(10 AM – promoted by TheMomCat)
Lately, there has been some discussion over Boston’s mandatory school busing debacle..almost 40 years after it first got underway, by many Bostonians and former Bostonians alike. Many people agree that not bringing it out into the open and talking about it honestly is part of why Boston has not moved as far forward as it could’ve regarding racial issues, insularity, and most, important of all, education for their children. Only now, 40 years after Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that the Boston School Committee had unconstitutionally segregated the Boston Public Schools, has any kind of discussion begun about it. I myself, hope it continues. Many people from Boston who experienced it first hand, both white and non-white alike, wish to have their stories heard, which is only fair.
Here is my own personal essay on Boston’s mandatory school busing, which is cross-posted over on firefly-dreaming, docudharma, and afew other forums:
On Mandatory School Busing here in Boston:
Unlike many, if not most of the Southern areas, Boston’s busing program was confined to the city limits, which was also partly why Boston became so explosive during the mid to late 1970’s when mandatory school busing was implemented there. A Metropolitan solution was considered in a number of areas including Boston, but it got scrapped. People in Boston’s all-white suburbs would not accept it, and Boston’s black community, already small, and fearful that the limited amount of influence and power that they had, would be “diluted in the sea of suburbia”, also rejected it.
However, the Boston area also had a METCO program (I forget what the letters stand for), in which black students from Boston were bused in to a number of the outer-lying bedroom communities, including my old hometown, which implemented METCO later. The METCO program was a voluntary program aimed at inner city students from Roxbury, Mattapan and North Dorchester who wished to participate in it, and a great many METCO kids benefited by getting a better education at better schools in wealthier communities.
Unfortunately, however, with the mandatory school busing program in Boston itself, that frequently failed to happen. First of all, in Boston, the busing was done in such a way that it further pitted poor and working-class whites and blacks alike against each other. The most disastrous part of the mandatory school busing plan in the city of Boston itself was the pairing off of poor white South Boston with poor black Roxbury, particularly the high schools in those two neighborhoods. Black students were taken out of horribly run-down, educationally inferior schools in Roxbury, Mattapan and North Dorchester and bused across town to schools in white neighborhoods, particularly in poor white South Boston, Charlestown and East Boston that were frequently little or no better, educationally or physically, than the schools that they’d been taken out of.
Prominent people, such as Prof. Louis Jaffe of the Harvard University Law School, who was to hold hearings on the plan, and Edward McCormack, a South Boston native and an NAACP-affiliated attorney with a strong civil rights record that won him accolades in Boston’s black community, warned that the part of the plan which entailed the pairing off of Roxbury and Southie was a “red flag”; that it should be restudied and looked over, and that implementation of the plan should be deferred for another year or so in order to study and consider some alternatives. Many of Boston’s blacks themselves, acutely aware of the extremely intense hostility that lay in store for their kids at the end of the bus ride from Roxbury into poor white Southie, were none too happy with the plan either, and greatly feared, with ample reason, for their children’s safety.
Unfortunately, the warnings issued by Prof. Jaffe and Edward McCormack were ignored. Federal District Judge W. Arthur Garrity and his experts who had crafted the busing plan, disregarded the warnings and ordered the plan, including the South Boston-Roxbury pairing, into effect for the following fall. As some people had predicted, it erupted into much chaos and violence, especially from poor white Southie which rivaled that in many, if not most of the Southern areas, (i. e. Alabama, Mississippi, to name afew), and probably the Detroit area as well), setting the tone for and acting as sort of a “trigger” for the rest of the city, which, little by little, also exploded into violence.
Moreover, the black students being bused into the schools in Boston’s white neighborhoods, particularly South Boston, Charlestown and East Boston, were regularly met with jeers, catcalls, gibes, racial epithets, rock-and-bottle throwing by vicious mobs outside the schools, and physical attacks by whites when they were inside the schools in those areas, particularly the high schools. Many black students were afraid to enter the schools in white South Boston and Charlestown, especially the high schools, and, in some cases, refused to do so altogether, precisely because of the verbal and physical abuse that they were routinely subject to. Yet, the black students being bused into these particular areas were by no means the only ones subject to abuse.
Ordinary residents of Southie, Charlestown and East Boston, for example, who attempted to comply with the busing order in any way, whether it was by participating in a council to help ensure the safety of black children in those particular schools, or by joining a parents’ racial-ethnic council, for example, were also subject to abuse. So was the predominantly white and Irish Catholic Tactical Patrol Force, many of who either hailed from or had kinship in those neighborhoods, and had been assigned to keep and maintain order in Boston’s neighborhoods during busing.
Charlestown High School’s headmaster, Frank Power, who was white and Irish-Catholic (although not from Charlestown) and had been the school’s headmaster since 1968, was also subjected to much abuse by many Townie parents and students alike for complying with the busing order, especially by meeting, talking with, and listening to the black students who were bused in, were under constant verbal and physical attack, and who had banded together with other non-whites at Charlestown High School to form a Minority Students Council for self-protection. Once a very popular figure and kind of a celebrity in the Town and at Charlestown High School, Frank Power now had become “persona non gratta” with many Townie parents and Townie students alike. Regularly vilified, screamed at, insulted and cussed out, Frank Power also received death threats via telephone, and was even spat upon by many Townies. All of this abuse eventually took its toll on Frank Power, who was ultimately forced to resign his position as Charlestown High School’s headmaster during mid-year of that year, due to extremely poor health, which was invariably made worse by the constant, extreme stress that was put on him during that school year.
All this is not to say, however, that busing created the problems and the racial/ethnic tensions, or that the Boston Public School system was educationally sound prior to busing. In fact, Boston’s Public School system had been a school system in decline for many decades before busing, since the 1920’s, and there’d been much racial and ethnic bigotry in Boston prior to busing. Before busing, even Boston’s white ethnic neighborhoods had been quite polarized from each other. Predominantly Irish Charlestown and the Italian North End, directly across the bridge from one another, for example, had been long-time rivals. Many North Enders who’d opted to go to Charlestown High School during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, were regularly attacked physically and had ethnic slurs directed at them by many of the Townies, who clearly did not want them there. The advent of mandated school busing in Boston during the mid-to late 1970’s, however, united the white neighborhoods even more completely against non-white, especially the black neighborhoods.
Boston had also been already traumatized during the 1950’s and 1960’s by urban renewal policies gone awry, which had resulted in the displacement of thousands of people, as well as by airport and highway expansion, which encroached on and/or sliced through many of Boston’s neighborhoods. The total razing of Boston’s old West End neighborhood, which was replaced later by not-so-attractive high-rises, as well as MLK’s assassination, and the B-BURG (Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group) program, which created a ghetto out of the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in Boston, and also provided backdrop for much of the racial tensions and hostility that followed.
For at least a decade prior to busing, however, racial tensions and hostilities in Boston had been on the rise, many if not most of Boston’s public schools generally had been quite poor in educational quality and physical shape to begin with, the student school dropout rate was already quite high, and flight from the city and/or its public schools was already taking place. Many of Boston’s remaining white working-class people, seeing all this, became alarmed. There was another extremely important factor that was at play: For many years prior to busing, the all-white Boston School committee, steeped in politics, patronage and no small amount of opportunism, rode on the coattails of white working-class fears, frustrations and resentments along the lines of race and class, played to their worst instincts, and affectively coached and bent much of Boston’s white working-class population into a stance of belligerence and resistance.
Indeed, the all-white Boston School Committee back then fought tooth and nail every effort to integrate Boston’s public schools. They deliberately violated the Racial Imbalance Law in the most egregious, mean-spirited fashion and helped keep de facto segregation of Boston’s public schools intact. While it’s true that Boston’s neighborhoods were/are residentially segregated, hence resulting in segregated schools, the Boston School Committee persistently refused to make any kind of effort to help relieve the overcrowding and racial imbalance of the city’s public schools.
As a consequence of so many years of intransigence on the part of the all-white Boston School Committee, Boston’s black community, which had legitimate grievances against the Boston School Committee, ultimately felt compelled to take their case to the Federal District Court. Much tougher, more costly, and unwanted measures were resorted to than would’ve otherwise been taken, which, in turn helped send age-old, pre-existing racial tensions and hostilities in Boston soaring way, way up above the boiling point, leaving a city and its people greatly scarred (psychologically) by the experience. Having said all of the above, I firmly believe that many years of malfeasance and intransigence on the part of the all-white Boston School Committee back then, both prior to and during busing, the advise for Boston to go the school desegregation process alone, and the condemnation of Boston’s white working-class people as racists per se by many people residing in many of Boston’s outer-lying all-white suburbs, all helped to set the state for much of the racial/ethnic tensions and strife that went on in the city of Boston at that time.
While it’s true that white racism was a significant driving force in the opposition and active resistance to mandated school busing in Boston, it was by no means the only factor at play. The issues were socioeconomic in origin, also. Class, as well as race, played a substantial role in Boston’s busing crisis. Many of Boston’s whites, particularly those residing in Southie, Charlestown and East Boston, were as poor as the blacks in Roxbury, North Dorchester and Mattapan. They were also hurt by badly-thought out urban renewal programs, and invasive policies such as airport and highway expansion. Many of Boston’s working-class whites had also witnessed and/or been displaced from Boston neighborhoods such as the West End and other neighborhoods during urban renewal policies gone awry, and, fearing displacement or further displacement, resisted, with the encouragement of the all-white Boston School Committee, who they continued to re-elect into office time after time.
As guilty as the Boston School Committee back then was of many years of malfeasance, however, they were by no means alone in perpetuating de facto segregation in Boston. In May 1968, roughly a month after MLK’s assassination, and six years prior to busing, then-Mayor Kevin Hagan White announced a program that was ostensibly designed to help first-time low-income black homebuyers to break out of the ghetto, assume the responsibility of homeownership for the first time, and to obtain FHA(Federal Housing Adm.) insured loans. What followed in B-BURG’S wake, however, was nothing less than a disaster. The B-BURG (Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group) program, a consortium of some 20 Boston-area banks, operated in partnership with the Boston-area Real Estate Agents. Boston’s Jewish neighborhoods in Mattapan, Roxbury and North Dorchester were chosen for the B-BURG experiment, citing resistance from the other white ethnic neighborhoods nearby, and effectively “redlined”. B-BURG’s black homebuyers were restricted to the Jewish neighborhoods, and, in many cases denied loans when they found decent homes that they liked, which were frequently only afew blocks outside the “redlined” B-BURG areas.
Pre-existing white flight from the “redlined” areas increased, fueled, at least in part, by racist campaigning by the banks and real estate agents that were affiliated with the B-BURG program. Unscrupulous Real Estate Agents frequently warned Jewish homeowners to “sell and get out now” before their property values declined. With the advent of threats, arsons, fire-bombings and break-ins, most of Boston’s remaining Jewish population fled the “redlined” neighborhoods, and a crime-ridden, overcrowded ghetto was created that still exists today. Contrary to helping people break out of the ghetto, B-BURG had enlarged, extended and reinforced the ghetto.
I believe that, had the B-BURG program been administered differently and allowed black homebuyers access to housing throughout the city, and with a different kind of leadership on the part of the Boston School Committee back then, Boston’s neighborhoods and schools alike would’ve been much more integrated racially, ethnically and socioeconomically, and resulted in better schools for both non-white and white Boston Public School students alike. Boston Parents and students alike would’ve had much more choice as to where students could/would be sent to school, and Boston’s public school system would be in much better shape today. There would’ve also been a much, much better chance, I believe, to neutralize (the late) Boston School Committeewoman Louise Day Hicks, derail her crusade, and thereby eliminate the need for a far-reaching, more costly cross-city mandated school busing program, which had clearly increased racial, ethnic and class polarization in Boston and made many people more angry, fearful and suspicious of each other. Instead, things went on as they were. Mayor Kevin H. White, both unable and unwilling to lead, and to keep the city under control during Boston’s school crisis, ultimately decided not to run for re-election after four terms in office.
Although there has always been much bigotry in Boston’s white neighborhoods, I often find myself questioning (A) Whether or not the
the racists were/are necessarily in the majority, and (B) whether other solutions could’ve been implemented that didn’t help produce such bitter, long and drawn-out conflict between Boston’s poor and working-class whites and blacks.
Here are my answers to the question: (A). I believe that perhaps the bigots were not necessarily in the majority, but, yet, the Boston School Committee back then, especially under the auspices of political “tools” such as (the late) Louise Day Hicks, and John Kerrigan (who was no relation to ice-skater Nancy Kerrigan, btw), and, by extension, certain Boston City Council members, who, by their racially divisive policies, created the kind of atmosphere that provided a haven for the racists and extremists among Boston’s white working-class population, which allowed them to do their dirty work and helped set the stage for the racial strife that went on in the city at that time.
This kind of racial strife, made possible by the all-white Boston School Committee and certain city council members, resulted in many horrific racial incidents in Boston’s neighborhoods, as well as inside and around many of the schools, especially the high schools. It also resulted in such incidents as the horrific abuse of and forced resignation of Frank Power, who was then Charlestown High School’s headmaster, and the well-publicized but more horrific attack on African-American attorney Theodore Landsmark, who was on his way to a meeting at Boston City Hall, by white working-class toughs. One of Ted Landsmark’s attackers swung an American flag at him, which Ted Landsmark leaned away from and avoided just in time, while two other white toughs assaulted, punched and kicked him, leaving Theodore Landsmark seriously injured and needing to be rushed to the hospital.
All this being said, I believe that extremists and bigots do not have to be in the majority to present a problem. The troublemakers, however, while not necessarily in the majority, are often the most upfront and more vocal, therefore getting the most publicity and clout, and are frequently assisted and coached by leadership that encourages them. Therefore, I believe, that with a different kind of leadership, different solutions to the problems would’ve been possible, and the bigots and extremists could’ve/would’ve been isolated and deprived of the liberty and license to do their dirty work of whipping other people up much earlier. A volatile situation would’ve been brought under control much, much sooner, thus preventing or at least minimizing much of what happened at that time.
The answer to Part B of my question is that I have always believed that the problems that mandated school busing set out to correct, particularly in Boston and the North/Northeast generally (but in many other places as well), are far too deeply-rooted and far too complex to be solved by a measure such as mandated school busing. Again, had B-BURG operated differently and allowed the housing in all of Boston’s neighborhoods to be racially/ethnically integrated, and the Boston School Committee back then been more flexible and complied with the Racial Imbalance Law instead of resisting and engaging in all their political posturing, things would’ve been very, very different.
Although there would’ve undoubtedly been a certain amount of conflict and resistance no matter what kind of solutions had been imposed, things would’ve eventually calmed down and people would’ve learned to live with and accept each other as human beings. I also believe that a certain amount of conflict can be useful in that people could learn from each other, and hopefully arrive at some sort of understanding which would pave the way for more workable solutions to problems. If, however, the conflict is so deep, drawn-out and bitter that it leaves extremely deep physical and psychological scars on people, then it becomes counterproductive, leaving little or no possibility for people to work together and solve problems. Physically assaulting people, verbal invective and throwing rocks and bottles, etc. at busloads of schoolchildren were and are certainly not conducive to problem-solving, either. Unfortunately, however, the all-white Boston School Committee back then, through many years of racially divisive school policies, had definitely helped produce this latter form of conflict.
Perhaps another possible solution would’ve been for Boston’s NAACP and the black community at large to work with prominent white liberal leaders in the general Metropolitan Boston area to put pressure on Louise Day Hicks until she either complied with the Racial Imbalance Law, or resigned her position on the Boston School Committee.