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November 1, 1998

Busing’s Boston Massacre

A Boston judge’s experiment in social engineering has unraveled neighborhoods and frustrated black achievement


A federal judge’s experiment in social engineering has unraveled neighborhoods and frustrated black achievement

It’s the story South Boston schoolboys love to hear. On March 4, 1776, under cover of darkness, General George Washington ordered his men to position dozens of captured British cannon atop Dorchester Heights. The code word that night was "Boston" and the reply was "Saint Patrick," in honor of the many Irish volunteers who strained to haul those cannon up the steep slopes of the Heights overlooking Boston Harbor. For days, Washington’s men bombarded the British fleet until the ships finally withdrew from Boston on March 17—St. Patrick’s Day.

Some two hundred years later, on that very ground, a different kind of revolution was fought by the distant kinsmen of those cannon haulers. This is the story Bostonians do not like to hear, for it was a battle they could not win. On June 21, 1974—a date that has lived in local infamy—U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered massive forced busing to integrate the Boston Public Schools. It was the shot heard ’round the city.

It is difficult to chart the stages of this urban earthquake or distinguish its aftershocks. But the initial tremors began when the U.S. Supreme Court released its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). In Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren claimed that segregation is psychologically harmful to black children and implied that all-black classrooms are inherently inferior. Warren’s ambiguous opinion allowed lower courts and lawmakers to infer that stopping segregation was not enough, but that social justice depended upon integrating the races in school, at whatever cost to neighborhoods and to children, black and white.

By 1968, the courts were equating desegregation with massive, forced cross-city busing. In Green vs. Board of Education, Justice William Brennan ruled that there can no longer be black or white schools, "just schools," and that schools must integrate "now." Judges across America soon began to order busing to integrate urban school systems in the name of "racial equality." (In Missouri vs. Jenkins (1995), Justice Clarence Thomas marveled at this trend: "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.")

In 1965, the Massachusetts state legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which outlawed "racially imbalanced" schools, defined as any school whose student body was more than 50 percent minority. Every suburban legislator voted in favor of the Act; only those from Boston and Springfield voted against it.

For nine years, like a patient in denial about his condition, the Boston School Committee pretended the Racial Imbalance Act did not exist. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought suit, Garrity found the Boston School Committee guilty of "segregative intent" by establishing a "dual school system" that deliberately separated black and white students and underfunded black schools. Although few could disagree with the judge’s conclusion, his remedy shook the city to its foundations.

Garrity ordered the implementation of the Massachusetts State Board of Education’s drastic "Master Plan" to achieve racial balance in the public schools. The Master Plan generally required students from designated white neighborhoods to be bused to schools in designated black neighborhoods and vice versa. But the plan’s ugliest element was the cross-town busing of children attending South Boston and Roxbury high schools, exchanging students from Boston’s most insular Irish Catholic neighborhood with students from the heart of the black ghetto.

The Master Plan, however, was only one of several options available to Garrity. For example, Boston school superintendent Frederick Gillis proposed an "open enrollment plan" that would have allowed families to send their children to any school in the city. This option would have been much more palatable to the public and far less costly than forced busing. But Garrity showed little interest. He gave the city only 11 weeks to prepare for the biggest social experiment in its history. Worse, six days after the court order, he unabashedly admitted he had not even read the Master Plan prior to ordering its implementation.

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet wrote that the central crisis of the 20th century is the continuous assault on "natural authority" and community through the state’s progressive invasion into our daily lives. "The alleged disorganization of the modern family is, in fact, simply an erosion of its natural authority, the consequence, in considerable part, of the absorption of its functions by other bodies, chiefly the state." Busing is a perfect example of such a state-sponsored assault on community and family.

Boston’s neighborhood high schools, like South Boston High and Charlestown High, produced few college-bound graduates, but they did form the nucleus of neighborhood pride. Young boys and girls were eager to grow up and play sports or cheerlead for their local schools. The annual Thanksgiving Day "Southie-Eastie" football game between South Boston and East Boston high schools was an age-old ritual, typically thronged by crowds of more than 10,000. But these community traditions died and the people of South Boston and Charlestown could not understand why. It was these communities, whatever their flaws, that people were defending when fleets of buses began rolling past their front stoops in 1974.

"The Buses Are Coming!"

One of the ironies of busing in Boston is that it was fought during the 200th anniversary of some the most famous fights of the American Revolution, often on the very same battlefields. "We’re right back where we began 200 years ago" read a banner raised in Charlestown’s Monument Square, the site of both the Battle of Bunker Hill and Charlestown High School. South Boston High School is located on Dorchester Heights, the very soil made sacred by George Washington and his Irish infantry.

From its commanders to its foot soldiers, the anti-busing movement was dominated by women. They were mostly stay-at-home moms who wanted to regain control over their children’s lives. These women had long taken for granted that their children could attend the schools in their community, that they had choices concerning their children’s education. Busing was a gross assault on their "natural authority." When asked why she was resisting busing, Charlestown anti-busing leader Peg Smith declared, "I want my freedom back. They took my freedom. They tell me where my kids have to go to school. This is like living in Russia. Next they’ll tell you where to shop."

One day in fall 1975, about 400 Charlestown mothers marched up Bunker Hill Street, clutching rosary beads and reciting the "Hail Mary." They knelt in prayer for several minutes on the pavement between Charlestown High and the Bunker Hill Monument. And then they stood up and walked toward the police line, still in prayer, handbags held high to shield their faces. Soon a scuffle broke out between the mothers and the police. Some women were tossed to the ground.

Although the women’s movement was on the rise, the feminist establishment had no interest in the working-class woman’s struggle against forced busing. They were indifferent to the wailing mothers who where throwing themselves down in front of delivery trucks owned by the Boston Globe (the pro-busing newspaper) or fleeing from the dogs that police used to enforce curfews. The same people who celebrated when the Supreme Court recognized a woman’s "right to choose" to have an abortion were unmoved when a federal court revoked a mother’s right to choose where her children could go to school. When anti-busing mothers attended a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment downtown, one mother addressed the gathering to ask whether the ERA would guarantee a woman’s authority over her children’s schooling. They were all asked to leave.

Much of the anti-busing style of civil disobedience—the sit-ins, the picketing, the protest songs, even the riots—was inherited from the civil rights and anti-war movements that preceded it. But unlike the anti-war movement, these protesters never indulged in anti-Americanism. Busing opponents often sang patriotic songs at their rallies. They waved, not burned, American flags during nearly every demonstration. They consistently invoked the tradition of American liberty in their fight to retain it. Unfortunately, this sometimes resulted in a perverse blend of patriotism and racism, which culminated when a Charlestown youth literally speared a black attorney with a flag pole adorned with the Stars and Stripes at City Hall Plaza, a moment captured in a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

The Battle of Busing

"Eighty percent of the people in Boston are against busing," said Mayor Kevin White. "If Boston were a sovereign state, busing would be cause for a revolution." On the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Arthur Garrity ruled over Boston like a reincarnated King George. In the school system, his word was law and integration without representation had become the new tyranny.

According to Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas, when White was warned of impending violence at an anti-busing march, he telephoned Garrity at his home to see if he would ban the march. But Garrity refused to speak to the mayor because he considered a call to his personal residence "inappropriate." "That arrogant ass!" White reportedly said. "He issues his damn order, then retires to his suburban estate and refuses to talk with the only guy who can make it work." After the mayor called Garrity’s home a second time, the judge made White a co-defendant in the case.

An exhausted White later appeared in Garrity’s courtroom and implored him to deploy federal marshals to help safeguard public order. But Garrity dismissed the mayor’s plea and insisted that "integration in the schools can be achieved by community efforts." The judge was apparently less confident in community efforts to safeguard his own home in Wellesley, however, as two deputy federal marshals stood guard there around the clock. Nor did Garrity’s faith in local government extend to South Boston High, where he micromanaged everything from student transfers to ordering the purchase of 12 MacGregor basketballs.

"Sometimes when I look out this window," White reportedly said to an aide during one hellish day at the office, "I see Belfast out there." Police had to escort and unload buses at several Boston high schools every morning and afternoon while snipers stood guard on the surrounding rooftops. Metal detectors were installed and troopers patrolled the cafeterias, hallways, and stairwells, and still racial brawls broke out daily. Garrity also ordered equal numbers of black and white police officers to guard the schools, provoking racial hostility even within the police force. "It’ll be lucky if the Boston police don’t kill each other before the day is out," said one state trooper at the time. For three years, as many as 300 state police officers a day patrolled South Boston High. One teacher compared the school to a prison: "We can’t leave school, we can’t come early or on the weekends to do preparatory work. We are like prisoners. Everyday when I get up, it’s like getting up to go to prison."

In some 400 orders, Garrity meddled in every aspect of the Boston Public Schools. He placed South Boston High into federal receivership and fired its popular principal. He decreed rigid racial quotas in faculty and administrative hiring. When one elementary school was converted to a middle school, Garrity issued an order requiring the urinals to be raised.

Although the temperature of local race relations had been rising in recent years, busing pushed it above the boiling point. What was once a generally idle racial animus between blacks and whites swelled into seething bigotry. When the buses pulled up to high schools in white neighborhoods, police had to escort black teenagers through a gauntlet of thrown rocks and bottles; the students heard shouts of "Die, niggers, die!" and saw signs that read "Bus Them Back to Africa!" If segregation was psychologically harmful to black students, as the Supreme Court had it, how much more harmful was busing?

Yet Adrienne Weston, a black West Indies native who had enjoyed teaching at South Boston High School prior to busing, told a journalist that white rioters outside South Boston High were motivated by much more than racism. "Those people out there are crazy," she said, "because they don’t like this being shoved down their throats."

Indeed, whites were not the only Bostonians choking on it. Polls taken during the early days of busing show that only bare majorities of blacks favored the policy. In 1971, when the district tried to redraw attendance zones to encourage integration, a group of black parents protested that it would force their kids out of a good neighborhood school. Leo Conway, the principal of an all-black elementary school in Roxbury popular with parents and students, wrote to Garrity to save his school from being closed under the Master Plan and to complain "that the burden of desegregation has been too long placed on the back of the Roxbury and Jamaica Plain community." In the South End, parents at the Bancroft Elementary School, which had integrated voluntarily, also wrote to Garrity to keep their kids in their neighborhood school. In fact, only days before Garrity’s decision, black legislators had been pushing for more community control over the schools, not busing.

In 1985, Boston school superintendent Robert Spillane resigned in frustration because Garrity was always peering over his shoulder. The eighth superintendent in 10 years, Spillane complained to the Globe that the judge "had a paternalistic mentality that all goodness and all knowledge flows from the federal court." On September 3, 1985, Garrity finally turned authority over the Boston Public Schools to the Massachusetts Board of Education. He had ruled for more than 11 years. "I’ll miss it," he said, describing the experience as "rewarding and inspiring." Garrity still serves on the U.S. District Court, where he retains "standby jurisdiction" over the school system.

Busing’s Bitter Fruits

During Garrity’s tenure as de facto school superintendent, public-school enrollment dropped from 93,000 to 57,000 and the proportion of white students shrank from 65 percent of total enrollment to 28 percent. Seventy-eight school buildings closed their doors, including Roxbury High. Now whites make up 17 percent of public-school students; most of them attend one of the three selective "exam schools" like the Boston Latin School. Boston has been forced to lower its official threshold for the acceptable racial balance of each school from a minimum of 50 percent white in 1965 to a minimum of 9 percent white today.

Busing has not only failed to integrate Boston schools, it has also failed to improve education opportunities for the city’s black children. When Boston introduced Stanford 9 testing to the public schools in 1996, 94 percent of seventh-graders at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School scored "poor" or "failing" in math, as did 73 percent of fifth-graders at Brighton’s Alexander Hamilton School. At Dorchester’s William E. Endicott School, 95 percent of the fifth-graders scored "poor" or "failing" in reading and 100 percent scored "poor" or "failing" in math. Yet all of these students were promoted to the next grade.

One schools chief resigned, saying that Judge Garrity "had a paternalistic mentality that all goodness and all knowledge flow from the federal court."

On the statewide Iowa Reading Test, the Boston Public Schools ranked 275 out of the 279 cities and towns in Massachusetts. Even the working-class city of Lawrence, with a large immigrant population and a high crime rate, outscored the Boston Public Schools despite the fact that Lawrence teachers make almost $15,000 less on average than Boston teachers.

For whatever reason, Garrity exempted a handful of schools from the Master Plan. It is telling that four of Boston’s top five elementary schools in 1996 happen to be institutions that respect the "natural authority" of the parents. Two are neighborhood schools in East Boston; Chinatown’s Josiah Quincy Elementary School, with a mostly Asian enrollment, achieved the second-highest average scores in the city. At Dorchester’s Patrick O’Hearn Elementary School, which achieved the highest scores, children may enroll only if their parents promise to be actively involved in the school. Most of the city’s 33,000 elementary schoolchildren, however, are still bused among the 71 schools that scored poorly on the Stanford 9, learning little or nothing and winning social promotion year after year.

On the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), Boston fares even worse. On average, SAT test takers in the city’s high schools scored 845 (out of 1600) in 1996, surpassing only those in Chelsea. If you exclude the three exam schools, Boston would surely be last. With pathetic standardized test scores and an average promotion rate of 94 percent, it is hard to imagine the Boston Public Schools have improved since busing began. In fact, the evidence suggests they are probably worse.

Such poor educational outcomes hardly seem to justify the costs of desegregation. When Martin Walsh, a Justice Department consultant to Garrity, was told that the first four years of busing cost the city more than $77 million, he grandly proclaimed, "You can’t put a dollar value on correcting constitutional wrongs." Indeed, the price continues to rise every year. The 1998 busing budget exceeds $45 million (one dollar out of every 12 in the school budget goes to transportation). The total 25-year cost of busing runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen claims that ending forced busing would save the city $20 million annually on transportation. If families had greater choice in education, they could opt for schools closer to home, reducing the need for school buses.

After Garrity’s departure, Boston switched to a "controlled choice" system that Abigail Thernstrom, a Manhattan Institute scholar and a member of the state Board of Education, describes in America in Black and White as "long on control, short on choice." It is really a "coerced choice": Parents are guaranteed their first or second preference, but are allowed to choose only from among schools where their child will not upset the racial balance. And so the kids keep riding the buses.

Voices in the Wilderness

Boston’s busing disaster demonstrates economist Thomas Sowell’s point that "the black family—which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars, and depressions—began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to ‘help.’ " Busing was imposed on citizens in the name of racial equality, but few public policies have harmed Boston’s black community more. Roxbury resident Loretta Roach is the chairwoman of the Citywide Educational Coalition, a group that supports public education. Roach bemoans the extent to which busing impedes black parental involvement in the "often faraway schools their children are bused to every morning." Community support for public schools has also "evaporated since schools are no longer part of their communities. Busing destroyed the neighborhood passion for those schools that previously existed." Gwendolyn Collins-Stevens, a Roxbury mother of six, agrees. "Busing took away the community feeling we had for our neighborhood schools," she says, "the feeling of ‘It’s our school and we love it.’ "

"When schools were segregated, they were rich in other ways," says Angela Paige Cook, founder of Paige Academy, a private school in Roxbury. Cook recalls the old network of neighborhood schools as the spring that made the black community tick. "Before busing, parents, teachers, and students often lived in the same community, attended the same churches, and shopped in the same stores. There were more positive role models for the kids in those days. When you destroy a community infrastructure, you no longer have those role models."

Wellington Webb, Denver’s popular black mayor, sees the end of forced busing as a perfect opportunity to revitalize his city’s quest for community. "Having neighborhood schools back will help rebuild the neighborhoods," said Webb after Denver ended busing in 1996. But a return to neighborhood schools might not be an option for Boston’s black community, since so many of the 78 schools that closed during desegregation were in black neighborhoods. So for the foreseeable future, the best alternative to forced busing may be open enrollment throughout the city.

Public Be Damned

In 1982, more than 200 frustrated black parents formed the Black Parent Committee to petition Garrity to substitute a school-choice plan for busing. As newspapers reported at the time, these concerned parents complained about the injustice of "asking children to get up at 6 a.m. to ride a bus to a hostile environment where they are not going to get a good education." Plaintiff Richard Yarde insisted that most blacks "never thought busing was the way to resolve inequality in the schools." Like their white counterparts across town, black parents resented government usurpation of their "natural authority." A 1982 Boston Globe poll found that 79 percent of black parents with children in the public schools favored an open-enrollment plan over forced busing. In fact, 42 percent of those polled said they did not even favor busing in 1974.

The Boston chapter of the NAACP, however, moved quickly to scuttle the Black Parent Committee’s attempt to dismantle forced busing. "Constitutional decrees aren’t overturned by plebiscites," declared chapter president Tom Atkins at the time. Such intransigence over integration, however, is growing less popular within the NAACP. Although the Boston chapter and the national leadership still support forced busing, other members have publicly broken ranks (see box, page 46).

Even Garrity eventually recognized some of the inequities of busing. In 1976, he ordered a 35 percent minority quota at Boston’s three exam schools. In 1995, a white father sued the school system because his daughter was denied admission to the Boston Latin School due to her race. The case was decided in Garrity’s courtroom. Surprisingly, he ordered the girl admitted; although he stopped short of banning it, he described as "constitutionally suspect" the very quota system he had conjured up 19 years earlier.

The Crack-Up

Today, the ghost of busing past continues to haunt the present. You see it when you pass by White Stadium during the Southie-Eastie Thanksgiving Day football game, where only a handful of onlookers sit in the stands once thronged by thousands of faithful fans. These communities have suffered something like a death in the family whose members, in order to go on, must maintain the pretense of living as if they had lost no one.

Somehow the birthplace of the American Revolution and the abolitionist movement has become perhaps the most segregated city in America.

The aftershocks of busing are not confined to Boston’s tight-knit neighborhoods. Here, unlike New York City or Washington, D.C., it is rare to see any blacks downtown. Only whites patronize the restaurants and bars of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Somehow the birthplace of the American Revolution and of the abolitionist movement has become perhaps the most segregated city in America. True, busing alone did not create the cultural chasm that separates the races, but it did much to widen it. "Before busing, we went to South Boston," says Gwendolyn Collins-Smith. "We had white friends there—one of my foster sisters lived in the D Street public-housing projects. But after busing came, friends were at each other’s throats. I don’t go there anymore."

June 21, 1999, will mark the 25th anniversary of a tragedy of unintended consequences. In the name of social engineering, one federal judge usurped the sovereignty of an entire city and frayed bonds of community built up over generations.

In 1976, the city of Boston celebrated the Bicentennial of American independence while stricken by civil and racial strife. It would befit the silver anniversary of busing to observe a moment of silence, for all the children, past and present, forced to ride the school bus, and for the people of Boston who have suffered through an urban nightmare from which they are still trying to awake.