In reading “Boston Boy,” the autobiography of Nat Hentoff, the nationally prominent political journalist, jazz historian, civil libertarian, and contrarian who died last week at 91, I discovered the story of the crusading Boston journalist Frances Sweeney.
When Hentoff was a student at Boston Latin, Sweeney gave him a job on the paper she edited, the “Boston City Reporter,” which was published during the 1930s and into the 1940s. It started out focused on political corruption and then worked at exposing the anti-semitism that was connected to pro-fascist activities.
This daughter of a saloonkeeper campaigned vigorously again Fr. Charles Coughlin, the radio priest whose weekly radio broadcasts drew tens of millions of followers in the 1930s and whose newspaper, “Social Justice,” was sold after Mass outside of many Catholic parishes in Boston.
From 1932 to 1934, Coughlin was an ardent supporter of President Roosevelt, saying “the New Deal is Christ’s Deal,” but by 1936, he had turned against Roosevelt completely, and went on the attack against communists while asserting that Jewish bankers were running the world. He reprinted the infamous and false “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a made-up text about a meeting of Jews conspiring to take over the world that the Nazis played prominently in their propaganda.
Coughlin favored backing the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini as the best way to fight communism. And for many years, leaders in the Irish-Catholic establishment in Boston backed him (many-time Mayor James Michael Curley at one point claimed that Boston was the most pro-Coughlin city in America).
Coughlin’s writings and the organization he backed, the Catholic Front, were part of a movement that led to physical attacks on Jews in Boston. Gangs of Catholic teens entered Jewish neighborhoods with blackjacks and brass knuckles, beat up the residents, and vandalized stores. This wasn’t just a turf issue; these mobs went on rampages through Jewish sections of Dorchester and Roxbury. Contemptuously, they called Blue Hill Avenue, which ran through the Jewish parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, “Jew Hill Avenue.”
Frances Sweeney took on the local Catholic Church, in particular, William Henry Cardinal O’Connell, and the politicians for not condemning these attacks. She was angry that Catholics, who had been discriminated just decades before by the Yankees with their “No Irish Need Apply” signs, could turn around and discriminate against the Jewish populace, many of them newcomers.
It was O’Connell’s silence that she took great issue with. The cardinal was an immensely powerful figure in this era when Catholics controlled local government, when 95 percent of them attended Mass every week, and when the Church ran parochial schools in every parish, sponsored youth activities, and owned hospitals.
Irritated by her criticism, O’Connell demanded she come to meet with him and threatened to excommunicate her if she continued her writings. That was an incredible threat to make against any Catholic. She did not back down in the meeting, Hentoff wrote, noting she told the Cardinal that “the facts are the facts.” She continued her campaign and he did not move to excommunicate her.
When Sweeney died of rheumatic heart failure at 38 in 1944, she was remembered. In 1944, the Bishop Sheil School for Social Service in Chicago posthumously awarded her the Pope Leo XIII Medal “for outstanding work in combating prejudice and injustice and in advancing social education.” Bishop Sheil, the progressive Catholic bishop from Chicago, had been one of her supporters.
The famous muckraking journalist of the second half of the 20th century, I.F. Stone, said of her: “Fran Sweeney could not be discouraged, could not be beaten down, could not be frightened, could not be put in her place. She was a one-man crusade. She burned with some of the hottest and most unextinguishable passion for social justice that I have ever seen.”
In his turn, Nat Hentoff dedicated his book “Boston Boy” to her.
Lewis Finfer is a Dorchester resident.