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS ROBERTS/AFP/Getty Images)

JFK left another legacy as well – the conviction of seemingly every Massachusetts pol that they, too, could one day become president. He was the first of four Bay State pols to win a major-party nomination for president since 1960 – JFK, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and Mitt Romney – and the only successful one.

WBZ-TV Flashback: Dukakis Announces Presidential Run

Meanwhile, there were more firsts here – Boston’s first Italian-American mayor, Tom Menino, and our state’s first (and only the nation’s third-ever) African-American governor, Deval Patrick. In 2004 we became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage; in 2006, the first to institute universal health care.

davis menino1 How Boston Went From Hopeless Backwater To Shining City On A Hill

Boston Mayor Tom Menino speaks as Gov. Deval Patrick, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and Watertown Police Chief Ed Deveau listen, April 19, 2013 in Watertown. (Photo credit STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Corruption and incompetence have not vanished entirely; from the UMass-Boston construction scandals of the 1970’s to the fatal Big Dig ceiling collapse of 2006 and the project’s egregious cost overruns, Massachusetts politics continues to prove that nobody’s perfect, to say the least.

But as Massachusetts has evolved from afterthought to national leader, Boston – the one-time “hopeless backwater” – is becoming the “shining city on a hill” that the 17th century colonists of Massachusetts envisioned.

finishline gomes salty get How Boston Went From Hopeless Backwater To Shining City On A Hill

Red Sox players Johnny Gomes and Jared Saltalamacchia pay respect to the Boston Marathon bombing victims during the World Series victory parade on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. (Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

From anti-crime initiatives like the “Boston Miracle” of the 1990’s to the One Fund that showered the Marathon bombing victims with support, “Boston Strong” has become a contemporary euphemism for a progressive state and its vibrant, innovative capital city that validates the American Dream – that diverse ethnic groups and economic classes can somehow come together to form a more perfect union.

Comments (3)
  1. In the corruption section of your piece, Jon, you failed to mention that three successive Speakers of the House were shown to be corrupt, and the fourth…the current one…was an indicted co-conspirator to a criminal filing.

    Why did you omit that? It certainly has bearing on how our legislature has been handled during the period that your remarks cover.

    Please explain…

    1. Correction: The current Massachusetts Speaker of the House was an UNINDICTED co-conspirator.

      I apologize for the error.

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