Massachusetts’ new US Senator helped organize ‘friendly takeovers’ of restaurants for black Bostonians

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The black attorney appointed Friday to temporarily replace Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry once helped plan “takeovers” of Boston restaurants with his wife and other black professionals, to protest the “lack of color” in downtown hangouts.

“We get used to the fact that we’ll be the only black people in the restaurant,” William “Mo” Cowan, then head of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers’ Association, told The Guardian, a British newspaper, in 2003. “We want to come to something like this to see other people who look like us. Everybody has their own comfort zone.”

“White people in the U.S. have had the comfort zone all their lives,” he told the Guardian. “They don’t have to go looking for it. It’s always interesting to me to observe even the most positive, forward-thinking progressive member of the majority culture when they are surrounded by minorities.”

The Guardian’s Gary Younge described the scene as one that would not be tolerated if the races were switched.

“If friendly-takeovers are about integrating downtown Boston, they are also about asserting a black identity within it,” Younge wrote. “If white people organised groups on such racial lines they would be accused of racism.”

Cowan is the first black politician appointed to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts history. Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina was also appointed to his seat, serving out the remainder of retiring former Sen. Jim DeMint’s term. The two men will be the only black senators.

There are 42 black members of the House of Representatives.

But Cowan, who will find himself in a majority-white Congress, won’t be staying long: He is not among the candidates competing in the Democratic Party’s April 30 primary for the seat.

A Duke alumnus with a Sociology degree and a Northeastern University School of Law graduate, Cowan helped “diversify the city’s institutions,” according to the Boston Globe. He even helped then Gov. Mitt Romney find “lawyers of color who would make good judges.”

Cowan recruited black lawyers for Mintz Levin, a liberal law firm, and for Middlesex District Attorney Gerald T. Leone Jr.

Governor Deval Patrick’s legal office hired Cowan in 2009 and made him chief of staff in 2010. In November 2012 he announced that he was leaving to rejoin the private sector.

“You and the Commonwealth should be assured that I now go to the nation’s capital ever mindful of what matters to the people of Massachusetts,” he said at a press conference with Gov. Patrick on January 30, just three months later.

Requests for comment from the governor’s office on whether Cowan still believes staged “takeovers” of the city’s night spots are necessary to advance racial integration went unanswered.

This article was updated after publication to correct the number of black House members.

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