Truth, Reconciliation May Not Come Easy

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For Regina Williams, 1974 is the year she went to war. She was in the first wave of black students bused to all-white South Boston High School.

"You had to worry about being jumped in the hallways, being snatched in the bathrooms," Williams says. "The teachers were so tense they couldn't teach."

And leaving school was worse.

"When we got on the bus you had families on top of their roofs (with guns) literally pointed at the bus," she says.

After about three weeks, Williams gave up. She was so scared, she stopped going to school. Instead, she and her friends hung out at home together. Williams got pregnant. She didn't go back to finish high school until she was in her 20s.

Williams doesn't blame the people who threw rocks or stood on top of their houses with guns. She says they were victims — just like she was. Instead, she points to the people who were in charge at the time.

"Why did it happen? I know they wanted equal education. But...," she says. "I think the school system has failed me. That it failed my child. And if things doesn't (sic) change, it's going to fail my grandchildren as well."

"I think people are suffering from post-traumatic stress from being shot at or from having their kids not be safe on the street. I think that money would be better used bringing some 'truth and reconciliation' to those groups."

Principal Joy Salesman-Oliver

Williams, now 50, is doing better. She's studying for her master's degree in social work.

But her lingering cynicism worries Horace Small. The Jamaica Plain activist says that resentment prevents people — particularly black families — from getting involved, whether it's with their kids' education or other institutions.

"After 37 years, we have to recognize that something is wrong; that something went wrong," Small says. "And we need to identify what that is."

Small hopes to create what he calls a "truth and reconciliation commission," like South Africa did after apartheid. He and his organization, the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, won a $84,000 grant for the project from the Andrus Family Fund. He hopes to address the damage done to everyone — black and white.

In Boston, the challenge will be in convincing people they should talk about something that happened in 1974. The initial signs aren't good.

"Oh, brother, ballywho," says William "Billy" Bulger. "I don't know. I don't see any value in it."

Bulger was a state senator representing South Boston in 1974. And he was a strong opponent of busing. According to him, people don't need catharsis. But then he can't seem to stop talking about what he calls "the mistake."

"It was a bad idea," he says. "And the only people who were for it were the people who were unaffected by it. I mean, the judge would even say things like, 'We've got to tough this out' — as he'd get on the train to go back to Wellesley."

The judge was Arthur Garrity. He died in 1999. When he gave the order to desegregate Boston Public Schools, it was up to state and local officials to carry that order out.

At the time, Charles Glenn was in charge of desegregation for the state. He decided which students — including Regina Williams — would go where.

"I think we did some things right and some things wrong back in '74 and '75," Glenn says. "But I think going back and revisiting it at this point is probably not what we need to do."

Glenn now teaches education at Boston University. He says he doesn't want to revisit the busing era, but then he adds, "It's interesting to note, by the way, that Springfield implemented desegregation just as comprehensively the same year, and had no conflict at all. Everything went smoothly because the elected officials and the school system behaved in an honorable way. In Boston you had all that grandstanding and so forth and that's what really caused all of the conflict."

Glenn says there are more pressing issues to worry about now. He doesn't buy the idea that Bostonians are suffering from some kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder.

Neither does Joy Salesman-Oliver. She was a black student during desegregation in Boston Public Schools. And now she works for the same school system as a principal.

"I think people are suffering from post-traumatic stress from being shot at or from having their kids not be safe on the street," she says. "I think that money would be better used bringing some 'truth and reconciliation' to those groups."

Salesman-Oliver acknowledges the busing crisis was a hard time, but she doesn't think anyone would want to "relive it."

That attitude doesn't surprise Small. He says the very fact that people don't want to talk about this means they probably should.

"Mature adults, responsible adults, have a responsibility to go back and to revisit the past," he says.

Small says this project will likely take at least three years. He expects to meet heavy resistance to talking about busing. But if early reaction is any indication, there seems to be a lot to reconcile.

This program aired on July 13, 2010.


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