Biographical Sketch


Congressman Joe Moakley at the South Boston St. Patrick's Day Parade, 1997

"Serving in Congress is like living in the neighborhood. You can’t impress your neighbor unless he’s got some faith in you. You’ve got to build up relationships. You’ve got to let people know you. You’ve got to do a lot of listening, and you’ve got to realize that nobody has a monopoly on new ideas. Some of the best ideas could come from outside of the system. But just listen. I mean most people in public life like to talk, but I mean if you do more listening than talking, I think you’re ahead of the game."

- Congressman Joe Moakley


Moakley with his brothers, circa late 1930s




John Joseph "Joe" Moakley was born on April 27, 1927, to an Irish-American father and an Italian-American mother. The oldest of three sons, he grew up in the tight-knit neighborhood of South Boston.  Moving frequently from apartment to apartment, Moakley’s family spent a few years living a low-income housing project. In his oral history interview, Moakley describes the project as “a delight” because it had central heat—and ice cube trays. The Moakley family was Catholic, as were most residents of South Boston. As they moved from one apartment to another, they moved from one parish to another, attending mass at the church closest to them.


Moakley in Miami, 1947




Upon entering South Boston High School, Moakley enrolled in a vocational sheet metal program. He dropped out at age 15, though, forging papers so he could enter the Navy—with the support of his father, who had also entered the military at a young age. From 1943 to 1946, he served as a Seabee (part of the Navy’s C.B., or construction battalion). After being discharged he attended a preparatory school in order to get his diploma, then attended the University of Miami for a year before returning home to South Boston.


Moakley and his wife Evelyn in costume, circa 1964


Moakley didn’t have a definitive career path in mind, but some friends ultimately convinced him to run for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He lost his first bid, but won his second; he served as a state rep from 1952 until 1960. During his years as a rep, he attended night classes at Suffolk University Law School, which was at that time located on Beacon Hill, right next to the State House. He earned his JD in 1956. A year later, he married his longtime love, Evelyn Duffy. He next ran for a seat in the Massachusetts Senate, but as with his House seat, he lost his first bid. He practiced law for a few years before winning a seat in the State Senate, where he served from 1965 to 1970.


Congressman Moakle as Rules Committee Chair, 1989


1970 saw Moakley's first foray into national politics. With the retirement of House Speaker John W. McCormack, the congressional seat in Moakley’s district opened up. At this time, fears of court-ordered busing were rampant in South Boston, and Moakley lost in the Democratic primary to fellow “Southie” resident Louise Day Hicks, who played off of those fears and ultimately won the general election. Two years later, after being elected to and serving in the Boston City Council, Moakley again ran for Congress, this time using the strategy of running as an Independent, so that he would not have to face the incumbent, Louise Day Hicks, in a primary. When it came down to Moakley and Hicks in the general election, Moakley won. He began his congressional career in January of 1973, serving the prestigious role of chair of the House Rules Committee from 1989 until 1995. He represented South Boston, most other neighborhoods in Boston, and several surrounding suburbs. In February of 2001, he announced that he would not seek reelection due to a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He passed away on May 28, 2001.


Portrait of Moakley, 2001


Throughout his career, Moakley really stayed true to his “neighborhood” mentality. But this mentality was not just about actual, physical neighborhoods; it was about the ideals that living in a neighborhood represented to Moakley: respect, caring about other people, and taking care of the place where you lived. All of the issues were important to him during his career reflect this, among them the Boston Harbor cleanup and waterfront development, economic development, historic preservation, the Big Dig, affordable housing, and, notably, the cause of human rights violations in El Salvador, a cause which became a significant one for Moakley. Forced busing was problematic to Moakley because he saw and felt its impact very close to home, literally in his own backyard; the actual busing itself threatened the idea of the neighborhood school, and the turmoil that resulted threatened all of the neighborhood values that he held close. This exhibit will chronicle his fight against forced busing during its most tumultuous years, from 1973 through 1976, beginning with materials from his legislative files.


John Joseph Moakley Archive & Institute at Suffolk University, Boston, Mass., “Transcript of Oral History Interview of Congressman John Joseph Moakley,” Stark & Subtle Divisions: A Collaborative History of Segregation in Boston, accessed May 12, 2015,

-------. "About Joe Moakley." Accessed May 13, 2015. 

Biographical Sketch