In defense of busing in Boston

July 27, 2016

Busing wasn’t an elitist experiment—it was spurred by a grassroots struggle demanding quality education for all, writes Keegan O’Brien in an article published by Jacobin.

IN SEPTEMBER 2014, on the 40th anniversary of the court decision ordering school desegregation, the Boston Herald published an op-ed by Ray Flynn, the former mayor and South Boston representative. Flynn described the busing that followed as an "ugly" time when "city government [lost] control over our schools" and "parents [lost] a voice" in choosing their children's educational futures.

"The injustice to parents was ignored by 'elites' during this horrendously flawed and insensitive process," he wrote. "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."

Flynn's lamentations neatly encapsulated the conventional view of the busing program: that it was a failed experiment in social engineering, foisted on white working-class Bostonians by liberal-minded elites.

But while pervasive both in the Boston area and around the country, this account is profoundly misleading. It omits the three-decade-long fight for quality education led by Black Bostonians. It ignores the unrealized potential of busing to attack racism, deliver equitable education, and unite a fractured working class. And perhaps most damagingly, it exonerates the principal enemies of racial and educational justice in Boston: the banks, real-estate companies, and government officials who colluded to keep Blacks and poor whites in ghettos and deny them basic services.

Anti-busing racists attack a Black student in 1976
Anti-busing racists attack a Black student in 1976

BOSTON AFTER the Second World War was a city in flux. For one, the city's racial makeup was changing dramatically: From the end of the war to 1970, the Black population increased fourfold, to 16 percent.

Often lured by dreams of a better life in the North, Black Bostonians instead faced exclusion on all sides. Restrictive government policies kept them from accessing housing and jobs in the suburbs, confining them to racially isolated inner-city neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and underfunded schools. Residential segregation and gerrymandering denied them an effective political voice. And the only available employment opportunities were in the low-paying, non-unionized service sector.

At the same time, the ruling class that created and patrolled the bounds of the Black ghetto was undergoing shifts of its own.

A rising political machine helmed by James Michael Curley had dominated the city throughout the first half of the 20th century. As mayor, Curley created a patronage system that doled out public services in exchange for votes, drove most of the Yankee business class into the suburbs, and stoked racial and ethnic tensions within the city's predominantly immigrant working class.

But the 1949 election saw the traditional business class regain political power and the Brahmins--the elite group of Protestant families who had controlled the city from the colonial period until the 1900s--return as the other main ruling-class player.

As the political power of the city's business elite swelled, the Irish-Catholic machine watched its cachet dwindle. One of the machine's last bastions of power was the school committee. And they weren't going to let it go without a fight.

In the decades leading up to the landmark 1974 desegregation decision, Black parents--through a variety of institutions and using a variety of tactics--fought a pitched battle to better their children's education.

The formal fight for equitable education can be dated to 1950. That year, a coalition of African-American parents, motivated by the belief that their children were entitled to "as many privileges as any other children in the city," formed the Parents Federation.

Ruth Batson, a Boston Public Schools (BPS) parent who became a prominent leader in the desegregation movement, got her start in November 1950 when the Parents Federation protested Mayor Hynes' refusal to build a new school for Black students in Boston's South End.

But like many organizations pushing for civil rights during the McCarthy era, the Parents Federation was red-baited and eventually shut down.

SHORTLY THEREAFTER, the Boston branch of the NAACP established a public education subcommittee headed by Batson. The organization immediately began agitating around issues affecting African American students and parents. As the African American population continued to grow, the NAACP observed, Black students were being segregated into resource-starved schools.

A formal study by the group--conducted after the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination refused to investigate the public schools, claiming discrimination did not exist in Boston--quantified the inequity.

Four of the 13 predominantly Black schools had health and safety problems so severe they were supposed to have been closed. Per-pupil spending for African American students was on average $100 less than for their white peers, meaning Black schools had less experienced teachers and higher turnover rates. The district employed virtually no African American teachers or administrators, and many white teachers and administrators were hostile and racist toward their Black students.

In order to protect this unjust status quo, the school committee constructed an elaborate tracking system that allowed them to bus Black and white students from the same neighborhoods to different junior high schools.

As the title of Jonathan Kozol's 1967 book memorably put it, Boston's apartheid education system was consigning Black students to "death at an early age."

The revelations stoked panic among the school committee. Eager to ward off negative publicity, Louise Day Hicks, then chairwoman of the school committee, set up a hearing with the local NAACP.

But the placatory strategy backfired. So many parents, teachers, students and community members came out in support of the NAACP that 800 people were turned away. They rallied outside instead.

Inside, the school committee refused to acknowledge any of the grievances presented. Boston, the officials claimed, was not Little Rock. Racism and segregation did not exist in the "cradle of liberty." As they saw it, the problem was irresponsible Black parents and students who didn't value education.

Parents and community members were furious. "We were insulted," Batson explained years later. "We were told our kids were stupid, and this was why they didn't learn. We were completely rejected that night."

It was a turning point for Batson and other activists, the moment that many realized school officials could not be reasoned with. The Black community would have to force them to act.

ACTIVISTS QUICKLY shifted to a strategy of protest, direct action and school boycotts. Just a week after the hearings, 5,000 Black students stayed out of school to demand an end to school segregation.

The demonstration generated enough pressure that the school committee granted the NAACP another meeting. Supporters again packed the room with students and parents, but the school committee abruptly ended the meeting, just as Batson was beginning her presentation.

In the 1964 election, activists tried to get their revenge at the polls. Calling themselves Citizens for Boston Public Schools (CBPS), they put together a slate of Black and white desegregation candidates that included Mel King, a city teacher and prominent civil rights activist.

CBPS candidates advocated reforms to improve the entire school system, hoping that such cross-racial, class-based demands would help them garner white working-class support. But the election results demonstrated the stubborn entrenchment of white racism and opposition to desegregation, even among those who would benefit from the proposed reforms. The whole Citizens for Boston Public Schools slate of candidates came up short.

A second citywide school boycott took place on February 26, 1964. Thanks to the momentum created by activists and the increasing anger at the school committee's intransigence, the walkout was even more successful than the first. Almost 20,000 students boycotted, with more than 9,000 attending Freedom Schools set up by civil-rights activists.

The school superintendent, however, was not moved: "Today's demonstration was a success for no one," he said. "Real freedom is manifested only through obedience to the law...a color line is being drawn now that never existed before."

Activists, parents, students and teachers came to a very different conclusion. They saw increasing opposition to segregation as the fruits of their labor--as proof of their collective power.

In January, Martin Luther King Jr. brought national attention to their desegregation struggle. Leading a multiracial march of 22,000, he charged the Boston School Committee with "de facto segregation." Hicks and her colleagues refused to meet with him, illustrating that Boston wasn't so unlike Little Rock, an embarrassing fact for the state's political establishment.

The spring brought more momentum for the desegregation side. A state report found that 78 public schools in Massachusetts were segregated--an affront, the study declared, to "the American creed of equality of opportunity," which harmed Black students' self-confidence, educational experience and job opportunities, and "reinforce[ed] the prejudices of children."

The report, the successful boycott, and the rising tide of the national Civil Rights Movement spurred what looked to be a turning point in the city's desegregation effort.

ON JUNE 30, 1965, the Massachusetts state legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act. The first legislation of its kind, the act made public school segregation illegal and prohibited state aid to segregated schools.

The state's ruling class supported the law for a few reasons. First, they were feeling the heat from local and national civil rights activists. Second, they viewed it as an opportunity to weaken Boston's Irish-Catholic machine. And finally, they knew that because the law was voluntary, they would not have to enforce it.

In Boston, school committee officials reacted with characteristic obduracy. Hicks called the Racial Imbalance Act "unfair, ridiculous, unworkable, and unconstitutional" and rebuffed mounting demands to desegregate her own committee.

Activists were exhausted. Despite the legislative gains they'd wrested from the state elite, it seemed impossible to achieve structural change in the city's education system. Tired of waiting for politicians and sick of the school committee's stonewalling, Black parents created their own programs to get their children into quality schools.

Operation Exodus and the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) ferried Black students to open seats in the city and suburbs, demonstrating the length African American parents would go to secure quality education for their children. In addition to disproving the school committee's racist stereotypes about Black parents, the programs also publicly shamed the committee for violating the constitutional rights of Black students.

Yet however successful, the programs were stopgap measures--capable of improving the lives of enrollees but unable to effect fundamental change in the school district. With all other channels seemingly exhausted, activists turned to the courts.

ON JUNE 21, 1974, two years after the NAACP filed a federal suit against the school committee on behalf of Black parents, Judge W. Arthur Garrity handed down a 152-page ruling that ordered the district to begin desegregating that year. The Boston Public Schools, Garrity wrote in his decision in Tallulah Morgan v. James W Hennigan, was intentionally segregated.

He cited patterns of overcrowding and underutilization, gerrymandered district lines, feeder systems that created and enforced a dual system of secondary education, a reliance on less qualified and lower-paid teachers in predominantly Black schools, and the restriction of Black teachers to Black schools to justify his legal intervention.

Garrity had no illusions about the impact of the decision. "He knew there was going to be a lot of opposition," one of Garrity's law clerks later told the Boston Globe.

The first phase of the desegregation plan called for busing high school students between Roxbury, the heart of Boston's Black community, and South Boston, a close-knit, working-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood.

City politicians mobilized white residents immediately. Hicks, now a member of the city council, used her political influence in the city to form the Save Boston Committee--later renamed Restore Our Alienated Rights--and gave anti-busing activists full use of city hall offices.

That fall, almost all South Boston parents kept their kids out of school. Unsatisfied with silent resistance, white parents and their children violently confronted Black students as they made their way into South Boston High. They threw banana peels, hurled bottles and rocks, and carried signs that read "NIGGERS GO HOME." At Hyde Park High School, located in the upper-middle-class neighborhood known as the High Wards, Black students faced some of the most violent attacks in the city.

In October, anti-desegregation protesters were emboldened when President Gerald Ford announced he wouldn't send U.S. Marshals to protect Black students. "The court decision in that case, in my judgment, was not the best solution to quality education in Boston," Ford explained. "I have consistently opposed forced busing to achieve racial balance as a solution to quality education." Ford's statement reflected the rightward turn underway in U.S. politics as politicians across the country sought to roll back social movement gains.

Meanwhile, Black parents in Boston were going to extraordinary lengths to protect their children from racist violence and ensure they had access to a decent education. Parents and civil rights activists set up grassroots support and mutual aid networks like the Freedom House Institute on Schools and Education, which helped students get to school, and held information sessions on the desegregation process for parents, students and community members.

And--contrary to the conventional history, which emphasizes one-sided, monolithic white resistance--supporters of desegregation organized mass, multiracial demonstrations and forums.

In October 1974, Black communist Angela Davis denounced the bigoted response to desegregation in a speech at a packed community forum. The Freedom House put together an "assembly for justice" that brought together a coalition of Black community organizations and their supporters the same month.

On November 30, Coretta Scott King led a march of several thousand in downtown Boston, and two weeks later, a pro-desegregation rally featuring Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory and Amiri Baraka drew more than 12,000 people to the Boston Commons.

The largest demonstration in support of desegregation took place on May 17, 1975, when more than 40,000 people came out to defend busing. "We wanted to show Boston that there are a number of people who have fought for busing, some for over 20 years," explained Ellen Jackson, one of the rally's organizers. "We hoped to express the concerns of many people who have not seen themselves, only seeing the anti-busing demonstrations in the media." Despite the media's focus on the anti-busing movement, civil rights activists would continue to fight to keep racial justice in the public conversation.

THAT FALL, following the rejection of a busing proposal that effectively called for maintaining segregation, Judge Garrity implemented phase two of his plan. Busing was expanded to make every school reflect the approximate racial makeup of the city.

But the school committee and many white families still refused to cooperate. More than 50 percent of white students stayed out of school in 1975-76. And by the beginning of the school year, nearly 9,000 whites had moved out of South Boston. Violence proliferated, with fistfights and even stabbings.

The most well-known incident, captured by Stanley Forman in his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph The Soiling of Old Glory, occurred in April 1976, when anti-busing activists attacked Ted Landsmark, an African American lawyer, with an American flag after an anti-busing rally at city hall. The picture became international news overnight, powerfully illuminating the endemic racism in America's so-called "cradle of liberty."

Given the racism of Boston's political institutions, and the refusal of many white families to cooperate, civil rights leaders knew that the only solution was to take control away from the school committee and put it in the hands of an outside administration.

On December 9, Judge Garrity stepped in and removed the principal of South Boston High School and seven other administrators and put the entire school system under federal judicial control for refusal to comply with court orders. That same day, the NAACP office was firebombed.

Yet once the school district was placed under federal receivership, white families realized busing was not going away. More and more simply fled the city. By the fall of 1976 30,000 students had left the Boston public school system, more than a third of the district's white students.

Phase three of Garrity's plan went into effect the following year, making the district responsible for monitoring and implementing policies to ensure racial balance. By this point, the mass exodus of white families had weakened the anti-busing movement; Hicks lost her seat on the city council, and John O'Bryant became the first African American elected to the school committee.

For a brief moment desegregation slowly proceeded, delivering important material gains to the city's Black working class. Boston's school's system was rendered more racially integrated, Black students received more resources, and more Black teachers were hired.

But these accomplishments were soon rolled back by further white flight, a racist backlash against the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements, and employers' neoliberal offensive. After decades of struggle and strife, class segregation and racial inequality had survived intact, relatively untouched.

BUSING HAD the potential to weaken the racism that split Boston's working class, giving white and Black workers a stake in building up the public institutions that they would together share. Instead, the city's Irish-Catholic political machine fomented a violent, racist backlash that left Black and white parents fighting over scraps while elites accumulated massive amounts of wealth.

In the 1970s, South Boston had the highest levels of concentrated white poverty in the United States and an adult male unemployment rate of 40 percent. Southie led the city in drug overdoses and came in a close second to Roxbury in gun murders. South Boston and Roxbury High had parallel dropout rates.

White workers were not making out well, materially, by privileging ethnic pride over class solidarity. But because the radical left never gained a foothold among the city's working class, class politics never took root. South Boston became the perfect breeding ground for right-wing populism and racist scapegoating.

Rather than fighting the true architects of their misery, most residents of South Boston mistakenly turned their fire on Judge Garrity.

Garrity's order wasn't an attack on community schools and parents' right to have a voice in their kid's education. White parents had no problem sending their children across the city to attend all-white schools--opposition only arose when busing meant their kids would be learning alongside Black children. Calls to preserve "good neighborhood schools" were a rhetorical ruse manufactured by elites to shore up a racist, segregated status quo.

Nor was Garrity's ruling an overzealous, top-down social experiment. His court order only came about because of years of political organizing and pressure from civil rights activists and Boston's Black community.

And even if integration was short-lived and partial--not least because Garrity's plan didn't extend to the suburbs--it dealt a blow to racism by weakening racial barriers and opening up the city's political institutions to African Americans. As Ruth Batson argued in a 1991 interview, "The Black people in this city, we saved this city. If we thought things were bad, God knows what would have happened [without our organizing for desegregation]."

Still, the failure to effectively desegregate the city left Boston's working class divided and inert in the face of the employer offensive over the next 40 years. The results have been devastating. This year Boston ranked as the most unequal city in the United States, and racial and class stratification still shape its urban geography.

Gentrification is rapidly remaking historically working-class neighborhoods like South Boston and Roxbury, displacing longtime residents and creating islands of wealth and power alongside concentrations of intense, debilitating poverty. The Boston public school system remains chronically underfunded and plagued by racial and class segregation.

If the battle over busing holds any lesson, it is that only collective, multiracial struggle from below can confront social injustice. Shying away from antiracist organizing only plays into the hands of economic and political elites.

In the 1970s, a justifiably aggrieved white working class misdirected its anger at Black students rather than the ruling class responsible for Southie's social nightmare. They're still paying the price.

First published at Jacobin.

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