Struggle to desegregate Boston’s schools


— BOSTON — This current academic year marks the 40th anniversary of the struggle to desegregate the Boston Public Schools. No celebrations were held to mark the event; there was no commemoration and little public commentary. Local television stations made no use of the ample film footage they possessed and broadcast no special programs of an important chapter in Boston’s history. Discreet silence, with a few exceptions, was the general watchword in the city. The ruling elite favored forgetfulness of their shameful past.

Those who fought for civil rights and racial equality then, and the generation that is inspired to take up new challenges today, have every reason to remember or learn the history of previous struggles, even when the results were not successful.

With a 1954 Supreme Court order to integrate public schools throughout the United States, racial equality in Boston had been delayed and denied. In 1974 U. S. District Court Judge Arthur Garrity released his decision, finding “that the evidence established that the school authorities had knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation … and had intentionally brought about or maintained a dual school system” that was “unconstitutionally segregated.”

Further, the racist policies of the school committee operated “to the detriment of black pupils who generally were receiving an education unequal to that being given white pupils.”

No one could honestly dispute the facts or find them surprising. As Black community activist Mel King wrote, “Judge Garrity was faced with overwhelming evidence. The School Committee had kept excellent records of its policies. … In effect, the Judge had no choice but to respond to history” (“Chain of Change,” 1981, pp. 158-159). A federal appeals court would later uphold Garrity’s decision.

Despite its liberal reputation, Boston had long been divided racially and ethnically by neighborhoods, and the public schools mirrored that segregation. For example, South Boston High School, known as “Southie,” had a 100% white pupil enrollment at the time of Garrity’s order. Needless to say, no minority faculty members were employed there.

Schools within the proportionally small Black community were the worst in the city, underfunded, overcrowded, and generally neglected. These schools also received the least qualified and least capable teachers. More than a decade of appeals by Black parents to the school committee, city council, and state legislature had resulted in no real improvement.

For all that Boston politicians spoke of their love of neighborhoods, the school committee was elected on a city-wide and not a neighborhood or district basis. This policy was a deliberate and legal means to preserve an all-white (and all Democratic Party) school committee. It ensured that Boston’s Black community, then only 10 percent of the population and confined primarily in an area known as Roxbury, would not be able to elect a minority candidate. Nor were any minority school administrators ever appointed by these school committees.

Finally, by order of Judge Arthur Garrity, the Boston public schools began to carry out a desegregation plan that, in its first phase, would bus 20,000 of the city’s 93,000 pupils. Black students were sent from their neighborhoods to South Boston, a predominantly white, Irish area, to begin the creation of a racially integrated school system in the city. Students from “Southie” were likewise sent into the Black community of Roxbury. It was this order that gave rise to the noxious phrase “forced busing.” Black students replied, more accurately: “It’s not the bus, it’s us.”

The victory in court was the conclusion of a years-long effort for fundamental civil rights for the beleaguered Black community in Boston, but it was certainly not the end of the battle. Vigorous and brave action by Black parents, students, and their allies in the courts, streets, and classrooms resulted in a temporary triumph.

In early 1975, pro-busing forces consisting of hundreds of activists from around the country and dozens of student groups organized a national conference in Boston that founded the National Student Coalition Against Racism (NSCAR). With the NAACP, a major demonstration in favor of busing was called for the following spring that succeeded in drawing approximately 15,000.

In addition to demonstrations, NSCAR organized teach-ins, public debates, and forums, including campaigns to educate against the death penalty. Its press releases promptly countered the lies and distortions of the anti-busing organizations and their spokespeople.

NSCAR campus chapters were set up in high schools and colleges throughout the United States. Members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were instrumental in all of these efforts and provided many staff members for day-to-day work. SWP militants were also elected to leadership positions within NSCAR, where they helped to build a broad and united organization.

NSCAR provided factual material to educate about the nature of the struggle. One of NSCAR’s resolutions stated: “The real issue in the school desegregation battle is not busing—the means to get better schools—but the democratic right of Blacks to get the equal education now denied them.”

Yet, over time, the white majority found a way to re-assert its power. Unable to block the federal order that bused students throughout the city to achieve racial balance, unable to roll back the buses themselves, whites in Boston turned from legal challenges to mob violence and ultimately to the abandonment of the public schools, leaving them much smaller and more segregated than they were before the desegregation order was implemented. By 1988, overall student numbers had fallen to 57,000, of which only 15% were white. The Boston public schools were once again re-segregated.

Last fall, former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn recalled those years in an article titled: “40 years later, busing ruling still misguided” (Boston Herald, Sept. 3, 2014). When buses began rolling to South Boston in 1974, Flynn was the state representative of “Southie” and a leading opponent of “forced busing.”

Flynn was never the biggest bigot in Boston; his political forte was a more refined, a more respectable racism. His customary tone was not angry but aggrieved, in sorrow for the good white people of Southie and all the trials they had to endure. Unlike the more charismatic near-criminals in city politics, Flynn was the somewhat slow-witted but reasonable reactionary. His was the ideal public face of prejudice. It’s a role he continues today.

In this article Flynn recalls what he refers to as “an ugly time.” Flynn indignantly states: “Not only did the federal court decision by Judge W. Arthur Garrity remove city government control over our schools, it denied parents a voice in where their children could attend school.”

Flynn continues, “The injustice to parents was ignored by ‘elites’ during this horrendously flawed and insensitive process… I knew many of these parents. They were fine, decent and concerned mothers and fathers who were not racists or haters as they were sometimes described in the media.”

This article is a cover-up for what was indeed an ugly time; it whitewashes white racism in a veneer of phony populism, falsely pitting elites versus parents, that is, white parents. Black people in Boston never had a public voice. The article itself is a misguided effort to mis-educate readers too young to know what really occurred in Boston 40 years ago.

Flynn mentions racism only once in his article, and then only to deny that it existed. He won’t acknowledge that racism was the driving force that united white opposition to busing and to the desegregation order. A phrase like “our schools” was often heard in the 1970s, but it never referred to the entire city. “Our schools” was a code word for “white schools” that would remain white by forcibly excluding Blacks and other minorities.

School Committee member and mayoral candidate Louise Day Hicks, a champion of Boston bigotry, famously said, “A racially imbalanced school is not educationally harmful.” Never mind that the Supreme Court had ruled to the contrary 20 years before.

It is sheer nonsense and brazenly deceitful to say that white parents were simply decent people who were denied their rights. The only right they lost was the right to deny equal treatment to Black citizens of Boston. It is simply not credible to deny the dominating presence of white racists and haters. Minority students were the targets from the first day of school. Angry white mobs did not throw rocks and bottles at the yellow paint of the school buses; they were aiming for the Black skin of the students huddled fearfully inside.

Violence was so intense that on the opening days of school in 1974, only a small number of Black students actually dared to board the buses and attend school. At South Boston High, white mobs shouted “Niggers, go home!” and threw bottles and rocks. Several students were injured. A metal detector was installed by the school’s doors, and the state police were assigned inside the schools to ensure student safety.

In fact, liberal white officials were also not safe. Judge Garrity received so many credible death threats that federal marshals were assigned as protection around his suburban home. In an anti-busing demonstration of several thousand held on City Plaza before the start of the 1974 school year, a figure of Garrity was burned in effigy.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy faced crowds so hostile and aggressive that he was physically attacked in public. Kennedy appeared at the City Plaza demonstration, where he had not been invited, and tried to speak from the platform. Rally organizers belligerently refused and prevented him from approaching the microphone. Leaving the podium exposed him to the angry crowd, who turned on him viciously. Senator Kennedy fled into the John F. Kennedy Building for safety. In his autobiography, “True Compass,” the senator recalls that, confronted by “a full-fledged mob,” he “turned resolutely and strode toward the doors” (p. 349).

While Kennedy continued verbally to support the court order for desegregation, in practice he submitted to the white mobs—his electoral base—and stopped speaking out in favor of busing. This position actually placed Kennedy to the left of the presidential candidates in 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, who took anti-busing stands.

In a predominantly Roman Catholic Boston, the Church learned something from these organized outbursts of bigotry and remained silent, playing no positive role whatsoever, other than issuing some mild statements against violence. Unofficially, some Catholic priests joined with anti-busing demonstrators and gave them the semblance of Church blessings.

Commentators typically dismiss the Boston desegregation struggle as a foolish, ill-conceived adventure in social engineering that was doomed from the start. The possibility of failure was quite real, especially in a city where the minority community was too small and isolated to wield any political clout.

But today’s popular wisdom glosses over the difficult reality. Boston’s Black community confronted a stark choice: fight for racial equality and improved educational opportunity for its children, or acquiesce to on-going discrimination and disadvantage for decades to come.

The Boston desegregation effort finally did not succeed. White families who had boycotted the public schools ultimately abandoned them, with many whites transferring to parochial schools or leaving the city entirely. A school system that was 68% white in 1970 became 14% white in 2012. An integrated school system could not exist when most of the students were racial and ethnic minorities. The Boston School Committee officially ended the desegregation program in 1999.

Nonetheless, the cause of desegregation and the fight for it were worthy and essential ones. The culture and practices of white racism that ruled Boston had to be exposed and challenged; the tradition of “separate but equal” had to be broken. That much was accomplished.

Much more remains to be done, not only in Boston. In a country where re-segregation has re-emerged in every major city, the struggle for racial equality has been losing ground.

If Black lives matter, then education matters. Black families have received the worst quality education in America and have received the fewest educational opportunities. Black people are several times overrepresented in prison compared to their percentage in the general population. While there may well be more Blacks in college than in jail, too many minority students are shunted to community college and underrepresented in competitive colleges.

The kind of movement that has taken to the streets against police brutality and social neglect shows the power of collective action needed to demand quality education for the most needy in America. The struggle for desegregation and education substantive education, part of the on-going struggle for civil rights, is far from finished.

Remembering the Boston desegregation battle 40 years later means to recall, especially, the young Black students who demanded change, despite the powerful forces arrayed against them. They boarded buses knowing they would step off into hostile crowds hurling epithets, stones, and bottles. Any decent and honest account of that era must acknowledge these Black youth as heroes who can inspire young people in their own struggle today.

Photo: Buses arrive at South Boston High School on Jan. 8, 1975



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