In response to decades of racial segregation, in 1974, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts required the Boston Public Schools to integrate the city’s schools through busing. Court-mandated busing, which continued until 1988, provoked enormous outrage among many white Bostonians, and helped to catalyze racist violence and class tensions across the city throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Anti-busing protests and iconography became national news in these years, and cemented Boston’s reputation as a city plagued by racial and socioeconomic strife.
Though racial segregation was not codified by law in Boston, as it was in many Southern cities, it was an unofficial policy in the city, one reinforced by the Boston School Committee’s districting decisions and stark residential segregation. Schools in African-American neighborhoods were badly underfunded, underequipped, and understaffed, eliciting protests from enrolled students and their parents. Schools that served black children received about two thirds of the amount of funding received by schools in white neighborhoods.
In 1965, the Massachusetts General Court passed the Racial Imbalance Act, outlawing segregation in public schools and defining segregated schools as those with a student body comprised of more than fifty percent of a particular racial group. Though 44 of Boston’s schools fell into this category, Boston School Committee members refused to develop or implement plans to integrate the city’s schools.
In response, African-American parents began to organize. They organized protests and boycotts, established “freedom schools” with more inclusive, often Afro-centric curricula, and lobbied for access to better-equipped and better-staffed schools in the suburbs. They established the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) in 1966, which enabled African-American students to travel to surrounding suburban schools. African-American parents also partnered with the NAACP to compel the Boston School Committee to integrate the city’s schools, filing a lawsuit, Morgan v. Hennigan, against the committee in 1972 for its ongoing refusal to comply with the state’s Racial Imbalance Act.
On June 21, 1974, Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr. found the Committee’s efforts to preserve segregation unconstitutional. To address longstanding segregation, Garrity required the system to desegregate its schools, busing white students to black schools and black students to white schools across the city. Garrity’s decision and his subsequent oversight of the busing plan provoked outrage among many Bostonians. Working-class residents of white ethnic enclaves across the city expressed particular fury with Garrity, maintaining that the judge, a resident of Wellesley, an upscale suburb fifteen miles outside of Boston, had no right to compel Boston parents to send their children to schools outside their neighborhoods. Garrity and his family were subjected to frequent death threats and placed under round-the-clock protection for several years as a result.
Critics of the decision also protested that busing would accomplish little other than interracial violence. They argued that moving students from one failing school to another didn’t address the system’s larger failures, pointing to Garrity’s decision to bus students between the poorly performing high schools in South Boston and Roxbury. Though Bostonians often criticized busing on logistical or socioeconomic grounds, their complaints were often motivated by thinly-veiled racism.
Protests erupted across the city over the summer of 1974, taking place around City Hall and in the areas of the city most affected by busing: the white neighborhoods of South Boston, Charlestown, and Hyde Park and the black neighborhoods in Roxbury, Mattapan, and the South End. A national recession had resulted in staggering levels of unemployment in South Boston, stoking residents’ anger at the politicians and judges they held responsible for the decision.
One prominent leader of these anti-busing protests was Louise Day Hicks, chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and leader of an anti-busing group called Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR). Comprised mainly of women, ROAR staged protests, sit-ins, and prayer sessions, as well as violent protests, arguing that Garrity and the state had usurped the custodial rights of parents. ROAR also worked to intimidate black students, hurling racial epithets at schoolchildren and burning a wooden school bus in effigy. In 1974, ROAR organized a march of thousands on the Massachusetts State House in protest of desegregation.
On September 12, 1974, the first day of school, many students stayed home, some in protest, some for safety. Only 13 students from South Boston High School appeared in Roxbury, and only 100 out of the 1300 students from Roxbury assigned to South Boston High School showed up. When black students arrived in South Boston on buses escorted by motorcycle-mounted police officers, protestors met the buses with eggs, bottles, and bricks. The Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts National Guard had to be called in to control the area. Throughout the year, violence flared on and beyond school grounds. Bused children were jeered, menaced, and periodically attacked; many students suffered from stress, fear, and illness as a result. All told, 18,000 students were bused into other neighborhoods in the 1974-75 school year. More than 30,000 Boston Public Schools students left to attend private and parochial schools.
Though busing-related violence was less frequent over the next few years, the city’s interracial tensions remained national news. Boston’s “busing crisis,” as the press dubbed it, supplied an iconic set of images that came to symbolize increasing national resistance to busing as a solution to the ongoing problem of school segregation. The best known of these is a 1976 photograph by Boston Herald American photographer Stanley Forman depicting white anti-busing protester Joseph Rakes using an American flag to attack Theodore Landsmark, an African-American attorney heading to a meeting at nearby City Hall. Titled “The Soiling of Old Glory,” the picture won the 1977 Pulitzer prize and came to symbolize white Bostonians’ racist rage in the wake of busing.
Court-ordered desegregation efforts continued over the course of the next decade and a half. Judge Garrity continued to oversee the system’s busing plan until 1983, when he turned responsibility for its implementation over to the state. The state oversaw busing until 1988, when it handed responsibility for desegregation efforts back to the Boston Schools Committee.
The busing system implemented by Garrity’s ruling did not result in fully integrated schools. White flight from the city’s public schools, gentrification and continuing residential segregation, and the Boston Public Schools’ eventual decision to allow students to attend neighborhood schools resulted in the resegregation of the city’s schools. Today, 54 percent of Bostonians are white, but only 14% of students in the Boston Public Schools are. As of 2018, more than half of Boston Public Schools are profoundly segregated, more so than they were in 1965; at many schools, more than ninety percent of enrolled students are students of color.
Delmont, Matthew F. Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.
Eaton, Susan E. The Other Boston Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
Formisano, Ronald P. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004.
Lukas, Anthony. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families. New York: Vintage, 1986.
Masur, Louis P. The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Tager, Jack. Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.
Taylor, Steven J.L. Desegregation in Boston and Buffalo: The Influence of Local Leaders. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Vaznis, James. “Boston’s Schools are Becoming More Resegregated.” Boston Globe August 4, 2018. Web. Aug. 2018.
Vrabel, Jim. A People’s History of the New Boston. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.
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