Image for An Overdue Public Apology Done Right
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu delivered an apology to two Black men wrongfully suspected of killing a pregnant white woman in a car jacking. The apology came 34 years after the men were blamed.

Boston Mayor Delivers Apology Masterclass to Wrongly Accused Black Men

We tend to focus on apologies gone awry. This blog focuses on an apology done right.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu issued a public apology to two Black men wrongfully linked to the shooting death of a woman and a child 34 years ago. Wu, who was sworn in as mayor in November 2021, was the first city official in more than three decades willing to apologize for false allegations against the two men.

“We are here today to acknowledge the tremendous pain that the city of Boston inflicted on Black residents throughout our neighborhoods 34 years ago,” Wu said. “The mayor’s office, city officials and the Boston Police Department took actions that directly harmed these families and continue to impact the larger community, reopening a wound that has gone untended for decades.”

“On behalf of the Boston Police Department, the mayor’s office and the entire city of Boston, I want to say to Mr. Swanson and Mr. Bennett, the entire Bennett family and Boston’s entire Black community, I am so sorry for what you endured,” Wu said. “I am so sorry for the pain that you have carried for so many years. What was done to you was unjust, unfair, racist and wrong.”

Alan Swanson, one of two Black suspects, attended Wu’s press conference. Family members of Willie Bennett, the other suspect, attended the press conference. Bennett was unable to attend because he suffers from dementia.

What Really Happened
In October 1989, Carol Stuart was shot in her car as she and her husband left a birthing class at a Boston hospital. The baby, delivered by cesarean section, died 17 days later. Charles Stuart, who suffered a gunshot wound in his abdomen, told police the shooting occurred after an alleged carjacking. He identified the shooter as a Black man. The police subsequently identified Alan Swanson and Willie Bennett as suspects.

Two months later, Stuart’s brother told police that Charles Stuart murdered his wife to collect insurance, then shot himself and blamed an unknown Black suspect to deflect suspicion.

“There was no evidence that a Black man committed this crime,” Wu explained. “But that didn’t matter because the story was one that confirmed and exposed the beliefs that so many shared. At every level and at every opportunity, those in power closed their eyes to the truth because the lie felt familiar. They saw the story they wanted to see.”

“At every level and at every opportunity, those in power closed their eyes to the truth because the lie felt familiar.”

Why Apologies Matter
According to psychologists, apologies hold the potential to heal. As Wu demonstrated, they also can address historical wrongs.

Apologizing can be hard. In organizations, making apologies is often delegated to an underling. In politics, again as Wu showed, apologies are avoided or delayed for years or longer. Too often, public apologies come too late for the people who were wronged to hear the apology. Bennett suffered cognitive decline before he got the satisfaction of a belated apology.

Executive leaders have many responsibilities, but none is more important than an apology for an organizational transgression. Failure by an executive leader to apologize when warranted is seen as a weakness, especially by people in the organization they lead.

Foregone apologies represent lost opportunities to make amends, right a wrong, admit a mistake and accept responsibility for the misstep. The leader who apologizes may find the task unpleasant and uncomfortable, while those receiving the apology and staff members may find solace and take comfort listening to the apology.

Apologies can be one of the best ways to bolster a reputation. Dodging an apology can lead to calcified hard feelings and a loss of respect.

No Magic Apology Formula
Media consultants talk about the Four R’s of strong apologies – Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse and Redress. Admit what went wrong and who was harmed, accept responsibility, express regret and take steps to make things right and prevent a recurrence.

Wu covered those bases in her apology. But she did something more. She made the apology personal and expressed empathy. It wouldn’t be lost on anyone that Asian Americans have been targets of suspicion and hate. Wu’s apology was aimed at a broader audience than the two wrongfully targeted Black suspects. Her apology was a statement. And her message was loud and clear.

Not every subject merits the kind of apology given by Wu. However, too many circumstances slide by that may have merited a similar apology that arises to a higher level of acknowledgement.

Apologies Amid Division
A convenient excuse for skipping an apology is the nation’s divisive mood where even an apology can be misunderstood or taken as an offense. Being aware of the broader circumstances surrounding an incident that requires an apology is well-advised, but it shouldn’t evolve into an excuse for not apologizing.

The omission of an apology can become an even bigger issue that the episode that required an apology. GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley discovered that painful reality on the campaign stump in New Hampshire when a rally attendee asked her what caused the Civil War. Her answer omitted slavery, turning what should have been a cream puff question into a pie in her political face.

Apologies involve reputational risk. However, the greater risk is ducking an apology when your reputation is on the line.