Boston Busing Violence
". . . [Assistant principal] Bob Jarvis [knocked] at the door to report that police had isolated the whites on the staircase, freeing the fire stairs on either side. Buses were drawn up in the adjacent alley, ready to receive the minority students. Detectives would lead them to safety. . . . Just then, the whites got wind of what was happening. 'They're getting away!' they shouted. 'They're going out the side!' Around the corner raced a dozen white boys, heaving stones at the buses as they rumbled down the alleys."
Such scenes are usually associated with desegregation of schools in the Deep South. This one, however, occurred at Charlestown High in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston had been regarded as the "cradle of liberty" ever since it played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, but two hundred years later, a court-ordered plan that utilized busing to achieve integration of the city's public schools led to frequent protests, demonstrations, and confrontations between blacks and whites. Northerners who had called for desegregation in Southern schools for decades soon discovered that their own schools were just as segregated and that integrating them was just as difficult.
As America moved to integrate its schools in the mid-1900s, Boston, like many Northern cities, struggled with segregated housing patterns. Because students were assigned to schools based on where they lived, schools in primarily white areas such as South Boston and Charlestown had a mostly white student body, while schools in black areas such as Roxbury were overwhelmingly black. The earliest Supreme Court school desegregation decisions, however, outlawed only the de jure segregation prevalent in Southern schools, where laws specifically forbade blacks and whites from attending school together. The decisions did not condemn de facto segregation such as that in Boston. Indeed, in the Supreme Court's unanimous majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated, "Segregation in Boston public schools was eliminated in 1855."
In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court began to turn its attention from schools in the South to those in the North. The justices soon discovered that achieving desegregation in these schools would require different tactics. In the South, blacks and whites had lived in close proximity to each other for hundreds of years; therefore, desegregation was simply a matter of assigning students to the school closest to their home. This strategy did not work in the North because of segregated housing patterns. So in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971), the Court approved the utilization of measures that were "administratively awkward, inconvenient, and even bizarre" to achieve integration. Busing was among the measures specifically approved by Swann.
A year after Swann, Morgan v. Hennigan was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, charging that Boston's public schools were unconstitutionally segregated. In a similar 1964 case, the Court of Appeals had ruled that de facto segregation was not unconstitutional. To avoid the same decision in Morgan, prosecuting attorney Nick Flannery worked to prove that Boston's segregation was not de facto but actually de jure, just like the segregation in the Southern school districts that the Supreme Court had worked for nearly two decades to eradicate. "Fortunately, the Boston School Committee had . . . [kept] verbatim stenographic accounts of its meetings, providing a clear record of resistance to desegregation, as well as hints of its motivations." The strategy worked. On June 21, 1974, Judge W. Arthur Garrity "found that the School Committee had used covert techniques to segregate the system, and had done so with 'segregative intent.'" Garrity's decision was upheld on appeal, and the judge set about working on a remedy for the segregation he had found. With only three months left before the 1974-1975 school year opened, he was forced to adopt an existing plan as his first-stage remedy (Phase I) for that school year while he worked on his own more permanent plan (Phase II).
The Phase I plan, authored primarily by Charles Glenn, called for busing students from Roxbury to South Boston. South Boston was a primarily white neighborhood regarded as "the stronghold of opposition to desegregation," while Roxbury was "the heart of Boston's black ghetto." Not surprisingly, this arrangement worried many people around the city, including Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who did his best to distance himself from the plan, placing responsibility for any violence that came from it squarely on Glenn's shoulders.
The school board implemented the integration plan in September 1974. Most schools integrated quietly. In South Boston, however, protestors "stoned buses, shouted racial epithets, [and] hurled eggs and rotten tomatoes." Nine black South Boston High School students were injured when angry whites shattered the windows on their buses. Even elementary school students were not spared from the violence. Ellen Jackson, who ran a community center in Roxbury, described the scene as a bus of elementary school students returned home:
When the kids came, everybody just broke out in tears and started crying. The kids were crying. They had glass in their hair. They were scared. And they were shivering and crying. Talking about they wanted to go home. We tried to gently usher them into the auditorium. And wipe off the little bit of bruises that they had. Small bruises and the dirt. Picked the glass out of their hair.
The next day, Roxbury families formed an escort to accompany the children, and they did not experience any additional violence. Racial tensions, however, were still prevalent. On October 7th, a black man named André Yvon Jean-Louis was severely beaten when he drove into South Boston to pick up his wife, who worked in the neighborhood. Roxbury students reacted with "a wild rampage during which they stoned cars and attacked passing whites," forcing Governor Frank Sargent to call out the National Guard.
As the school year wore on, many white families planned a boycott of the public schools, sending their children to tutoring sessions at night, where public school teachers, college students, and prospective teachers volunteered to teach. Violence against the black students had not entirely disappeared either. One night, a prominent black leader received an anonymous phone call telling him not to send the black students to school the next day. Community leaders managed to intercept the buses just before they left for school, and the black children spent the day at the University of Massachussetts. It turned out that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people had been waiting for the buses in South Boston. Had the buses arrived, the protestors had planned to turn them over and burn them. Racial tensions continued to escalate, according to Phyllis Ellison, a black student at South Boston's high school:
Racial tensions erupted on December 11, when a black student at South Boston High School stabbed a white classmate. White students ran around screaming "He's dead, he's dead. That black nigger killed him. He's dead, he's dead . . . Get the niggers at Southie." An angry mob quickly formed outside the high school, screaming "Niggers eat shit." The principal ordered the black students to go into the office and stay there, because the situation was so volatile that any black student found in the halls would be attacked. It was up to the black parents of Roxbury to get their children out safely, which they managed to do by sending three decoy buses as well as the two that would actually carry the children.
Although the black students did manage to finish the school year, the temporary Phase I plan was clearly less than optimal. But a new solution was close at hand. Throughout the turbulent school year, Judge Garrity worked on a permanent successor, the Phase II plan.
In drawing up his permanent Phase II plan, Judge W. Arthur Garrity relied on a team of school desegregation experts, or "masters." The "Masters' Plan" carved the entire city into "slices," busing whites from the outside of each slice towards the mostly black center and vice versa. Students could opt for their district school, which had a racial mix close to the racial composition in that district, or one of 32 specialized magnet schools, with a racial composition similar to that of the entire school district. The number of students bused under the Masters' Plan was reduced from 17,000 to 14,900, and the busing between South Boston and Roxbury was eliminated completely.
Garrity's final decision accepted much of the Masters' Plan but changed other portions. Instead of allowing district schools to reflect the racial composition of the district -- which would have produced schools that were as much as 95 percent white -- he enforced a more uniform racial mix across all schools. The number of students to be bused rose to 25,000, and once again students would be bused between South Boston and Roxbury.
In the early 1800s, Irish immigrant laborers had been drawn to Charlestown, in the northern part of Boston, because of its shipyard operated by the U.S. Navy. After the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, Irish immigrants had poured into "the Town." The more wealthy residents had soon moved out to the suburbs, making the Town into a poorer, working-class neighborhood. Yet the remaining residents, or "Townies," were fiercely loyal to Charlestown, prepared to protect it from any intruders. The Townies were also protective of Charlestown High, despite its crumbling building and its declining academic repuation.
So when Garrity's Phase II plan called for the busing of blacks and Latinos into Charlestown High and of Townie children into Roxbury, Charlestown resisted. Like other white parents around the city, parents who were able to pulled their children out of the city's public schools, opting instead for private or parochial schools. During the first week of school, Townie students boycotted the schools while their parents staged protests against forced busing.
Inside Charlestown High, blacks faced taunts and physical attacks from white students. They fought back by creating a Minority Students' Council, which presented headmaster Frank Power with a list of demands, such as:
Power agreed to try to implement the demands as best he could. The next day, 175 white students boycotted school to protest Power's meeting with the Minority Student's Council, coming up with their own list of grievances:
A few days later, a fight broke out after several white boys attacked a black named Eddie Malloy. Police arrested four whites, but five blacks were suspended for three days under a school policy "penalizing both parties to any fight." The next day, outraged minority students refused to leave the buses when the pulled up to Charlestown High in the morning.
As the school year wore on, racial tensions remained just as strong. An exhausted Frank Power, suffering from severe hypertension made even worse by the racial struggles, left on sick leave in mid October. In January, white students staged a sit-in on the school's main staircase, forcing school officials to lock black students in upstairs classrooms for their own safety. The black students barely made it safely out of the school. Yet despite the daily harassment and dangerous situations like this, the black students remained at Charlestown High. A handful of blacks who were exceptional athletes even found themselves accepted to some extent by white students.
What made the Townies protest the arrival of blacks at Charlestown High so vigorously? Obviously, this is not an easy question to answer. Some Townie parents were motivated by racism, plain and simple. Others were opposed to forced busing in general. They felt that parents, not government, had the power to decide where and with whom a child attended school. Many whites also opposed busing in part because of misconceptions they held about blacks. "Much of the resistance to busing was rooted in a fear of [black] crime, a conviction that young blacks were bent on mayhem and pillage against any whites who crossed their paths." And the Townies' intense pride in their town and their school made them loathe to welcome any outsider, black or otherwise. Italian students from East Boston had also encountered racial hostilities when they had chosen to attend Charlestown High in the years before the Garrity plans. It is easy to paint the Townies who resisted integration as racists, but in reality they were simply people who were very proud of their town and of their children. They would do anything to protect both against what they saw as an onslaught of hostile blacks.
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Cozzens, Lisa. "School Integration (1955-1975)" African American History. http://fledge.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/ citing.html (25 May 1998).