Skip to main content


Ordinary People

July 2024
5min read

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.

No one comes off well—neither the timid church, nor the waffling mayor, nor the press nor the courts nor the business community nor the educational institutions in which Boston takes such pride. In the Boston busing crisis the burden of all the individual and institutional history that Lukas has labored to uncover—the tough questions of equality and citizenship and fairness for which those to whom we usually look for leadership provided no answers—was finally shifted onto the shoulders of the children of the poorest, least educated, least hopeful among Boston’s citizens. In the conflagration that followed, only the police seem to have done their duty, laboring hard and thanklessly to keep the ordinary people of their city from actually killing one another.

This is a bleak book, but an important and honest one. Its only hopeful note—and the only common ground these embattled people truly seem to share—is the grit and tenacity with which they struggle just to live their lives.

Do you know how many Jews were exterminated there [at Chelmno, Poland]?” The off-camera interviewer’s voice is gentle but insistent. The elderly woman in close-up, widow of a Nazi schoolteacher who was stationed near Chelmno during World War II, looks thoughtful.

Four something,” she says, finally. “Four hundred thousand, forty thousand?”

“Four hundred thousand,” the interviewer prompts her.

The burden of all the great issues in the Boston busing crisis was heaped on the shoulders of the children of the poorest, least educated, least hopeful citizens.

“Four hundred thousand, yes,” she brightens. “I knew it had a four in it. Sad, sad, sad!”

This surreal exchange is one of scores that comprise Shoah , the French director Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing, monumental film on the holocaust. It runs nearly ten hours; it is reiterative, relentless, sometimes crudely photographed, and it is surely one of the most important historical films ever made. Not one frame is archival: there are no heaps of corpses here, no living skeletons. Instead, it is an unforgettable re-creation of the business of extermination, made up of the vivid, brutal memories of those who lived through it—Jews who somehow endured the death camps and the Warsaw ghetto; Germans who oversaw the destruction; Poles who watched it all.

It is hard to know how widely shown this film will be; its length and subject are both daunting, and as I write, there are still no plans to televise it. A slender book has been put together from the subtitles that captures something of the film’s power but cannot convey the emotional impact of watching the witnesses’ faces as Lanzmann forces them in the interest of history to confront again events most of them have sought for forty years to forget. (The major exception to this rule of reluctance is a former SS man, filmed with a concealed camera, who seems to have near-total recall of how he and his colleagues supervised the murders of twelve to fifteen thousand people a day at Treblinka; he eagerly uses a pointer and an outsized chart to show Lanzmann just how things were organized for maximum efficiency, clearly delighted to have someone so interested in his work .)

The director devoted more than ten years of his life to making this film—with time out to recuperate from an assault by angry former Nazis—and he is an uncompromising interviewer. An Israeli barber who survived Treblinka by cutting the hair of women about to be gassed, suddenly breaks down at the memory of having seen a friend forced to cut the hair of his own wife and sister, pleading: “I can’t. It’s too horrible. Please.” Lanzmann urges him to continue: “We have to do it. You know it.” The barber finishes his story.

Such probing may seem harsh, even cruel. But the survivors do finally all go on, for they know, as the director does, that part of the Final Solution was to obliterate not only the Jews themselves but all memory of them, and the placid, green Polish landscape where much of it happened shows how close to success the Nazis came. The clearing in the forest near Chelmno where bodies were burned every evening is blanketed with grass and wildflowers, a pleasant wind rustles through the groves of trees the Germans planted to hide their work, and the nearby Narew River, into which the pulverized residue of the most stubborn bones was stirred at the end of each workday, now runs clear.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.