Boston busing crisis

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Modern school buses belonging to the Boston Public School District, which attempted to desegregate through compulsory busing in the 1970s.

The Boston busing crisis (1974–1988) was a series of protests and riots that occurred in Boston, Massachusetts 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 from predominantly white areas of the city to schools with predominantly black student populations. The legislation provoked outrage from white Bostonians and led to widespread protests and violent public disturbances. The conflict lasted for over a decade and contributed to a demographic shift in Boston public schools, with dramatically fewer students enrolling in public schools and more white families sending their children to private schools instead.


The Racial Imbalance Act[edit]

In 1965, 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 less-well-off white ethnic areas, such as the Irish-American district of South Boston.[1]

Development and implementation of busing[edit]

In the Boston metropolitan area, 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.

As a remedy, he used a busing plan developed by the Massachusetts State Board of Education to implement the state's Racial Imbalance Law that had been passed by the Massachusetts state legislature a few years earlier, requiring any school with a student enrollment that was more than 50% nonwhite to be balanced according to race. The Boston School Committee consistently disobeyed orders from the state Board of Education. 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 1988.[2]

The conflict in Boston over busing primarily affected the traditionally Irish-American neighborhoods of West Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Charlestown, South Boston and Dorchester and the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood of the North End.[3] It also affected the community of Roxbury, a formerly Jewish section of Boston that by the early 1970s had become predominantly black. To a lesser extent, schools many miles away in Springfield, Massachusetts were affected by Judge Garrity's order, but the plan caused little overt controversy there as the minority population was relatively small.

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.[2] Half the sophomores from each school would attend the other, and seniors could decide what school to attend.[2] 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."[2] For three years after the plan commenced, Massachusetts state troopers were stationed at South Boston High.[2] The first day of the plan, only 100 of 1,300 students came to school at South Boston.[2] Only 13 of the 550 South Boston juniors ordered to attend Roxbury showed up.[2] Parents showed up every day to protest, and football season was cancelled.[2] Whites and blacks began entering through different doors.[2] 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.[2] Opponents personally attacked Judge Garrity, claiming that because he lived in a white suburb, his own children were not affected by his ruling. The author of the busing plan, Robert Dentler, lived in the suburb of Lexington, which was unaffected by the ruling.[2] Judge Garrity's hometown of Wellesley welcomed a small number of black students under the METCO program that sought to assist in desegregating the Boston schools by offering places in suburban school districts to black students.[citation needed] However, most METCO students were from middle-class black families, and METCO was not available to poor white students from Boston.[citation needed] Another important difference in the suburbs was that white students there were not bused away from their neighborhoods, and towns were not under court order to enroll in the state-run program but did so voluntarily.[citation needed]

Protests and violence[edit]

The Soiling of Old Glory, by Stanley Forman.

There were a number of protest incidents that turned severely violent, even resulting in deaths. In one case, Theodore Landsmark, a Yale-educated attorney, was attacked and bloodied by a group of white teenagers as he exited Boston City Hall.[4] One of the youths, Joseph Rakes, attacked Landsmark with an American flag.[5] 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. [6] 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.[7][8] In a retaliatory incident the next day, black teenagers in Roxbury threw rocks at a white man's car and caused him to crash.[2] 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.[2]

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.[9] There were dozens of other racial incidents at South Boston High that year.[2] The school was forced to close for a month after the stabbing.[2] 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.[2] In December 1975, Judge Garrity turned out the principal of South Boston High and took control himself.[2]

Judge Garrity increased the plan down to first grade for the following school year.[2] In October 1975, 6,000 marched against the busing in South Boston.[2]

Impact on Boston Public Schools[edit]

By the time the experiment with busing ended in 1988, the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to 57,000, only 15% of whom were white.[10] In 2008 Boston Public Schools were 76% black and Hispanic, and 14% White.[11] According to the 2000 census, Boston's white (non-Hispanic) population is 54.48%, whereas Boston's black and Hispanic populations together total 39.77%. Newcomer professional families in the city have comparatively fewer children, and some of those parents, both white and black, prefer to send their children to private and parochial schools rather than have their children attend public school.[citation needed] In South Boston, a neighborhood found by U.S. News and World Report (October 1994) to have had the highest concentration of white poverty in the country, dropout rates soared, its poorer census tracts' dropout rates superseding rates based on race and ethnicity citywide. South Boston, along with other poor and working class white census tracts of Charlestown and parts of Dorchester, saw an increase in control by organized crime and young deaths due to murder, overdose, and criminal involvement.[9] Boston's South Boston High School (now the South Boston High complex) was declared "dysfunctional" by the State Board of Education.[12]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ 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. 
  3. ^ "Stock Market Crash of 1929". The Gottesman Libraries @ Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 
  4. ^ Theodore Landsmark press conference Abstract. GBHT original air date: April 7, 1976.
  5. ^ Most Memorable Photos, Stanley Forman.
  6. ^ "Stars and Strife". Retrieved 2011-06-17. 
  7. ^ Contextualizing a Historical Photograph: Busing and the Anti-busing Movement in Boston UMBC Center for History Education.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b MacDonald, M. P. (1999). All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. New York: Ballantine 3, 95.
  10. ^ "Busing’s Boston Massacre". Hoover Institution. 1 November 1998. Retrieved 28 August 2011. 
  11. ^ Boston Public Schools data, 2008.
  12. ^ Daniels, Karen (October 8, 2003). Lessons From South Boston. Retrieved 17 June 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Forced busing did not end in Boston in 1988, it is still taking place today in Boston 2014.