But Whitey backed down on Monday. Mullens stayed home in an FBI- canvassed Southie. The march was angry but without gunplay.

Yet Whitey was so in control of subterranean Southie and so well known for brutal retaliation that he worried Kevin White for the duration.

While White had repeatedly stressed he was against busing, he knew that stipulating they were all stuck with the law of the land cut no slack in lawless Southie. So the mayor fretted about Whitey Bulger with his staff in half- serious asides about assassination and mused about it once when he thought the mikes were off at the end of a television interview.

Still on the air, the mayor reminisced about the night in 1975 during his tough reelection fight when he thought he spotted Whitey as White exited the Boston Athletic Club in South Boston. White got spooked and thought Whitey was going to shoot him as he got into his car. "Whitey takes me out, and they win all the marbles," the mayor told host Christopher Lydon.

The "marbles" were Kevin White's opulent City Hall office being occupied by Louise Day Hicks, a former congresswoman and two- time mayoral candidate. She was still the preeminent if fading Southie stalwart in the busing wars and in line to be president of the City Council, a position that made her the designated successor if there was a sudden vacancy in the mayor's office.

It's unclear how big a threat Whitey ever was to White. His assassination joined other rumors that Whitey was going to firebomb Judge Garrity's bungalow in reclusive Wellesley and retaliate against U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a steadfast proponent of busing, with an arson attack on the landmarked family homestead in Brookline and birthplace of President John Kennedy.

It was not all idle talk. While Garrity's home was never attacked, a fire caused $100,000 in damage to the Brookline museum.

It no doubt fueled White's anxiety. But while the mayor was in the line of fire the longest, he was also prone to hasty extrapolations and drawn to melodrama. Whitey Bulger became another one of his vivid metaphors for busing — the black hole of politics where there are no winners and everyone disappears into oblivion.

The fact is that the first busing crisis of gangsters arming kids with pistols was never a real prospect. Whitey was too smart for pitched street warfare. He also saw the boomerang in having federal agents in numbers working Southie streets. He regrouped. It was clear Southie was ready for a lengthy siege and police would be in a defensive crouch for years. He could work with that.

After the first exhilarating month of sound and fury, when the worm turned and the power of what Southie was up against came more clearly into focus — the inflexible judge, the state police helicopters, the Boston tactical patrol force in battle gear — the tenor shifted. The clamorous crowd thinned into the never-say-die brigade. They couldn't win so the fight became the thing. It devolved into sheer lawlessness. Dodge City. Wild West Broadway.

In this combustible atmosphere, Whitey Bulger may have backed off from street violence but he hardly retreated. Like most hard-liners in Southie, he brimmed with disdain for the Boston Globe, based two miles from South Boston High. The newspaper was also implacable about busing, but on the other side. On the street, its editorials supporting the court order symbolized the unshared burden of Southie's struggle.

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