1974 Twenty-five Years Ago

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On September 12 Boston’s public schools opened under a court-ordered scheme in which eighteen thousand of the city’s ninety-four thousand students would be bused (and twenty-seven thousand otherwise transferred) outside their neighborhoods to achieve racial balance. In a city whose schools, like the neighborhoods they served, had always been severely segregated, there was bound to be resistance. Yet on the first day the only major trouble came in the strongly Irish Catholic neighborhood of South Boston.

In Southie, as it was known, virtually no white students went to school. Most of them congregated instead on the streets, often with their parents, to jeer and stone the buses bringing students from Roxbury, a black neighborhood. In the following days and weeks, matters only got worse. White students stayed home in protest and blacks in fear for their safety. With attendance hovering around 20 percent through the fall, beatings and stabbings multiplied, causing interracial strife that spread to other schools.

To South Boston’s rebels the resistance was a fight for their neighborhood’s very life. Southie was not rich, but it was proud and it was close-knit. Its streets, churches, bars, and schools formed a seamless web of acquaintance and kinship, and South Boston High School—especially its sports teams—was perhaps the single most important institution in binding the neighborhood together. Now a judge who lived in a wealthy suburb wanted to tear it all apart. Bitter critics called busing “the WASPs’ revenge” on Boston’s dominant Irish population.

Proponents of busing said that everything would work out in the end, but as Southie’s rebels repeatedly pointed out, they did not have to live with the results of their experiment. Sure, Roxbury had problems, but why should safe, industrious South Boston bear the brunt of resolving them? What had its residents done to deserve such a burden except work hard, save, and build? Why send its kids into a dangerous area and make them wear another school’s colors on the gridiron? Why bring in hundreds of outsiders who knew nothing of the neighborhood?

That was how South Boston saw it. To the residents of Roxbury, who were trying to escape decades of neglect from Boston’s all-white school committee, the protesters’ incessant use of the word nigger , sometimes accompanied by imitations of monkeys and waving of bananas and watermelons, along with the indiscriminate beatings of any black person unwise enough to stray into the neighborhood without a police escort, told a different story. South Boston High School was hardly a bastion of academic excellence, and only a Harvard sociologist could expect that attending the same math class would cause the two races to make friends with each other. Yet despite its heavyhanded nature, busing seemed the only way to get anything done about the dreadful schools that Boston’s black children had to endure.

Marches, boycotts, assaults by and upon both races, and other forms of harassment large and small went on for months, stretching into years. In December 1975 a frustrated Judge W. Arthur Garrity, author of the original decree ordering busing, put South Boston High School under direct federal control. Over the ensuing years the Southie standoff never really came to an end; instead it petered out. As busing continued, private schools and the suburbs siphoned off the fiercest resisters of integration. At the same time, economic trends and changing immigration patterns were transforming Southie and the city as a whole. Boston had once been so predominantly white that a 1965 state law made it illegal for any school to have more than half its students be black. South Boston High School was among the whitest, enrolling a total of three blacks in the decade before busing began. By 1986, a year after Judge Garrity relinquished control, it still had the highest fraction of whites of all of Boston’s neighborhood high schools: 30 percent.