Additional events have been made free for the public, thanks to nearly $3 million in sponsorships paid by close to 50 local corporations. That's a testament to Williams, and the strong relationships forged by ULEM over the years.

But to some, those sponsorships symbolize what they distrust about Williams. Sponsors like CVS Caremark, EMC, State Street, TJX, and Raytheon "want to give the illusion that they're working on civil rights," says one veteran black activist. Meanwhile, he says, they do nothing about sky-high black unemployment in Massachusetts.

And there is some evidence that Williams and the ULEM have been either out of touch, overwhelmed, or inexperienced. There are some who say they have had difficulty getting in touch with, or receiving information from, ULEM about potential conference involvement.

Some of that may say more about divisions within Boston's much-divided and ego-clashing black leadership than about the conference plans.

Ultimately, most people involved — and even some of Williams's critics — feel that plans are coming together. The bigger question, though, is whether it will be enough to change the city's national reputation.

To read the Talking Politics blog, go to Follow David S. Bernstein on Twitter @dbernstein.

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