Ordinary People

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In the early 1960s I lived on Beacon Hill in Boston. One weekend afternoon I remember rolling my infant son in his carriage down the cobbled hillside, past the gold dome of the State House and Saint-Gaudens’s lovely memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and his black Massachusetts regiment, and onto the Common, where a citywide civil rights rally was in progress. It may have been called to protest dogs tearing at demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama; possibly it marked the disappearance in Neshoba County, Mississippi, of three young civil rights workers—two white, one black—murdered for trying to persuade their fellow citizens to register at the polls. I no longer remember. I do recall the pleasure I felt in the fact that my son was already taking part in history, and in the hope that he, too, would one day be pleased at having participated in an expression of outrage in the cradle of abolitionism at what happened in the deepest, distant South.

I also remember that the crowd was racially mixed, amiable, and middleclass—there were lots of other carriages besides ours—and that Bill Russell, the great star of the Boston Celtics, passed among us collecting money for the cause. He was grave, striking, and impossibly tall in a pinstriped suit that seemed carved to fit, and his admirers, black and white, good-naturedly jostled one another to drop coin after coin into their hero’s cup.

I left the city long before federal judge Arthur Garrity handed down the 1974 busing order that sparked the long, violent, dispiriting struggle recounted in J. Anthony Lukas’s book Common Ground . By the time I got back there in 1969, a gathering on the Common like the one I remembered was no longer possible; things were no longer simple, and the civil rights struggle had come home to Boston. I worked for the next three years in an office that overlooked City Hall Plaza, where many of the public clashes Lukas describes took place. Through the thick, thermal window of my carpeted sanctuary, I watched demonstrators sweep back and forth across that broad expanse of brick, so many and so often that I sometimes wondered whether the huge, empty lobby of the handsome new City Hall had been deliberately designed so that, should revolution actually come, the mob could charge in one side and out the other without unduly disturbing the city fathers upstairs.

The black marchers were dignified, for the most part, and sometimes still bravely sang “We Shall Overcome,” gripping the hands of their white allies, fewer and fewer each time. The white antibusing crowds seemed menacing: middleaged men and women who still wore high school jackets, red-faced, angry, chanting. And on the local news, night after night, they added to that reputation, hurling bricks and epithets at the yellow school buses that bore frightened black children into hostile Charlestown, its gray, tattered landscape incongruously dominated by the Bunker Hill Monument. Their leaders seemed alternately clownish and dangerous; the best known was Louise Day Hicks, the elected chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, in whose round, white face the bland features of a china doll seemed not so much lost as buried. Her rallying cry, delivered in a piping, girlish voice, was: “You know where I stand.”

Until I read Common Ground , I thought I did know precisely where she and her shrill supporters stood, and it is not the least of Lukas’s achievements that few readers will come away from his book without having had their presuppositions challenged, their sympathies broadened. Even Mrs. Hicks is shown to have had strengths as well as weaknesses, to have been, at least in part, still another victim of the longsuppressed rage that the busing battle loosed on the streets of her helpless city.

The author tells his complicated story through the eyes of three diverse families: the McGoffs, poor and Irish-American, determined to defend their high school against invasion by what they consider an alien force; the Twymons, poor and black, who are willing to run a gantlet of abuse and violence to better themselves beyond the borders of their inner-city enclave; and the Divers, welloff and white, who dedicate themselves to bettering that inner city itself, only to be driven to the safety of the suburbs. Lukas manages to make real people rather than stereotypes out of the members of all these besieged families, individuals about whom the reader is made to care.

But he is not content with that. Common Ground is both enormous (660 pages) and enormously ambitious, representing seven years of informed journalistic digging—the list of individuals Lukas interviewed runs into the hundreds, black and white, rich and poor, influential and obscure.

What really sets it apart, however, is its informed emphasis on the past. Lukas understands, as too few journalists do, that no event happens without a history. He traces the Twymons back to the slave coffle in which one of their ancestors stumbled to market in Georgia; the McGoffs back beyond the potato famine to the religious warfare that despoiled northern Ireland in the eighteenth century. And he examines the past of nearly every institution in the city as well, seeking always some explanation for what happened to Boston during those ugly years.