This week…or around this time…marks the 40th anniversary of the Boston busing project. I grew up slightly north of Boston and got bused past other schools to an elementary school in another part of the city. My classes were always ethnically diverse, though I sometimes felt like the only Asian person in my class until high school. I had read about the busing controversy in Boston when I was young, but there was not much to be said about them, only that there was a big protest. I could not understand it. Years later, and I still don’t quite understand it.
Now, most of my knowledge about the event is second hand or third hand. I don’t really know anyone who lived in Boston at the time. I certainly was not around back then and my parents were out of state during that time. It has been a while since I have read Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, but I highly recommend it. In any case, much of the rest of this is a series of semi-facts that I personally deem to be important along with my personal feelings about the issues. I had made a request to Big Black Hat Man to make a video about it, but I decided to make a post regarding my own take on it. Maybe a certain Jerk might chime in as well.
Before I talk about the busing, I have to go back over a hundred years to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment stated that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and that no state shall deny them the rights, privileges, or protection without due process of law. That sounds simple enough, but it was only 11 years earlier that the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v Sanford held that descendants of African slaves could not be citizens. So, the Fourteenth Amendment tossed that out, but like any piece of lawmaking, there were ways of getting around it. In 1896, the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v Ferguson made it legal for public facilities to be segregated by race. By the way, Plessy was only one-eighth Black, but was still considered Black and fined $25 for deliberately sitting in the wrong train car. It wasn’t until 1954, when the five cases consolidated under Brown v Board of Education of Topeka in Kansas, decided that the “separate but equal” laws in Southern States was unconstitutional, specifically regarding public schools. Linda Brown, the daughter of one of the plaintiffs, had to walk six blocks and across a railroad yard just to get to a bus stop that would travel another fifteen blocks to drop her off at her Black school, sometimes 30 minutes before the school even opened. Linda’s White friends had to walk seven blocks without having to worry about getting hit by a train.
The 1955 decision known as Brown II ordered speedy desegregation of schools. There were a few White schools that started allowing Black students to register, most famously the “Little Rock Nine” in Arkansas in 1957. There were nine of them. They had volunteered. They were protected by the National Guard against a horde of angry White people. This was a huge deal.
Freedom of Choice continued for another two years, but was officially destroyed in 1971, when Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education stated that busing was an appropriate measure for school desegregation, even if the methods involved busing students far away from their schools. This was something that many opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would entail, but they had been assured at the time that this would not happen. Well, now it happened. Now, to be clear, like in Topeka, there was already a busing strategy in place to uphold racial segregation, and the Swanns in question were suing to allow for their son to attend the closest school to their home, a school to be integrated. So, this decision did not introduce busing to Charlotte, but repurposed it. White people did not like this notion of busing now being used against them, but I have learned of little outbreaks of anger. Though a local federal judge had his property bombed on multiple occasions, it is said that Charlotte managed to make it work up until the late 1980s, when people from the Midwest and Northeast started moving to the city and complained about the busing.
Three years later, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. looked into the Boston public school system and noticed a pattern of racial segregation, in direct violation of the Racial Imbalance Act. To make sure that the schools adhered to the Constitution, Garrity used a busing plan that was made a couple of years earlier. It was said that he did not even review the plan properly before ordering its implementation. It was also said that neither he, nor the person who created the plan, lived in towns or cities that would be affected by the plan all that much. Indeed, while there were a few schools in Massachusetts that had to allow the few minorities in the town to attend, the communities that were mostly affected were poor White neighborhoods and Black neighborhoods in Boston.
These White neighborhoods were not simply White, the North End was primarily Italians and people of Italian descent and most of the other White neighborhoods were Irish, specifically Charlestown and South Boston. Ethnic tensions were common in poor communities during the 19th century and they continued on during the 20th. In a struggle over scraps, it is easier to try to rely on those who share the same language, cultural history, religion, and regional background. The Irish and Italians were not always considered White or properly White. Italians were often thought of as being too dark or having Black descendants, while Irish were often thought of as being Black on the inside for reasons that I could never really understand. Their being primarily Catholic was also a major hurdle in gaining acceptance in the Northeast United States. Discrimination often kept them poor and isolated. Instead of banding together with Black Americans against the White establishment, the Irish sometimes proved their Whiteness and Americanness by attacking Black people and Asians. Even as the decade went by and attitudes towards Irish Americans in general started to warm, the Irish in certain neighborhoods retained an “us against the world” mentality wrapped up in community pride. They might celebrate Irish Americans who made it big, but brand anyone traitors who try to escape or seem disloyal. I would imagine that the election of Boston’s own John F Kennedy was mixed at best for these working class communities.
During the Second Great Migration in the 1940s and 1950s, Roxbury became the main place in Boston where Black people would settle. Indeed, American cities would end up housing many Black people, but housing them in certain areas. This was due to two main reasons that both stem from residential segregation. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration passed the National Housing Act as part of the New Deal. The following year, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board asked the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to create residential security maps to determine the viability of real estate investments in areas of 239 cities. Many minority neighborhoods were deemed ineligible for financing. Neighborhoods, not individuals. Neighborhoods. This gave White neighborhoods that were already unwelcoming to Black people even more incentive to keep them out, pretty much dissolved the racially mixed neighborhoods, made it pretty much impossible for Black people to secure loans, and hastened urban decay particularly in Black neighborhoods. This would later be known as redlining.
While redlining helped to isolate Black people in certain parts of the city, suburban discrimination made it difficult for them to move out. The GI Bill of 1944 was supposed to allow veterans of the Second World War the ability to buy homes in the suburbs, but Black people were often discouraged from buying homes or even looking at them. It was said that they would bring down property values in neighborhoods. This made it difficult for even middle class Black families to move out of the cities until the 1960s.
Redlining and suburban housing discrimination, along with racial covenants within neighborhoods and racial steering in urban planning, helped to create and cement segregated neighborhoods until around 1968, when part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968 labeled all of these discriminatory practices as unconstitutional. Since then, there have been many fights against redlining and other discriminatory practices, including in Boston around the time that the Busing Plan was put into place. It became somewhat easier for Black people to move to the suburbs during the 1960s. Yet the legacy of the housing discrimination still remained. Whether or not the Black people in Roxbury in 1974 knew about this history of discrimination, they knew that something was wrong and that they were victims of it. It would not be surprising that a sense of bitterness grew out of that.
And the people of South Boston had nothing to do with it. And more importantly, they did not care.
Judge Garrity had the entire junior class from South Boston High bused to Roxbury High (I am assuming that the juniors from Roxbury were bussed to Southie, but I don’t know for certain) and had half of the sophomore classes from each school bused to the other school. Now, maybe this made sense on paper. Roxbury and South Boston are somewhat close to each other, separated by about a third of a mile. South Boston is around 3 square miles, while Roxbury is around 4, though the areas may have been different forty years ago. I also don’t know what the populations of each were back in 1974, but I would guess that Roxbury was around 30,000 or 40,000, while Southie may have been 30,000. They are both relatively poor and isolated communities. Perhaps Garrity and the other people in charge figured that the two groups would realize all of the things that they shared in common and break down the barriers of racism and segregation. Well, that did not happen, but a lot of other things did get broken.
What went wrong? Well, I don’t know what happened in other parts of the country, but I can guess what went wrong here. Sure, racism most likely played a huge part here, but it only exacerbated other major problems. There was a sense of fire-forged community that has to hold together against outside attacks. This was seen as an attack. Though I don’t know the exact population figures I am guessing that the scale of this operation was much larger than the one in New Kent County, where the population was (maybe) racially mixed. There was also absolutely no sense of volunteerism as was the case with the Little Rock Nine. Parents had no say in this. On both sides, there was a sense that the children were being sent to a school that was no better than the one in their neighborhood, that they were being sent into hostile territory, and that kids from this hostile territory were being brought in. My parents had sent my brother and me to a school further away by choice. The people in these communities had no choice. These communities, cut off from the power structure held together by the fragile bitterness of fire-forged pride, had been spat upon and neglected for decades, and now the people in power come in to break up their communities and threaten their identities in order to do something that makes absolutely no sense. Their liberty was being taken away from them for no other reason than they were easy targets for exploitation.
Protesters hurled insults at Garrity and Kevin White. However, like in most cases when the rich tamper with poor communities while remaining out of sight and out of reach, the poor Blacks and poor Whites more often attacked each other. There was violence in the schools, violence in the streets, there was even violence within the police force that was sent in to quell the violence. Sure, some Black students and White students got along and even formed friendships, but the power of friendship could not overrule the power of frenzied fear and fury. Garrity seemed to double down again and again as the years went on, figuratively throwing mayor Kevin White under the bus. I wouldn’t be surprised if people did literally get thrown under buses. I don’t know if there were explosives used like in Charlotte, but there were fatalities. There were massive school absences and there were school days where schools were simply closed due to violence, massive truancy, or protest. If there was any equal education here, it was equally nonexistent. Private schools and parochial schools became more popular amongst those who did not flee the city. I don’t believe that the Boston public school system ever recovered from this fiasco. And neither did its image.
I believe that, at least in Boston, attempts were made to enforce the law without regard as to why it was necessary or the spirit of goodwill and justice behind it. The anti-busing protesters were fighting against the same practice that Linda Brown’s father had fought against twenty years earlier: having their children forced to take a ridiculous and time-wasting bus ride to a school in another community instead of their local schools. While racism pervaded both the situation in Boston and Topeka, the issue in Boston was not so much the forced racism in the schools, but the systematic residential discrimination that had only started to be addressed in the city during the time of busing. That was not an issue in Linda Brown’s community and I don’t believe that it was an issue with most of the other plaintiffs in Brown v Board of Education either. I cannot say with complete certainty, but I am pretty sure that the decision did not have to deal with the issue of segregated communities. Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education did have to deal with it directly,
I am not sure whether the anti-redlining movement was influenced by the decision to enforce busing around the country or whether it emerged independently, but I feel as if more attention should have been paid to housing inequality and enforcing the laws surrounding that. They would also have to deal with the poverty in the neighborhood, and allow residents to actually play a role, giving a sense of real power behind the community pride instead of gritty anger and tribalism. Dealing with these issues might have proven to be even more difficult than the busing issue. I cannot guarantee that the violence would have been worse, even if the government offered incentives instead of force. I do believe, however, that it would have made a little more sense, though, and would have rendered desegregation busing unnecessary.
Forty years after the riots, many of the communities have become more multicultural and heterogenous. Some lament the chipping away of communal identity, but some things are inevitable byproducts of history’s march towards tomorrow. Perhaps the fallout of the riots led to the demographic evolution; perhaps it all happened in spite of the riots. Whatever the case may be, the busing riots still cast a shadow over Boston.