Boston busing desegregation

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The Soiling of Old Glory, by Stanley Forman.

The desegregation of Boston public schools (1974–1988) was a period in which the Boston Public Schools were under court control to desegregate through a system of busing students. The call for desegregation and the first years of its implementation led to a series of racial protests and riots that brought national attention, particularly from 1974 to 1976. In response to the passing of the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, which ordered public schools in the state to desegregate, W. Arthur Garrity Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts laid out a plan for compulsory busing of students between predominantly white and black areas of the city. The court control of the desegregation plan lasted for over a decade, and influenced Boston politics as well as ongoing demographic shifts of Boston's school-age population, which saw a decline of public-school enrollment and white flight to the suburbs. Full control of the desegregation plan was transferred to the Boston School Committee in 1988; in 2013 the busing system was replaced by one which dramatically reduced busing.[1]


The Racial Imbalance Act[edit]

In 1965, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Massachusetts had passed into law the Racial Imbalance Act, which ordered school districts to desegregate or risk losing state educational funding. The first law of its kind in the nation, it was opposed by many in Boston, especially working-class white ethnic areas, such as the Irish-American districts of South Boston and Charlestown.[2][3]

Development and implementation of busing[edit]

In 1972, the NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit against the Boston School Committee on behalf of 14 parents and 44 children alleging segregation in the Boston public schools. Two years later, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts found a recurring pattern of racial discrimination in the operation of the Boston public schools in a 1974 ruling. His ruling found the schools were unconstitutionally segregated, and required the implementation the state's Racial Imbalance Law, requiring any Boston school with a student enrollment that was more than 50% nonwhite to be balanced according to race.[4]

The Boston School Committee, under the leadership of Louise Day Hicks, consistently disobeyed orders from the state Board of Education, first to develop a busing plan, and then to support its implementation. As a remedy, Garrity used a busing plan developed by the Massachusetts State Board of Education, then oversaw its implementation for the next 13 years. Judge Garrity's ruling, upheld on appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and by the Supreme Court led by Warren Burger, required school children to be brought to different schools to end segregation. The final Judge Garrity-issued decision in the case came in 1985, after which control of the desegregation plan was given to the School Committee in 1988.[5][6]

The busing plan affected the entire city, though the working-class neighborhoods of the racially divided city—whose children went predominantly to public schools—were most affected: the predominantly Irish-American neighborhoods of West Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Charlestown, and South Boston and ; the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood of the North End; the predominantly black neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mattapan, and the South End; and the mixed but segregated neighborhood of Dorchester.[7]

In one part of the plan, Judge Garrity decided that the entire junior class from the mostly poor white South Boston High School would be bused to Roxbury High School, a black high school.[5] Half the sophomores from each school would attend the other, and seniors could decide what school to attend.[5] David Frum asserts that South Boston and Roxbury were "generally regarded as the two worst schools in Boston, and it was never clear what educational purpose was to be served by jumbling them."[5] For three years after the plan commenced, Massachusetts state troopers were stationed at South Boston High.[5] The first day of the plan, only 100 of 1,300 students came to school at South Boston.[5] Only 13 of the 550 South Boston juniors ordered to attend Roxbury showed up.[5] Parents showed up every day to protest, and football season was cancelled.[5] Whites and blacks began entering through different doors.[5] An anti-busing mass movement developed, called Restore Our Alienated Rights.


The integration plan aroused fierce criticism among some Boston residents. Of the 100,000 enrolled in Boston school districts, attendance fell to 40,000 from 60,000 during these years.[5] Opponents personally attacked Judge Garrity, claiming that because he lived in a white suburb, his own children were not affected by his ruling. The co-author of the busing plan, Robert Dentler, lived in the suburb of Lexington, which was unaffected by the ruling.[5] Judge Garrity's hometown of Wellesley welcomed a small number of black students under the voluntary METCO program that sought to assist in desegregating the Boston schools by offering places in suburban school districts to black students,[3] but students from Wellesley were not forced to attend school elsewhere. Senator Ted Kennedy was also criticized for supporting busing when he sent his own children to private schools.[8]

Protests and violence[edit]


Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) was an anti-desegregation busing organization formed in Boston, Massachusetts by Boston School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks in 1974. Using tactics modeled on the civil rights movement, ROAR activists led marches in Charlestown and South Boston, public prayers, sit-ins of school buildings and government offices, protests at the homes of prominent Bostonians, mock funerals, and even a small march on Washington DC. By 1976, with the failure to block implementation of the busing plan, the organization declined.[3]


There were a number of protest incidents that turned severely violent, even resulting in deaths. In one case, Attorney Theodore Landsmark was attacked and bloodied by a group of white teenagers as he exited Boston City Hall.[9] One of the youths, Joseph Rakes, attacked Landsmark with an American flag.[10] According to Landsmark, Rakes was swinging the flag and trying to hit him, not trying to spear him as it appears in the photo, and he narrowly missed.[11] A photograph of the attack on Landsmark, The Soiling of Old Glory taken by Stanley Forman for the Boston Herald American, won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography (now the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography) in 1977.[12][13] In a retaliatory incident the next day, black teenagers in Roxbury threw rocks at a white man's car and caused him to crash.[5] The youths dragged him out and crushed his skull with nearby paving stones. When police arrived, the man was surrounded by a crowd of 100 chanting "Let him die" while lying in a coma from which he never recovered.[5]

In another instance, a white teenager was stabbed nearly to death by a black teenager at South Boston High School. The community's white residents mobbed the school, trapping the black students inside.[14] There were dozens of other racial incidents at South Boston High that year, predominantly of racial taunting of the black students.[5] The school was forced to close for a month after the stabbing.[5] When it opened again, it was one of the first high schools to install metal detectors; with 400 students attending, it was guarded by 500 police officers every day.[5] In December 1975, Judge Garrity turned out the principal of South Boston High and took control himself.[5]

Judge Garrity increased the plan down to first grade for the following school year.[5] In October 1975, 6,000 marched against the busing in South Boston.[5]

Impact on Boston Public Schools[edit]

In 1987, a Federal appeals court ruled that Boston had successfully implemented its desegregation plan and was in compliance with civil rights law.[6] Although 13 public schools were defined as "racially identifiable," with over 80 percent of the student population either white or black, the court ruled "all these schools are in compliance with the district court's desegregation orders" because their make-up "is rooted not in discrimination but in more intractable demographic obstacles."[15]

Before the desegregation plan went into effect, overall enrollment and white enrollment in Boston Public Schools was in decline as the Baby Boom ended, gentrification altered the economic makeup of the city, and Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrant populations moved to the suburbs while black, Hispanic, and Asian populations moved to the city. Although the busing plan, by its very nature, shaped the enrollment at specific schools, it is unclear what effect it had on underlying demographic trends. By the time the court-controlled busing system ended in 1988, the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to 57,000, only 15% of whom were white.[16]

End of racial desegregation policy[edit]

In 1983, oversight of the desegregation system was shifted from Garrity to the Massachusetts Board of Education.[17] With his final ruling in 1985, Garrity began transfer of control of the desegregation system to the Boston School Committee.[18] After a Federal appeals court ruled in September 1987 that Boston's desegregation plan was successful, the Boston School Committee took full control of the plan in 1988.[6] In November, 1998, a Federal appeals court struck down racial preference guidelines for assignment at Boston Latin School, the most prestigious school in the system, the result of a lawsuit filed in 1995 by a white parent whose daughter was denied admission.[19] On July 15, 1999, the Boston School Committee voted to drop racial make-up guidelines from its assignment plan for the entire system, but the busing system continued.[20]

In 2013, the busing system was replaced by one which dramatically reduced busing.[1]

Boston's current school demographics[edit]

In 2014, Boston public schools were 35% black, 41% Hispanic, 13% white, 9% Asian-American and 2% from other races. The school-age population of Boston at the time was 38% black, 34% Hispanic, 19% white, and 7% Asian.[21] The vast majority of white public school enrollment is in surrounding suburbs. In metropolitan Boston, public school enrollment in 2014-2015 was 64% white, 17% Hispanic, 9% black, and 7% Asian.


  1. ^ a b Seelye, Katherine (March 14, 2013). "Boston Schools Drop Last Remnant of Forced Busing". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ Fox, Margalite (January 27, 2012). "Kevin H. White, Mayor Who Led Boston in Busing Crisis, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved January 29, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c Lukas, J. Anthony (1986). Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1st Vintage Books ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0394746163. 
  4. ^ Handy, Delores (March 30, 2012). "40 Years Later, Boston Looks Back On Busing Crisis". 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. pp. 252–264. ISBN 978-0-465-04195-4. 
  6. ^ a b c Gold, Allan R. (December 28, 1988). "Boston Ready to Overhaul School Busing Policy". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ "Stock Market Crash of 1929". The Gottesman Libraries @ Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 
  8. ^ "Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy". American National Biography Online. Retrieved 23 March 2015. 
  9. ^ Theodore Landsmark press conference Abstract. GBHT original air date: April 7, 1976.
  10. ^ Most Memorable Photos, Stanley Forman.
  11. ^ "Stars and Strife". Retrieved 2011-06-17. 
  12. ^ Contextualizing a Historical Photograph: Busing and the Anti-busing Movement in Boston UMBC Center for History Education.
  13. ^ Photographs depicting anti-busing protests and marches, parents demonstrating around Boston, police, and students in class and outside Hyde Park, Charlestown, and South Boston High Schools are available in the James W. Fraser Photograph Collection in the Archives and Special Collections at the Northeastern University Libraries in Boston, MA.
  14. ^ MacDonald, M. P. (1999). All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. New York: Ballantine 3, 95.
  15. ^ UPI (September 29, 1987). "Boston Schools Desegregated, Court Declares". Chicago Tribune. 
  16. ^ "Busing’s Boston Massacre". Hoover Institution. 1 November 1998. Retrieved 28 August 2011. 
  17. ^ Muriel Cohen "Hub schools' transition period runs to 1985," Boston Globe. Dec. 24, 1982.
  18. ^ Peggy Hernandez "Garrity Ends Role In Schools; After 11 Years, Boston Regains Control," Boston Globe. Sept. 4, 1985
  19. ^ Rimer, Sarah (September 25, 1995). "Challenge To Quotas Roils School In Boston". The New York Times. 
  20. ^ Goldberg, Carey (July 15, 1999). "Busing's Day Ends: Boston Drops Race In Pupil Placement". The New York Times. 
  21. ^ Boston Public Schools At-A-Glance, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

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