Boston community leaders have announced a series of events to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the federal court order to desegregate Boston Public Schools. As part of the initiative, school leaders will host a series of events on the history of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) and busing in Boston. The first free discussion will take place at Roxbury Community College on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Michael Curry, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and a member of the national board of directors for the NAACP, and and Lyda Peters, long-time Boston educator and civil rights activist, joined WBUR's Radio Boston to discuss the creation and legacy of the METCO program.
Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
On memories of busing:
Curry: "I've been a part of many conversations over the years about busing. They've all caused me to reflect back on the 17-year-old boy that I was, that was being bused from Roxbury to the Warren Prescott [school] in Charlestown.
"They caused me to reflect back on the fear that my mother had, putting me on the bus those mornings to head over near the Museum of Science and take that right turn over to Charlestown and to pass through that gauntlet of anger, violence and police trying to protect us from that violence headed to the Warren Prescott.
"I remember, even as a seven-year-old, and it's not a lot of reflections we have as seven-year-olds, but you know trauma, you remember. You know violence, you remember.
"So, this is personal for me because I often have wondered — and people may not like this comparison — I have wondered when I looked at pictures of lynchings during this country's history, and I saw the faces of the families, the angry mobs around the bodies, and I would say, 'I would love to have interviewed them to understand what was in their heart and their mind.' The same is true for busing. I'd love to understand what was in their hearts and their minds when they stood out on those streets. And this project that we've been doing has allowed us to have those types of conversations."
Peters: "What hit me when [Michael Curry] talked about understanding the hearts and the minds takes me back to when I worked with Ruth Batson [one of the co-founders of METCO.] She was chair of an education committee that actually started desegregation. And the desegregation movement was a movement because there were so many parents in the streets that wanted their kids — like your parent —to have a better education. Not a segregated education, not a poor education, not an education in schools that were old, that would fall apart.
"I taught in one of those schools, at the age of 22. So, the issue around desegregation is much, much deeper than a bus. I think people have heard that expression 'the issue is not the bus.' Because busing has become such a stigma. Then beneath that stigma is a movement that was about goodness, better force, opportunity for Black kids who were in schools that were overcrowded.
"I taught in the first grade where Black kids were seen as coming from homes where parents didn't care. So that fight for desegregation of the schools actually started with Ruth Batson and the education committee. And if it wasn't for organizing in that Roxbury community, we'd have the same thing that we have right now, a segregated city in Boston."
On how nationwide turmoil was reflected in Boston:
Curry: "I reflect back on "Turmoil and Transition in Boston" by Lawrence DiCara. Larry, who I know well [is a former Boston City Councilor who ran for mayor]. When he shared his book with me, [there] was the piece that talks about how Whitey Bulger had planned to attack buses of kids coming into South Boston. There was really a group of folks who had to engage him to stop him from perpetrating that kind of violence.
"The reality is that this is no surprise, right? Racial division in this country — at least anti-Black racism — goes back to 1619 and the arrival of slaves. We've had many occurrences in our history where folks have come in as immigrants, white immigrants and competed to be included and transition and matriculate into this society. And [we've had occurrences of] Black folks at the bottom of the pile, though many of us got here before many of those immigrants did throughout centuries.
"And then, as a result, the tensions rise. I think about Red Summer in 1919 — the racial violence across this country way before Tulsa, Oklahoma. So it's no surprise that Boston wasn't immune from that. We had tensions here because, though white families were poor and were going to bad schools, they weren't as bad as the schools Black children were steered into.
"Black families were steered into bad housing that were worse than the housing in other communities; And we were steered into bad schools that were worse — It was about access to all that. If I pay taxes, if I live in this city, my kids should have access to the school systems that are here and not be relegated to the worst systems and the worst institutions. And that's our history here and across the country."
On Boston activists and their work of desegregating schools:
Peters: "[First,] I want to let everyone know that desegregation in schools started in 1787 with the first Black people who came. At that time, to speak about activism, they were a small group of people, but they were constantly active, trying to get their kids into schools that were open to other kids. [So,] that's something that's systemic. And that's something that did not disappear [throughout the 20th century.]
"By the time I was involved in that, there had been a number of groups throughout the city, primarily parents screaming as loud as they did in 1787. Screaming to say: 'We want our kids to have an equal chance at a good education.'
"As I told you, I was 20-something when I started teaching first grade with 40 kids. [Schools] were overcrowded; teachers were understaffed [and] new; books were terrible — some of the books were racist.
"I was involved with Ruth [Batson] who was pretty much the leader of this whole movement, and I learned a lot about what you do — not how you cry, but what you do to change things. And it was more than just walking. It was organizing. It was meeting. It was talking to parents. It was holding those kids.
"It was trying to find alternative schools so that kids wouldn't lose their lives over that horrible period of time when they were not getting little to no education in Roxbury."
On the importance of METCO:
Curry: "We've always had this situation in our history, and Boston is no exception, where when systems didn't offer us equal opportunity, we had to find alternatives. And METCO [Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a state-funded, voluntary, educational desegregation program designed to eliminate racial imbalance through busing] was an alternative.
"It was an opportunity for some kids — not all. I would make a comparison to charter schools now, right? They become an alternative for a small percentage [of children]. It's not the solution, but it's a solution for families.
"Two of my oldest sons went to METCO. And the creation of METCO gave them a chance to go to schools where the academic rigor was there; social supports were there. They were better financed school systems, quite frankly, because the infrastructure of our educational system in urban areas is underfunding and under-resourcing, therefore we're at a competitive disadvantage to a Cohasset, to a Lincoln-Sudbury, name the community.
"So, my kids got more rigorous education in those communities. We have to embrace and celebrate METCO and the program that it was. But I will tell you, as a person who did trainings [there] for years — they used to invite me to do trainings with young people — they were dealing with trauma, racial isolation and racial incidents in these communities across the Commonwealth. They were dealing, in some cases, with racist teachers and administrators, because [those schools] were not immune from that either.
"So there's been advocacy by parents and administrators and METCO coordinators to fight for even in those systems to treat our kids well, so that it didn't break them. So while we celebrate METCO, we have to be honest about what it was and is as well."
On teaching at desegregated schools:
Peters: "I used to be the medical coordinator in Newton. So I understood firsthand what that experience was like. When I went into a classroom, I would see maybe two or three Black kids with maybe about 15 white children. And one of the issues that I would have to confront would be that some of those Black kids would be sitting in the corner, not getting the same exact education as the others.
"Parents would have to go in and fight, METCO would have to go in and fight — I'm not sure what it's like now, but always fight on behalf of their kids, even though they were in these very elite schools.
"And so, the fight never stopped. And when I say fight, I don't mean it with an emphasis on anger, I mean it with an emphasis on parental force —to say, 'my kid deserves something better, even here in the suburban school.'
"It worked because many of the children — they are not children now —many of the adults that I come in contact with, talk positively, not about their experience, but about where they are now. If they hadn't gone to that school, as opposed to the Boston Public Schools, they wouldn't be where they are now. So that's the reward of the sacrifices that they made during that period of time."
On being a parent at a desegregated school:
Curry: "The reality is that my son had an excellent education at Cohasset, though it traumatized us as a family. We got a call every other day about his behavior. Whenever we would go meet with the administrators about his behavior, it was never about his academics. It was never about whether he was doing great in math or any other area. It was, 'Well, we think we should put your child in an IEP [individualized education program].' Those were some really tense meetings.
"I think you could poll METCO parents and you [would] hear a lot of those stories, particularly with our Black boys.
"I was putting a Black boy through the METCO program and when he came back to a Brockton public school system, he was in all honors classes, though he would have never been in all honors class within METCO, within Coasset. So, the academic rigor did prepare him to come back and compete within a public school system."
On Black students' experience in desegregated schools:
Curry: "I used to do trainings for Black students on predominantly white campuses in college. The isolation, the feeling like you represent your race, being spotlighted by a teacher — all those issues that happen on a white college campus, happen in METCO.
"[Questions like] 'Do you need to comb your hair?' The ignorance that happens around our race and culture — students are having to deal with that at a very young impressionable age. College, they're not even really able to deal with it. So [I would do] sessions with young Black, Brown boys and girls, to talk about what that's like.
"This is also about traditional public education. Most of our kids will not go to METCO, [or a] charter school. We have to make sure the masses of Black children, Brown children are getting that level of academic rigor and excellence in our traditional public education system.
"I know what I went through, so [METCO] can be improved. It can't be the model for how to teach our kids. It has to be an example that can be improved, but the traditional public education system is where our focus should be."
On the road from METCO to college:
Peters: "You have to acknowledge that when you come from a good high school, the doors open wider. You couldn't get to a school like Boston College, or Boston University, unless you came from a good school that had prepared you, no matter what your SAT scores were. You had to have a school like that. So Boston wasn't preparing people.
"I mean, going back to attorneys that I know, that are now my age, talked about the kind of poor, racist education they got — I'm talking about the 50s and 60s. If it wasn't for the surrounding community, the activists there, who reached out for them and got them to Black colleges in the South, they wouldn't be the attorneys or the judges who they are now.
"So the school itself is a pivotal point in the lives of every child. And METCO is that pivotal point for many, because [in] Boston, [in some schools] you think about yourself differently. When you sit in a seat where a teacher dismisses you as if you don't exist and reaches all around you to the non-Black kids, that in itself is a message that says you're not worth much.
"[But when] you put them in an alternative school, they are learning more than they did before, and they know it's hard, but they make it [further in life.]
Curry: "Just a quick point to that Professor Peters makes: If a student isn't allowed to be his or her best self in school because of the system, [we won't see that student] in the medical schools, the law schools. We got to make that connection as we have the DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] conversation that we're missing.
"When you're not there to be in the law school, on the policy, on the admissions, on the curriculum — we're missing for a reason. Because as Professor Peter said, the system is set up from the beginning to keep us out, and that's not a conspiracy theory, that's history, that's our context that we're talking about."
On the future of METCO:
Curry: "I think all of us who are students of history know that there are ebbs and flows of history. There was a backlash to emancipation; There was a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. [So, the] Supreme Court decision on affirmative action or what we see the governor in Florida doing, is all the backlash to progress. It's so funny when he says, 'we don't want people to be woke.' When was being awake a bad thing, right? We are in an all out attack on racial justice, on inclusion, on diversity. This is just another piece of it.
I think we're in a better position here in Massachusetts, we have higher consciousness of [American history and Black history within it,] but we're not absolved. There will be people who fight inclusion, who challenge inequities and who don't fund METCO. The reality is we need those 200 legislators in that building to understand that that is the pathway for so many of our kids to medical school, law school, to success, to entrepreneurship. Don't close that access. Fund it and fund it well."
This segment aired on September 26, 2023.