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40 Years Later, Boston Looks Back On Busing Crisis

This story contains some offensive language.

BOSTON — Forty years ago this month, the Boston chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit that eventually led to one of the most tumultuous times in Boston’s history.

It was a class-action suit on behalf of 14 parents and 44 children against the Boston School Committee. The goal was equity in education, regardless of race and class.

After more than two years, federal Judge Arthur Garrity found the school committee had intentionally brought about and maintained segregated schools. It was a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he said. Garrity ordered the desegregation — through busing — of Boston Public Schools.

The crisis that ensued still scars the city.

Milford Jenkins grew up in Columbia Point in Dorchester. Back in the mid 1970s it was a housing project. He’d attended integrated grade schools nearby but he had no inkling of what awaited him on the first day of his freshman year at South Boston High School.

“I was the first one off the bus on top of that hill in South Boston,” Jenkins said. “When I got off that bus I was called a nigger. ‘Nigger, get back on that bus,’ by a Boston police officer.”

The police were in riot gear, wearing helmets and carrying billy clubs as crowds lined the streets.

“They started throwing golf balls, bricks at the bus,” Jenkins said. “It was so much noise, calling you spear-chucker, ‘Go back to Africa, we don’t want you over here.’ I remember that, I remember that.”

This scene was repeated across the city.

Christine Boseman remembers the shock of seeing parents and grandparents spitting and jeering at the buses as they arrived. She was entering ninth grade at Roslindale High School.

“It was chaos. So, when us as kids got in school, honestly, we continued to fight,” Boseman said. “We defended ourselves and that’s the way we had to go to school for a while, was to defend ourselves, mentally and physically. Every day, every day. Inside, outside.”

Tim Norton grew up in South Boston, a block away from the high school. He entered ninth grade the second year of busing and says it was still intense. As a white student, he was occasionally under pressure from other white kids to stay away from South Boston High.

“It was craziness — basically no teaching going on at the school. It was just total disruption,” Norton said. “Various groups would call, [and say] ‘We’re gonna have a boycott today, so don’t go.’ If you were white and you go, you were gonna get beat up. It was just a total waste of time.

“I think it was an eye-opener, certainly for many families. Why do we keep sending our kids to Southie high and get a poor education? Open people’s eyes, there are better schools.”

Norton stayed just one year at South Boston High until he was recruited as a basketball player to attend a prep school outside the city.

Jenkins also left South Boston High.

“Busing really, really destroyed us because, you know, I quit that school and joined the Army,” Jenkins said. “I was 18.”

The tensions in the schools spilled over into the neighborhoods. Donna Bivens, who grew up in Ohio, had just moved to the Back Bay after graduating from Wellesley College.

“And I was really shocked at the tension in the city. I remember walking with my little sister in Kenmore Square and having a bottle thrown at us and I got spit at once,” Bivens said. “All over the city there was just, this, such rage and a sense of not having control over things.”

Bivens said it was a confusing time for the city.

“It’s a paradox because at the same time, I remember, I used to go to Revere Beach to play softball with this huge, Irish-American family and they were so loving and inclusive,” Bivens said. “These two things were going on at same time; it’s like: where am I? It was a culture shock in a lot of ways.”

Bivens is now directing a project for the Union of Minority Neighborhoods called the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project.

“We’ didn’t say reconciliation because we don’t know that we are going to have reconciliation come out of this. What we do think is that, if we really see it as an issue of our whole city, and the system of public education here, if we really do that we can learn something,” Bivens said. “One thing I’ve learned listening to people talk about the era — everybody has something to learn.”

The project is in its early phase, trying to get people of all races to open up about their experiences. Bivens is video taping interviews, along with project organizer Meaghan Doran.

Doran grew up in Roslindale years after the busing crisis and attended Boston Public Schools. Her father was among the white bus drivers who ferried the kids to school. She says he doesn’t like to talk much about that time, but there are many others who feel the need to tell their stories.

“One of those stories is there were a lot of white parents who really wanted to support racial equity and did put their kids on buses, did really try to work within the system and they don’t feel like anyone’s ever heard about them,” Moran said. “It varies. Some people feel like, wounds are being ripped a little, you know, like what do we do with this?”

Bivens says some people have said that it’s hard to make that shift if you’re still hurting from old wounds.

“Often just acknowledging what people have been through and giving them a chance to tell their stories and acknowledging it can make a shift for them,” Bivens said. “They said that they think one reason Boston is so hesitant to talk about race, to really put it on the table and [why] it’s such a skittish issue is because we haven’t dealt with that era.”

And, Bevins says, that’s why the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project has as the tagline “For truth, learning, and change.”

The Boston Busing Desegregation Project will hold events throughout the city on June 21, the anniversary of the busing order in the desegregation case filed 40 years ago this month.

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