Boston's School Desegregation Era

By Phillip Martin

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Jan. 30, 2012


BOSTON — Mayor Kevin White presided over a tumultuous time of race relations. We look at his actions at three different crisis points and how they're seen today.

Haymarket, April 1968

In April 1968, network television anchors took to the air to report that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, had had a concert long scheduled for the following night at the Boston Garden. The young mayor of Boston, Kevin White, was uncertain about whether the concert should proceed. But city councilor Tom Atkins persuaded White that the concert could be a way to keep people out of the streets.

Twenty-four hours after King was killed, with racial tensions rising in other cities, Boston stayed calm as White spoke at the Garden.

"I'm here tonight, like all of you, to listen to James. But I'm also here to ask for your help. I'm here to ask you to stay with me as your mayor and to make Dr. King's dreams a reality in Boston," he told the crowd.
 
"That was important that he listened to members of the black community about what he needed to do in that situation," said veteran community organizer Mel King on Jan. 29 at his weekly brunch in the South End. But King had a different opinion of the mayor’s role in the turbulent years over school busing:
 
"On the other hand, I don’t know where he was when we were having the people in South Boston and East Boston and other places who were railing out against the desegregation order. I think it's important for people to understand that the leadership in the white community was very scarce around this issue."

South Boston, September 1974
 
In 1974, White presided over a severely balkanized city: Public schools were divided along color lines in violation of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional. Mel King said, "Very frankly, the problem didn’t get solved until the courts made it happen."
 
The vehicles for change were yellow school buses. They rolled into traditionally Irish and Italian neighborhoods as Judge Arthur Garrity’s desegregation order started to be implemented.
 
Listening to the WGBH archives paints a dramatic picture of a pivotal moment in Boston history. Take this comment from an unidentified little girl in Roxbury:
 
"When we go up there we’re going to get stoned. It’s not fair to me 'cause why isn’t it the other way around when they come up here? When they come up here we won’t mess with them so why when we come up there they mess with us?"
 
Michael Patrick MacDonald's memoir "All Souls" is about his childhood growing up in South Boston. He wrote of the desegregation riots:
 
"Smash! A burst of flying glass and all that rage exploded. We'd all been waiting for it, and so had the police in riot gear…. More bricks, sticks, and bottles smashed against the buses, as police pulled out their billy clubs and charged with their riot shields in a line formation through the crowds. Teenagers were chased into the project and beaten to the cement wherever they were caught. I raced away about a block from the fray, to a spot where everyone was chanting 'Here We Go Southie, Here We Go,' like a battle cry."
 
In an interview with WGBH News, MacDonald said, "I was only 8 years old at the time … none of us kids knew what to expect. But I really feel in retrospect that the adults, all of the adults involved, all knew what was going to happen. Of course violence was going to break out and violence did break out."
 
But others gave White credit for attempting to mediate a very difficult conflict rooted in age-old racial divisions and for being resolute in carrying out the court order. At a press conference in September 1974, reporters pressed White on this issue, asking him what it would take to get people in South Boston to agree to go to school outside their neighborhood.

White replied that it would take "obviously, time and patience by us. A willingness to stick it out. A willingness to know that none of us like the situation, the least being the police. But the fact is, we’re faced with the law and we’re charged with implementing it, and no matter how long it takes, that’s precisely what has to be done in this city and we’ll do it. I can’t give you a timetable."

City Hall Plaza, April 1976

the soiling of old glory
Pulitzer–winning image "The Soiling of Old Glory" became the icon of racial tensions in Boston. (Stanley Forman/Boston Herald American)

It would take longer than many ever imagined. Over the next few months and years, violent protests against desegregation and bussing expanded way beyond the school zones. Fights, marches and often violent rallies spilled into the streets, onto Carson Beach in South Boston, outside of nightclubs in Kenmore Square and, most significantly, in April 1976, in the shadow of government itself.

On WGBH's "Ten o'Clock News," Pam Bullard reported, "Boston’s latest racial confrontation occurred yesterday in City Hall Plaza after months of building tension, a group of white youth viciously attacked a black attorney, Theodore Landsmark."
 
But it was the photo taken of the attack that made this incident stand out. The image — which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize — showed Landsmark being grabbed from behind by one white youth while another lunged toward him with a long pole flying the flag of the United States of America.
 
Then–State Sen. Bill Owens spoke for many African Americans at a press conference following the attack, saying, "People of color are not safe to come here to Boston, and we’re asking people of color across the country to stay away."
 
Over three terms, White had led an infrastructural transformation of Boston, with new skyscrapers, high-rise condos, translucent office towers and a revitalized downtown commercial district. The Landsmark incident threatened to cast a permanent shadow over the mayor’s shiny "city on a hill." At that point many around the country were comparing it not to New York, but to Little Rock in 1957. 

"If Boston, state officials will not protect us, we must ask for federal protection," Owens said at that same press event. He accused White of allowing City Hall Plaza to become a venue for anti-busing rallies. And Owens declared, to applause, "I supported the re-election of mayor Kevin White. Today, I’m withdrawing that vote of confidence that I gave him in September and November."

The aftermath

Mayor White owed his first of four terms to a coalition of Italian, liberal and black voters. And African American leaders often reminded him of this. In the aftermath of the Landsmark incident, the mayor called for greater enforcement and tougher penalties against racial violence. Black and Latino leaders also pointed out that City Hall was largely devoid of people of color. That also began to change.

Donna Bivens, director of the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project, said White's legacy on busing is mixed:

"He’ll be remembered by different people affected by the crisis in different ways: mediator, as a politician, someone that’s expedient, sometimes someone who was caught in the middle," she said. "I remember him as trying to juggle a very complex situation that I don’t think that he totally understood at the time. But I don’t think that most of us understood the depths of systemic racism and how entrenched some of the things we were trying to change are, for people working for and people working against it. He did the best that he could at the time with what he understood."

The best that he could at the time with what he understood. It's a point, said Bivens, that was driven home by White in an address just days before the busses started rolling in September of 1974:

"I will employ every resource available to me to guarantee the well-being of these children. And I have a duty as mayor to give every child in this city access to school, and I will fulfill that responsibility, to the best of my own ability."

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