Will Segregation Return to Boston’s Schools?



BOSTON-In the early 1970s, after years of struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds, a group of minority parents in Boston brought suit against the Boston Public Schools. They argued that their children were being denied their right to a decent education because of their race.

This gutsy bunch of parents from the heart of the city’s Black community got together and made a historic fight against a monolith of city and state bureaucracies that for generations had kept them confined.

They organized their families, friends, and neighbors-Black, white, Latino, and Asian-and just as the civil rights movement had done in the South, took to the streets demanding justice for their kids.

On June 21, 1974, a U.S. District Court judge ruled, in Tallulah Morgan et al, Plaintiffs v. James W. Hennigan et al, Defendants, that the Boston School Committee had “violated the constitutional rights of plaintiff class; that school authorities had knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers, and school facilities, and had intentionally brought about or maintained a dual school system; that the entire school system of Boston was unconstitutionally segregated.”

The findings of the court investigation shocked no one. What was surprising to many was the lengths to which the city’s racist politicians had gone to prop up their separate-but-equal scheme. At the time there were 201 schools in the system and the court determined that 160 of them were segregated. Eighty-one of the Boston Public Schools had never had a Black teacher.

The system included 13 different grade structures, many of them created for the sole purpose of ensuring racial separation. In some of the all-white schools overcrowding was openly practiced in order to maintain the dual system.

To remedy the conditions found in the schools, the court was forced to develop a plan that required massive student reassignments. This could only be accomplished by busing children from one end of the city to the other.

This “outrage” became the rallying point for the numerous racist groups in and around Boston, who set aside age-old ethnic and geographic disputes of their own to organize a campaign of terror intended to destroy this attempt to desegregate the Boston schools.

Busing itself clearly was not the problem. For years prior to the historic court order, white students who did not reside inside the city’s all-white enclaves were bused by the thousands past predominantly Black schools and into white neighborhoods to attend school.

Racist groups such as the South Boston Marshals and its covert stepchild, the South Boston Defense League, pointed to the racial tensions and violence-which they themselves created-as proof that busing was forcing otherwise responsible, peace-loving citizens to lash out.

The racist onslaught, organized and orchestrated by elected city officials and their staffs in city hall, ultimately failed, only because of the ability of the Black community to demonstrate its power, independent of the politicians.

Bringing the mass movement into the streets of Boston was the only way to force the government to enforce the rights of the Black community. This is the lesson learned from the Civil Rights Movement.

Community leaders and activists also organized themselves as a security force to defend and protect the busloads of terrified Black children, who faced unrestrained assaults from rock-throwing racist mobs on their way to and from school.

Improvements resulting from desegregation included the pairing of the Boston Public Schools with area colleges and universities, which agreed “to support, assist, and participate in the development and maintenance of educational excellence within and among the public schools of Boston”; elimination of discriminatory practices generated by employing 13 different grade structures; and implementation of bilingual programs of instruction for all students whose primary languages were Spanish, Chinese, Greek, French/Haitian, Portuguese, Italian and Cape Verdean Portuguese. The last gain was largely a result of pressure from El Comite, the Hispanic parents’ organization.

Another significant development was the establishment of a Biracial Parents Council for every school and a Citywide Parents Advisory Committee to coordinate the councils. Both were elective bodies to monitor school desegregation and help improve internal race relations in the schools, as well as to advise the federal court.

The years since the desegregation victory have seen a deterioration in the quality of public education in Boston, as in most cities. As competition for scant resources has increased, a new offensive to return the minority children of Boston to a segregated, inferior school system is gaining ground. The struggle for equal access and community control has been co-opted into the Democratic Party and off the streets.

Jimmy Kelly, one of the street toughs who came to the fore of the racist antibusing mob, is now president of the Boston City Council. Another crony, Ray Flynn, went on to become mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, appointed by President Clinton.

White parents’ group files suit

In July of this year, the Boston School Committee, with the full backing of School Superintendent Thomas Payzant, as well as most of the business/political establishment, voted to end “racial assignments” for the school year beginning in September 2000. But even this wasn’t good enough for the racist vanguard.

Chester Darling, an attorney for and leader of an organization calling itself “Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights,” filed suit in federal court on Aug. 30 on behalf of a group of white parents. They argued that their children were being denied their first choice of schools because of racial considerations.

A U.S. District Court judge responded: “In light of the evolving law of equal protection, their challenge is a fair one.”

She went on to say that if the law were clearer, and a remedy obvious, “I would not hesitate to order the relief the plaintiffs have requested, no matter what the cost, just as courts have done when those issues were raised years ago by minority plaintiffs.”

The parents had asked that they be allowed to place their children in the schools of their choosing for the start of this school year. The judge only refused to honor this demand because it was raised just days before schools were scheduled to open. Pleased by the court’s decision, Superintendent Payzant said that the plaintiffs’ case was moot because of the school committee’s decision to remove race as an admissions factor next year.

The goal of Darling’s group is to bring down Massachusetts’ 34-year-old Racial Imbalance Act, which they allege illegally denies white students access to some schools, namely those located in their overwhelmingly white neighborhoods.

“It is our conviction that this sort of activity is divisive and creates problems and racial animosities,” Darling asserted.

“Classic race-baiting”

Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, responded that Darling’s motive was clearly to scare Massachusetts into returning to a pre-civil rights era in which minority students would be forced to attend segregated, inferior schools.

“I become concerned with this style of attack, attack, attack without any substance or strong proof,” said Alkins. “It’s the classic race-baiting that you heard in the ’60s and ’70s coming back in the ’90s.”

Alkins is right. The misnamed “Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights” is nothing more than a front for the same racist forces that turned the streets of Boston into a battle zone in 1974 in their efforts to “keep the niggers out” of South Boston and Charlestown.

Like then, in Boston and elsewhere, desegregation has become the focal point of the struggle between those who want to extend the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in this country, and those who want to roll them back.

This offensive is part of an overall assault on the working class by big business and the government that works on its behalf. Corporate America is in the midst of a downsizing frenzy that has eliminated hundreds of thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs. This results in a lower demand for highly skilled, well educated workers.

It stands to reason that the quality of education must be downsized too. In order to get away with this, the capitalist class needs to keep the working class divided. It is once again relying on the most effective trump card in its deck, race, to hinder working families of all national and racial backgrounds from uniting against their true enemy, the capitalists themselves.

Recent retreats by the courts and the Boston School Committee are being heralded as great victories by the racist resegregation movement. The minority community of Boston must organize to defend itself in the face of this new reality.

Desegregation was not the work of a well-meaning, liberal judge trying to right an injustice. It was a triumph of working people united to secure what was rightly theirs, equal rights and an education for their children.


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