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Running in Defiance

How the Boston Marathon helped the fights for equal rights

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sports

Spring comes late to Boston. Most years, the day of the Marathon is one of the first when the air feels soft and world is green. After the long New England winter, it's something of a holy day—roads and businesses shut down, and people rediscover their city. It’s not just that Bostonians love their hometown and their sports. They also love their history: The Marathon has a rich tradition as a leveler of class and a vehicle for activism. Its 117 years tell the story of one of America’s oldest cities.

When the marathon was founded in 1897, Boston was a patchwork of immigrant communities, a society stratified by ethnicity and class. Yankee intellectuals had already begun to formulate eugenic theories about the inherent lowliness of the “violent” Irish and “feeble-minded” Italians; meanwhile, those groups usually kept to themselves. But Marathon Day transcended these animosities. While many popular sports of the time, like baseball and golf, were reserved for college men, marathon running was embraced by the working class, and participants ran the gamut, from Irish to Italian to Swedish to native-born Yank. Meanwhile, the sidelines brought together Brahmin and bricklayer.

“It was an excuse to party. It was a free show,” says Lawrence Kennedy, a historian working on a book about the Marathon. “It was so unusual, just the oddity of these guys running around, basically in their underwear. There was this sort of pride… This quirky Boston psyche.”

At the time, doctors labeled long-distance running unhealthy, and most people viewed any builder or factory man who would waste his energy running through the city streets as “just nuts,” Kennedy says. But from the start, there was something irresistible about the marathoners. A 1932 Globe article describes how one champion, known as “Bricklayer Bill,” succeeded even though he had “'bummed' his way to Boston, and on the eve of the race slept on a pool table in the South End.” Asked fifteen years later to describe the lure of the race, Bill mused, “All Marathon runners are dreamers; we are not practical.” And from the start, there was something intensely American about the marathon, which was established on Patriots' Day to commemorate Massachusetts’ most famous battle. It was a way for immigrants to prove their Americanization. “Boston, to see the name in print, to hear it spoken, sends my blood racing as does the sounds of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’” the Irish-descended Bill told the Globe. He famously sewed an American flag to his bandanna when he ran the race during the First World War.

Once a way for New England’s mistreated poor to demonstrate what seemed like superhuman ability, the marathon became a siren call for a more diverse group of Americans who wanted to push themselves to the limits. John J. Kelley, a college-educated schoolteacher, became the first middle-class American winner in 1957. He would later write that he had argued with his Boston University track coach about the value of long-distance running. When he died in 2011, the Boston Athletic Association commemorated his love of the Marathon as a “striving for excellence for its own sake.”

As the Marathon was gaining popularity in the mid-twentieth century, women and minorities were increasingly demanding equal rights. And the Boston course became one place for them to prove their equality. A pioneering ultrarunner of the 1920s, Arthur Newton, had famously remarked that blacks would never have the physical or mental fortitude for distance running. Ted Corbitt, a record-breaking American marathoner and one of the first African-Americans in distance running, proved him wrong when he completed his first marathon at Boston in 1951. Years later, he would remember getting stopped by police as he trained in New York City, asked what he could possibly be doing. “I did feel as if they were just doing their job,” he said. “It was a part of the culture I grew up in and we don't get a choice as to the times we live in. I don't have any lingering anger and I didn't choose to be an advocate. I just wanted to run.” 

Not long after, in 1966, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon. She ran it bibless and unsanctioned, year after year. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the marathon as a numbered entry—she registered as “K.V. Switzer” and was given a bib before officials realized what was happening. One irate race organizer tried to physically wrestle her off the course in the middle of the race, which, she told me, had been “the worst thing that happened at Boston” until the bombing yesterday. The officials’ response showed her that “maybe [women] didn’t have the appreciation and respect for our capabilities that I thought we had. I was bound and determined to prove it and change women’s lives through the very simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.” Yesterday’s terror, she added, is so painful because “the marathon is a powerful force for good.” And, in fact, when Boston became the first major marathon to admit women in 1972, others followed suit.

While these skirmishes for equal rights helped make the Marathon a national event, it has always been, in its own way, a local occassion. Nothing mirrors the state of Boston better than the state of the Marathon, especially in recent decades. As the city worked to turn itself into a world-class metropolis in the eighties—a project set in motion by legendary Mayor Kevin White—it was clear the Marathon, too, must raise its profile. In 1986, the city and the B.A.A. found a sponsor, the Boston-based finance firm John Hancock, to institute the cash prizes that have since attracted the highest caliber runners. Boston and its marathon have experienced their renaissance hand-in-hand—one may not have been possible without the other.

Yesterday, events at the Marathon once again changed the course of history in Boston. Unlike the residents of New York, D.C., and L.A., the people in America’s tenth-largest metropolitan area did not really think their city was a high-profile target. As many have said in the last twenty-four hours, Marathon Day will never be the same. But it’s worth noting that the competitors at Boston have run the famous course in defiance before: in defiance of class, race, and gender, not to mention physical limitations. Next year's runners will have a point to prove—and by putting one foot in front of the other, they’ll do just that.

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Correction: The Boston Marathon was first run in 1897, not 1896.