How The Boston Busing Decision Still Affects City Schools 40 Years Later

Note: This report contains some harsh language.

Demonstrators carrying signs gather the night of Oct. 5, 1974 outside the home of U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity protesting the forced busing of Boston's schoolchildren.  (AP)

Demonstrators carrying signs gather the night of Oct. 5, 1974 outside the home of U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity protesting the forced busing of Boston’s schoolchildren. (AP)

BOSTON — On June 21, 1974 — 40 years ago Saturday — Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered that Boston students be bused to desegregate schools. His decision ignited a firestorm of controversy and violence.

“Busing was one of the biggest events in the history of Boston,” said Jim Vrabel, author of the soon-to-be released book, “A People’s History of the New Boston.” The historian puts busing right up there with the American Revolution — though busing in Boston was more a civil war, the battlefield the city, the fight between neighborhoods and neighbors.

“It was so disruptive to the city at the time because it caused so much hard feeling among people and because it has a lasting, I think negative, impact to this day,” Vrabel said.

It took Garrity 15 months to decide the case. A third generation Irish-American who lived in suburban Wellesley, Garrity was known as a meticulous, methodical man. His desegregation ruling in the lawsuit Morgan v. Hennigan ran 152 pages.

Some facts are not in dispute. Boston schools were segregated. Some schools in Roxbury were 90 percent black. In South Boston, nearly 100 percent of the students were white.

The Boston School Committee said that was just the way it was; it’s where people chose to live. But black parents in the city wanted more for their kids.

“This all started in the black community,” Vrabel said, “because although the schools were not providing a good education for anyone, they were providing a particularly bad one for students in the black community.”

Some white schools lacked libraries and cafeterias. Some black schools lacked classrooms, books, even teachers. In the mid 1960s, just one Boston school teacher in 200 was black.

Among them was Jean McGuire. “My son went all the way through school ’til he was a senior and never saw a black man — not a custodian, not a teacher, not a counselor,” she said. “Can you imagine your kids going all the way through school and never seeing a white teacher?”

At the time there wasn’t a single black principal in the entire Boston school system.

“The reason Boston schools began to deteriorate was that the school system became less of an educational system and more a patronage system,” Vrabel said. “Teachers and administrators were hired based on who they knew rather than what they knew.”

Members of the Boston School Committee are in session on Dec. 23, 1974. They voted unanimously to appeal a federal desegregation court order to the U.S. Supreme Court.  (AP)

Members of the Boston School Committee in session on Dec. 23, 1974, when they voted unanimously to appeal a federal desegregation court order to the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP)

In 1965 the Massachusetts Legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act, requiring schools with more than 50 percent of students of one race to desegregate.

Boston’s school committee refused to comply. All five members, elected at large, were white.

“It was clear to me when I was hired in 1972 that the day was going to come when the chickens would come home to roost,” said Bob Schwartz, who was Boston Mayor Kevin White’s adviser on education when the civil rights lawsuit was filed against the school committee.

Schwartz is now a professor emeritus of education at Harvard University. “At every point where the school committee had a choice,” he said, “the school committee opted for segregation.”

In 1965 — more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional — a black parent confronted Boston School Committee member Louise Day Hicks, a staunch opponent of school desegregation:

Johnson: Any school that is predominantly Negro in Boston is an inadequate school.

Hicks: Mrs. Johnson, the superintendent of schools has stated as his policy that a racially imbalanced school is not educationally harmful.

Johnson: Mrs. Hicks, madame chairman, may I say this: Superintendent Ohrenberger and yourself and other committee members do not have children in a racially imbalanced school, so you do not know what the effect is on our children.

“People were tired of fighting and not winning,” McGuire said.

“The last 40 years we’ve been pursuing a mathematical solution to desegregate Boston schools, instead of an educational solution to improve them.”
– Historian Jim Vrabel

She says black parents took matters into their own hands. They boycotted Boston schools and started separate freedom classes for their children. They began organizing buses and carpools to take inner-city black students to suburban white schools.

And finally, black parents and the NAACP made a federal case out of it: suing the Boston School Committee using the state’s Racial Imbalance Act.

“And now you had a law that now had teeth to it, but you had to put in the structure that made those teeth bite,” McGuire said.

On June 21, 1974, Judge Garrity bit hard, declaring that the Boston School Committee had deliberately created two school systems: one for whites, one for blacks. Garrity’s remedy was busing. He ordered black and white students to attend schools in each other’s neighborhoods.

Ironically, Vrabel says, the school committee had used busing to segregate schools.

“They actively created a segregated school system by using things like busing,” he said, “like assigning students to schools outside their neighborhoods, like creating separate grade structures in schools in white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods to artificially create and promote segregation where it might not have existed otherwise.”

Garrity began busing that year. He ordered black high school students from Roxbury be bused to South Boston, an Irish enclave, and South Boston students bused to Roxbury.

The reaction by some white parents was angry and swift.

Days before busing was to start, hundreds of white students and parents, with the support of the school committee, attended a rally at Government Center. They directed their rage at Sen. Ted Kennedy, a backer of Garrity’s busing plan, as he entered Boston’s federal building.

But this was just prelude to what would come three days later, when school started.

Black students enter the predominantly white South Boston High School on the first day of a court-ordered busing program to integrate Boston public schools, Sept. 12, 1974. (Peter Bregg/AP)

Black students enter the predominantly white South Boston High School on the first day of a court-ordered busing program to integrate Boston public schools, Sept. 12, 1974. (Peter Bregg/AP)

Parents jeered as school buses from Roxbury arrived at South Boston High. Black and white students entered through different doors, guarded by police. Of 1,300 black Roxbury students assigned to South Boston, only 100 showed up that day. In Roxbury, just 13 white students from South Boston went to school.

“I was nominally the education person,” said former mayoral education aide Schwartz. “But there wasn’t a lot of education to be had during that period of time. It was basically just trying to keep kids from being killed.”

Things got worse. Massachusetts State Police and the National Guard were called in. A black student stabbed a white student at South Boston High. An angry mob hauled a black cab driver from his car and brutally beat him.

“I remember riding the buses to protect the kids going up to South Boston High School,” McGuire recalled, “and the bricks through the window. Signs hanging off those buildings, ‘N***** Go Home.’ Pictures of monkeys. The words. The spit. People just felt it was all right to attack children, and yet we prevailed.”

In 1977, McGuire became the first of two black candidates elected to the Boston School Committee. She’s now executive director of Metco, an organization that provides voluntary busing for Boston black students to schools in the suburbs.

“It isn’t the bus you’re talking about,” she said. “You have to be really honest, [it's] not a thing to do with transportation. Everybody in the suburbs rides a bus to get to school, or driving their cars. It isn’t a bus, it’s us. It’s who you live next to. It’s who your kids will marry.

McGuire believes we’re better off today with Garrity’s decision.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” McGuire added. “Part of education isn’t just book stuff. It’s how to get along as a city and look out for each other. He had to break the mold.”

But breaking the mold would not help a broken school system. Critics say simply busing poor kids from one failed school to another could never create a more equal and integrated school system.

Amid the chaos, some 30,000 students, mostly white, left the Boston Public Schools for parochial and private schools.

A decade after his decision, Garrity continued to oversee his plan to desegregate the city’s schools.

Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, pictured here in 1985, ordered Boston schools desegregated in a 1974. He died in 1999. (AP)

Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, pictured here in 1985, ordered Boston schools desegregated in a 1974. He died in 1999. (AP)

“Desegregation is not an event, it’s a process,” he said. “There’s work that remains to be done, and the challenges of the future I do believe are greater than the challenges of the past.”

In 1960, 90 percent of Boston was white. Today, it’s about 50 percent, but now only 13 percent of Boston public school students are white.

“He got the problem right, he got the decision right. It was the remedy that he didn’t get right,” historian Vrabel said.

Vrabel says Judge Garrity moved too fast and should have taken more time to address the deeper problems of class — social and educational.

“In attempting to redress the historical wrong of segregation, the court ignored how people live their lives,” he said. “Ignored important institutions like neighborhood schools, like a parent’s right to send kids to the school of their choice.

“His plan was a failure of public policy,” Vrabel added. “The last 40 years we’ve been pursuing a mathematical solution to desegregate the Boston Public Schools, instead of an educational solution to improve them.”

Fifteen years ago, the Boston School Committee ended the use of race as a factor in assigning students to schools. Two months later, Garrity died at home in Wellesley. He was 79.

When Garrity died, then-Boston Mayor Tom Menino said, “Whether you agreed or disagreed with his opinion a generation ago, everyone can agree that Judge Garrity’s influence on our city will be felt for a long time to come.”

Forty years after Garrity’s Boston desegregation decision, we can say the same thing.

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  • mia

    I was just 9 years old, white and in 4th grade when busing began in Boston, but I was already attending a Catholic school. Watching the way adults behaved towards buses carrying young children traumatized me. These adults that I had been taught to respect simply because they were adults were acting in such frightening ways that to this day I find it hard to reconcile. These were people who went to church on Sundays then used Rosary prayer circles to block buses full of elementary school children from getting to a school that would give them an education. I’m not saying that busing worked or didn’t; that’s another opinion for another day. But the actions that I witnessed from these people against children and not the system continue to disturb me some 40 years later.

    • mplo

      I can imagine how and why the behavior of adults towards young children who were being bused into neighborhoods to attend school would have traumatized you, mia, and I sympathize with you. Because there were so many angry adults, many of them (though not all) scapegoated the young children who were being bused into their neighborhoods to attend school, at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Scapegoating occurred, first because these adults and many teenagers, too, were angry, and the bussed-in students were right within reach and were all too easy to scapegoat, if one gets the drift.

  • keltcrusader

    I was going into 5th grade the first year of busing. I had been walking to our local school and was bused across town. It wasn’t great and it wasn’t horrible. I made some new friends as many of my old classmates went to private/parochial school after the decision. The thing I missed most was I had to give up Girl Scouts and other after school activities since I couldn’t stay after anymore because I had to catch the bus. Wasn’t happy about that at all!

  • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

    I enjoyed the piece but somewhere in it I felt the whole idea was lost in the obsession over numbers: the Boston schools gave black children an inferior education compared to whites. They got lousy schools and lousy teachers and lousy resources and THAT’S why Arthur Garrity desegregated the schools. Not because of numbers, because the city DELIBERATELY chose to give white kids a better education and the only way to change that was to put white kids with black kids so that the racists couldn’t engage in their educational racism without hurting white kids.

    It was a nice try.

    • mplo

      What you’ve said about the all-white, patronage-oriented, politically opportunistic Boston School Committee back then deliberately creating what Judge W. Arthur Garrity called a “dual” school system (one for blacks and the other for whites) is definitely true, Bob Collins.

      One must also bear in mind, however, that, by doing that with the black kids, that same Boston Public School Committee also cheated the white kids out of a decent education as well.

      If you’ve ever read Jonathan Kozol’s first book “Death at an Early Age”, which came out back in 1967, which was a real indictment of Boston’s public schools, the author also points out that Boston’s white working-class kids fared little or no better than the blacks in Roxbury, North Dorchester and Mattapan under that same regime.

  • rkean

    My understanding of where Garrity and Boston leadership went wrong is that the entire burden was placed on relatively poor Boston neighborhoods. A successful busing plan really focusing on improving education for Boston kids would have included suburban neighborhoods, perhaps including Wellesley. Other communities, I think in North Carolina, have implemented more successful busing plans this way.

    • mplo

      “A successful busing plan really focusing on improving education for Boston kids would’ve included suburban neighborhoods, perhaps including Welleslsy. Other communities in North Carolina, have implemented more successful busing plans this way.”

      What you’re saying makes great, good sense, and they’re points well taken, rkean. This is what’s called a Metropolitan solution. A similar program was tried in Detroit, but it got scrapped. There are at least a couple of very important reasons, however, why that kind of cross-busing from city to suburbs was rejected here in Boston:

      A) Most of Boston’s blacks rejected that idea, because Boston’s black community, at that time, was a very small minority in the city of Boston, and they felt that their power/numbers would be diluted by having their kids bused to the suburbs and vice versa.

      B) Most white suburbanites wouldn’t and didn’t accept it, either.

      I will also add however, that New Orleans, LA, while it began with a mandatory school busing program which was similar to Boston’s, in that it mixed a poor white neighborhood with a poor black neighborhood, and also had disastrous results, the city of New Orleans later changed their school desegregation program, and chose one of the city’s “silk stocking” wards (i. e. a wealthy white neighborhood of New Orleans) and a poorer black area of that same city. In this latter experiment, the desegregation process, which involved mixing kids of different socioeconomic classes as well as different races together, the results were much more successful, and people were much more willing to comply with the ruling, which they did.


        MANY Black parents would have LOVED sending their kids to public schools in the adjacent suburbs. Problem is/was, the closest “suburb” was/is Brookline; and Brookline in 1973 was NOT about to allow any Blacks inside their borders unless they were coming to clean, cook, and launder!

        Black kids were on WAITING LISTS to attend schools in the suburbs using the METCO system where Black kids actually enrolled in school systems that could EDUCATE them.

        White parents who cared about their children’s futures did NOT enroll their kids in Boston Public Schools, they used the private/parochial systems because Boston Public Schools were a wasteland.

        • mplo

          Thanks, Lorraine Jo. The ideal way, of course, would’ve been to integrate Boston City public schools not only racially/ethnically, but socioeconomically as well. Had Boston done what New Orleans did with their second time around efforts to desegregate their schools, like I mentioned above, the Boston case wouldn’t have been such a disaster.

          • rkean

            A better way would have been to include the suburbs in a desegregation plan and/or expand METCO which as Lorraine Jo points out had waiting lists of students of color wanting a better shot at a quality education. This would have expanded desegregation in the classroom to the suburbs and let people know that desegregation isn’t a good idea only for poor inner city neighborhoods but is a good idea in general, in Brookline, Wellesley, Newton, and the other suburban affluent communities that benefit so much by being located near Boston.

  • Booker T

    All Garrity’s decision did was make the suburbs and Brookline more expensive and drove the middle class out of Boston.

    Boston schools continue to be an expensive soup kitchen for 5 to 22 year old kids.

  • Booker T

    Hopefully, the horrible teachers will be fired from Boston schools now that tenure is illegal.

    Then, we need to kick out the violent students.

    Then, we need more exam schools.

  • Gele Eerie

    Since free markets are dynamic and unpredictable, one must always be ready to adjust to changes within them that may be hard to understand.

  • Samuel Sung

    Civilization developed as our ancestors discovered the ideas and institutions that enabled small bands to become tribes, chiefdoms, and nations.

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