Judgment Days

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In June 1974, a federal judge issued the busing order that ripped Boston apart. Now, 25 years later, the city and its schools struggle to move on.


The memories simply won't fade away. Maryann Matthews recalls the rooftop snipers and platoons of police cars on the day the buses first rolled up to the nearly all-white high school where she taught. Kevin H. White, who was mayor then, remembers being bombarded by catcalls and boos as he stood on the auditorium stage appealing for calm at violence-torn South Boston High School.

And Debra A. Wilson thinks of the memories she doesn't have--like the senior prom she never attended--when she recollects those first tortured months of court-ordered busing in Boston a quarter-century ago.

"For people who were here during that very volatile period, it's still fresh in their minds," says Gareth R. Saunders, a Boston City Council member. "They remember it vividly."

Twenty-five years ago this month--just as the 1973-74 school year ended--U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued the desegregation order that would soon tear the city apart.

The ensuing conflict, with its widely publicized images of interracial violence, made a lasting imprint not only on this city but on the whole country as well. Whites hurling bottles and rocks at buses full of black students, police on horseback holding back furious protesters, stabbings in schools, and brutal beatings on the streets--those scenes made it resoundingly clear that school desegregation was not a problem confined to the South. It was a dilemma for the nation.

Yet as profound an impression Boston's busing war made elsewhere, its impact was far deeper at home. For a city that has long cherished its image as a cradle of democratic ideals, the trauma has proven difficult to shake.

Many people see its legacy in the public's lack of confidence in the city schools, and in the stark demographic changes the district has undergone in the past generation. Echoes of the busing battles are also easily heard in the city's ongoing debate over how to improve educational quality, especially when the topic turns to the racially charged issue of neighborhood schools.

For these reasons and more, many people believe that neither the city nor its schools have fully recovered from the crisis and its aftermath.

"I don't think there was a more important event, certainly in my lifetime, and perhaps even in the 20th century," says James W. Hennigan, who was the chairman of the Boston school committee when black parents filed their federal desegregation lawsuit in 1972. "We have paid and paid now for 25 years."

When the case known as Morgan v. Hennigan landed on Judge Garrity's desk, there were no laws authorizing separate schools for blacks and whites in Boston.

On the contrary, a 1965 law aimed at eliminating schools that enrolled a majority of nonwhite students had made Massachusetts the first state to impose sanctions on districts with racially imbalanced schools. The city school committee had been resisting the state's efforts to enforce that law for years when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People agreed to finance a federal lawsuit by a group of Boston blacks in the spring of 1972.

In weighing arguments in the case, Garrity focused on whether school officials had engaged in a pattern of actions and inaction that amounted to deliberate separation of the races. On June 21, 1974, he concluded that they had.

"There was a very deliberate discriminatory operation in place," says Garrity, who still hears cases at age 78.

By the time of his decision, a legal battle between the district and state had already yielded a directive requiring the city to implement a far-reaching desegregation plan by September 1974. As a remedy to the violations he had found, Garrity turned to that plan--which critics had reviled, saying it would tear the city apart. The buses would roll, he decreed, in 2½ months.

The ruling came as a shock.

"I'll never forget that day," recalls John M. Halloran, a longtime Boston school administrator who now oversees the district's desegregation efforts. "My reaction was, 'My God, we can never get this in place by September. Chaos will ensue.' "

As it turned out, the hasty reassignment of thousands of students proceeded calmly in most schools. But it was the exceptions that the world noticed then, and that the city remembers today.

That autumn, it was South Boston--then a largely working-class section of the city long dominated by Irish-Americans--that emerged as the chief battleground.

The following year, Charlestown captured headlines as buses from black neighborhoods rolled into the mainly white, working-class area, which had a reputation for insularity rivaled only by South Boston's.

As unsettling as those clashes were, they were not completely out of character, some analysts say.

"The country was aghast that such violence could occur in Boston," says Lee Daniels, the director of publications for the National Urban League, who grew up in the city and moved out in 1974. "But I was not surprised. It fit the pattern of Northern racism perfectly."

Others say the problems had less to do with race than with personal security and community solidarity. Class resentments were a factor, too, as residents of South Boston and Charlestown felt like guinea pigs in a social experiment cooked up by an immune elite.

"These neighborhoods were being threatened by things that had nothing to do with race--by highways, urban renewal, suburban flight," says Alan I. Lupo, a writer for The Boston Globe who has written a book about the busing crisis. "By the time the desegregation order came along, that was yet another threat. When you factored race in, then it was kind of amazing that there wasn't more violence than there was."

Over the years, critics have derided the state-drafted desegregation plan embraced by Garrity as an invitation to disaster, especially the pairing of all-white South Boston High with a school in the heart of Roxbury, a mostly black neighborhood.

A majority of the board's members remained intransigent in the face of pressure from desegregation activists, the state, and the courts.

Some fault the federal judge himself, who remains a lightning rod for popular resentment to this day. "Garrity, for whatever the reasons, was incredibly insular and arrogant," contends White, who served for 16 years as mayor before declining to run for re-election in 1983.

But others say the blame lies squarely with the school committee. Besides acting in ways that kept black and white students separate, these critics charge, a majority of the board's members remained intransigent in the face of pressure from desegregation activists, the state, and the courts.

"Their view of their political interest was to not lift a finger on behalf of anything that looked like planning for desegregation," says Robert B. Schwartz, who was White's education adviser during the crisis. He is now the president of Achieve Inc., a national, business-backed organization across the river in Cambridge that supports states' efforts to raise educational standards. "They abrogated their responsibility."

Garrity couldn't agree more. "People have attributed an enormously exaggerated significance to the role of the federal court regarding remedy," he says. "The obligation to form a remedy was the school committee's."

Hennigan, the former school committee chairman, says his fellow members might have averted the federal suit altogether had a majority joined him in backing a limited desegregation plan in 1971. Instead, he says, the system was left with a plan crafted by outsiders.

"They chopped the city to pieces, and the school system has suffered ever since," he says.

Just how much the city and its schools have suffered--or benefited--from court-imposed desegregation remains a matter of lively debate.

Many have concluded that busing accelerated the flight from the public schools by whites and the middle class that was already under way. Others contend that busing's contribution to that process was only marginal.

In the fall of 1972, whites made up some 60 percent of the district's 90,000 students. Four years later, enrollment had fallen to 71,000, and whites made up less than 45 percent.

Today, 63,000 students attend the city's schools. Only 15 percent of them are white, 49 percent are black, 26 percent are Hispanic, and the rest are mostly Asian-American, with a tiny percentage of American Indians. At least 71 percent of students come from families poor enough to quality for free or reduced-price lunches, a figure that school officials say underestimates the level of poverty.

Despite the challenges of instructing students amid concentrated poverty, Garrity is among those who believe the school system is better off today because of the court's intervention.

"The school system was a closed shop before the federal court order," says the judge, who still resides in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, as he did at the time of the court case. "Unless you knew a school committeeman, you couldn't get an assignment or a job."

The system before desegregation was no paragon, says Schwartz, except for a few prestigious "examination schools" where students are admitted based on test scores and grades. "But by and large," he says, "it was a school system that didn't serve anybody else particularly well."

The perception among many people here is that the system still pretty much fits that description. Yet Schwartz says it has become "a much healthier place than it was pre-desegregation."

For one thing, he argues, the district has profited from the involvement of outside partners that grew out of leadership changes set in motion by the court fight. Schwartz is a former head of the Boston Compact, an agency started in the early 1980s to involve universities and businesses in the schools.

Saunders, one of two blacks on the 13-member City Council, shares the view that desegregation has been a net gain for the city and its schools. "It was painful when it happened, but in the long run Boston needed to go through that sort of cleansing," he says.

But many others harbor a less sanguine view of the legacy left by the city's desegregation battles.

In 1969, 12-year-old Debra A. Wilson came north to Boston with her family from her native Selma, Ala., and began attending school in a part of Roxbury then experiencing a major influx of Southern blacks.

At 42, she is now active in the nearby high school, where her younger son is a freshman.

Back in Selma, Wilson had been one of the black children who desegregated the city's schools in the late 1960s. "In Selma, I expected to be stoned and name-called," she recalls. "But I walked through that community for two years without any adult saying anything to me."

Having believed the North to be more hospitable to blacks, Wilson remembers her rude awakening during the first year of busing in Boston.

"When I saw the bottles being thrown at the buses, I had a flashback to 'Bloody Sunday,' " says Wilson, referring to the day in March 1965 when civil rights activists in Selma clashed with authorities while trying to march to Montgomery. "I started to realize that there was a lot of underlying racism, and busing just brought it all out."

Garrity's order caught Wilson at the tail end of her high school career, requiring her to transfer to The English High School in her senior year. "There were fights between blacks and Hispanics, and blacks and whites," she says. "It was a total nightmare."

Feeling little school spirit, she didn't attend the prom. And with everyone at the school preoccupied with keeping peace, she says, she received no guidance or encouragement on her plans for the future.

Such memories have convinced Wilson that desegregation as it played out in Boston was counterproductive. "The system wasn't working before busing, and busing only made it worse," she says. "I really believe that our community lost a lot."

In a narrow white row house a few miles to the north, another survivor of the busing wars says the same about her own community of Charlestown.

For Payzant, student assignment is a distraction from improving teaching and learning, or as he puts it, 'quality, quality, quality.'

Lisa McGoff Collins can look up and down her street and tick off the names of neighbors who decamped for the suburbs during or after the busing crisis, an exodus that has dramatically altered the fabric of the community. "You wonder, would they all have stayed here?" she asks.

Collins and her family became nationally known as principal characters in Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 book exploring Boston's desegregation controversy. The book interwove the stories of the white, working-class McGoffs with those of an African-American family and a well-heeled white family.

Collins' mother, a widow raising seven children in public housing at the time, was a leading anti-busing activist. Collins often joined her mother on the barricades. When busing came to Charlestown High School in her junior year, she was among many white students who were often absent because of protests.

"We decided that we weren't going to put up with it, thinking it would change," says Collins, now a homemaker and mother of three.

Attending an integrated summer camp after her junior year softened her views toward blacks, she says, and she resolved to use her position as class president to make her senior year as normal as possible.

Yet Collins said she left Charlestown High with a poor record and little confidence in her academic skills.

"We had teachers who were there to teach, but there was so much disruption around you that it was hard to concentrate," she remembers.

Still, she hasn't soured on the public schools. All three of her children are enrolled nearby at Harvard-Kent Elementary School. Collins is satisfied with the school's quality, and likes the fact that it is far more diverse than in her day.

"My son John is one of four white kids," she says. "The rest are Spanish, black, or Chinese."

That diversity in part reflects demographic change in Charlestown: The neighborhood students at Harvard-Kent come from a range of ethnic backgrounds. But the school also has many students who are bused in as part of the city's "controlled choice" student-assignment plan.

That plan, which allocates seats based in part on race and ethnicity, was devised after Judge Garrity relinquished oversight of the district in 1987. At that time, he declared the district "unitary," meaning that it no longer operated a dual school system for whites and blacks.

In the past few years, the controlled-choice system has been under mounting attack. Leading the charge have been advocates of neighborhood schools on the City Council, most prominently Peggy Davis-Mullen, the chairwoman of the council's education committee. A group founded two years ago called Boston's Children First has also pressured school leaders to replace the current assignment system with one based on neighborhood schools.

In the debate that has followed, many people hear echoes of 1974.

"There is a propensity in the city to be so afraid that we're going to relive the experience of desegregation in the '70s that it stifles the conversation," says Thomas W. Payzant, the city's schools chief since 1995. "It's almost a new millennium, and we need to move on."

For Payzant, a veteran superintendent who came to Boston after a stint as an assistant U.S. secretary of education, student assignment is a distraction from what he sees as his overarching mission: improving teaching and learning, or as he puts it, "quality, quality, quality." But to the extent that he has tried to win support for changes to the student-assignment system, he has found the scars from earlier battles to be an obstacle.

"Once the conversation is driven by suspicions that race is the underlying factor, it makes it more difficult to accept that the motives of those who advocate change aren't the same as 25 years ago," Payzant says.

To explain the existence of racially imbalanced schools in the 1960s and '70s, desegregation foes often invoked the district's neighborhood-school policy, along with residential segregation over which school leaders had no control. That history raises suspicions that the real agenda of today's neighborhood-school activists is resegregation.

"If your reason is to get these black and brown kids out of your neighborhood, then I have a problem with that," says Saunders, the City Council member. Skeptics also worry that neighborhood schools located in primarily black or Hispanic sections would end up shortchanged financially.

But advocates of neighborhood schools argue that the schools are already segregated in practice, given the small number of white students in the system today. Moreover, they say, the greater diversity of the city's neighborhoods means that community-based schools would be more naturally integrated than in the past.

The real goal, advocates say, is to enhance student performance.

With neighborhood schools, they believe, students would profit from greater community cohesion, and parents would find it easier to become involved and informed--and to hold teachers and administrators accountable.

"Neighborhood schools are not a return to anything," says Ann F. Walsh, the president of Boston's Children First. "They're a reform."

As co-chairwoman of the parent council at her son's high school, Wilson, the native of Selma, says she would welcome a shift to more neighborhood-based schools--provided those in predominantly black areas like Roxbury are not given short shrift.

"If we could get quality teachers and all the resources distributed equally across the board, there's nothing a parent would like more than to have their child close to home," she says. "It's been too long that schools have not been part of their communities."

Aware of such sentiments, Mayor Thomas M. Menino endorsed the concept of neighborhood schools for the first time in January, calling them "an anchor for the community." But the Democratic mayor, who appoints the school committee, qualified his support by saying that "quality schools in every neighborhood" were a prerequisite.

School officials say it will be six years or so before the schools are ready, and even then, the targeted areas still won't have enough schools for all their children.

District officials have long said that school closings in the 1970s and '80s have created a mismatch between where public school students live and where schools are available to serve them. They say seats are particularly scarce in some heavily nonwhite areas, presenting a major roadblock to neighborhood schools.

To help remedy the problem, Menino last month unveiled plans for two new schools in Roxbury and announced that three more would be built in nearby areas where there are large numbers of minority students.

School officials say it will be six years or so before the schools are ready, and even then, the targeted areas still won't have enough schools for all their children.

"There isn't a person in the city--black, white, or yellow--who doesn't want neighborhood schools," Menino says. "The question is, how do you get to neighborhood schools."

Aside from committing themselves to the new schools, neither the mayor nor school officials have offered a plan or timetable for altering the student-assignment policy.

That has prompted City Councilwoman Davis-Mullen, who is considering challenging Menino for mayor in 2001, to accuse him and Superintendent Payzant of dragging their feet. "They're taking baby steps," she says. "They're afraid of being called racist."

Payzant counters that the district must proceed with caution, especially given the potential for protracted legal action surrounding such questions. "We're not trying to be timid, we're trying to be sensible," he says.

Last spring, Payzant did float three options for replacing the controlled-choice plan. The ideas got a chilly reception, though, from some black and Hispanic leaders. Payzant says the message he received from representatives of parents now using the system was that if the city is to shift to neighborhood schools, they must be of high and uniform quality.

He says parents also want the ability to choose from among more than one school while being assured a seat in a school nearby--something that the current system does not always allow. Any new student-assignment proposal that the administration comes up with will try to respond to such concerns, the superintendent says.

As qualified and tentative as Menino's newfound warmth toward neighborhood schools may seem to critics, it is seen by some longtime black leaders as a betrayal.

Ruth Batson, a leader of the NAACP's struggle with the school committee in the 1960s and '70s, said as much at a recent forum marking the 25th anniversary of the busing crisis.

"He is all involved in bringing back the schools to where they were," she said of Menino at the forum, which was organized by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit educational organization based in the Boston suburb of Brookline. "I'm extremely disappointed in him."

As Payzant sees it, the new frontier in the nation's long-running struggle over desegregation is to find ways of reconciling the contemporary push for higher academic achievement with perennial concerns about racial and ethnic fairness. "Now in the '90s," the superintendent says, "I think the issue really is one of access to quality."

Michael Fung shares that view. As the veteran district educator picked by Payzant in 1997 to reform Charlestown High School, he saw right away that the school was on extremely shaky academic ground--along with the rest of the city's nonspecialized high schools.

So the Charlestown High headmaster has pushed teachers to rethink their approach to instruction. Fung has also broken the school into six semiautonomous units in hopes of creating a more caring environment.

As he goes about this work, Fung feels that he must often battle the ghosts of the long-ago busing crisis.

To be sure, the school is virtually unrecognizable from what it once was. For one thing, it's in a different building. The old gray fortress across from the famed Bunker Hill monument has been turned into luxury condominiums.

The student body, too, is a far cry from the nearly all-white population of the '70s. Today, fewer than 17 percent of the 1,050 students hail from Charlestown. Just over 13 percent are white. Blacks constitute over a third of the enrollment; the rest is made up of Hispanics and Asians, in roughly equal proportions.

But many faculty members from the old days remain, Fung notes, and he says they were strongly influenced by what the school went through. "The thing was to make sure that the white and black kids didn't fight, so the emphasis was on classroom management," he says. "And that legacy is what makes it so difficult to make this school much better."

Matthews, a former English teacher and coach who is now a unit administrator in the school, shudders when she remembers the early days of busing.

Beyond those first-day memories of snipers and police, she recalls shielding a roomful of black students from chair-throwing whites, and the daily struggle to quell racial animosity on her newly integrated girls' basketball team. "There will never, ever be that much intensity in my life again," she says.

Today, she laments some of changes busing has wrought in the school, including a sense of distance from the Charlestown community. But she finds hope in the smaller "learning communities" that are taking root in its classrooms and common areas. "Now, the school does not belong to this town," she says. "But we are making a community here."

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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