Boston desegregation busing crisis

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Boston busing desegregation
Part of the Post–civil rights era
Caused byDesegregation busing

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 Massachusetts legislature's enactment of the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, which ordered the state's public schools 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 hard control of the desegregation plan lasted for over a decade. It influenced Boston politics and contributed to demographic shifts of Boston's school-age population, leading to 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 with dramatically reduced busing.[1]


Racial Imbalance Act[edit]

The Racial Imbalance Act of 1965[2] is the legislation passed by the Massachusetts General Court which made the segregation of public schools illegal in Massachusetts. The law, the first of its kind in the United States, stated that "racial imbalance shall be deemed to exist when the percent of nonwhite students in any public school is in excess of fifty per cent of the total number of students in such school." These racially imbalanced schools were required to desegregate according to the law or risk losing their state educational funding.[2][3] An initial report released in March 1965, "Because it is Right-Educationally,"[4] revealed that 55 schools in Massachusetts were racially imbalanced, 44 of which were in the City of Boston.[3] The Boston School Committee was told that the complete integration of the Boston Public Schools needed to occur before September 1966 without the assurance of either significant financial aid or suburban cooperation in accepting African American students from Boston or the schools would lose funding.[3]

Boston School Committee opposition to the Racial Imbalance Act[edit]

After the passage of the Racial Imbalance Act, 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.

Development and implementation of busing[edit]

In 1972, the NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit (Morgan v. Hennigan with Tallulah Morgan as the main plaintiff) 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 Act, requiring any Boston school with a student enrollment that was more than 50% nonwhite to be balanced according to race.[5]

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 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.[6]

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.[7] Half the sophomores from each school would attend the other, and seniors could decide what school to attend.[7] 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."[7] For three years after the plan commenced, Massachusetts state troopers were stationed at South Boston High.[7] The first day of the plan, only 100 of 1,300 students came to school at South Boston.[7] Only 13 of the 550 South Boston juniors ordered to attend Roxbury showed up.[7] Parents showed up every day to protest, and football season was cancelled.[7] Whites and blacks began entering through different doors.[7] An anti-busing mass movement developed, called Restore Our Alienated Rights.

The final Judge Garrity-issued decision in Morgan v. Hennigan came in 1985, after which control of the desegregation plan was given to the School Committee in 1988.[7][8]


The integration plan aroused fierce criticism among some Boston residents. Of the 100,000 enrolled in Boston school districts, attendance fell from 60,000 to 40,000 during these years.[7] 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.[7] 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,[9] 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.[10]

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.[9]


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.[11] One of the youths, Joseph Rakes, attacked Landsmark with an American flag.[12] A photograph of the attack, The Soiling of Old Glory, taken by Stanley Forman for the Boston Herald American, won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1977.[13][14][15] In a retaliatory incident about two weeks later, black teenagers in Roxbury threw rocks at auto mechanic Richard Poleet's car and caused him to crash. 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.[7]

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.[16] There were dozens of other racial incidents at South Boston High that year, predominantly of racial taunting of the black students.[clarification needed] The school closed for a month after the stabbing. 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. In December 1975, Judge Garrity turned out the principal of South Boston High and took control himself.[7]

Judge Garrity increased the plan down to first grade for the following school year. In October 1975, 6,000 marched against the busing in South Boston.[7]

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.[8] 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."[17]

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.[18]

End of racial desegregation policy[edit]

In 1983, oversight of the desegregation system was shifted from Garrity to the Massachusetts Board of Education.[19] With his final ruling in 1985, Garrity began transfer of control of the desegregation system to the Boston School Committee.[20] 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.[8] 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.[21] 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.[22]

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

The voluntary METCO program, which was established in 1966, remains in operation, as do other inter-district school choice programs.[23]

Boston's current school demographics[edit]

In 2014, Boston public schools were 40% Hispanic, 35% black, 13% white, 9% Asian-American and 2% from other races.[24] In that same year, the school-age population of Boston was 38% black, 34% Hispanic, 19% white, and 7% Asian.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

  • Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr., judge who ordered desegregation
  • Kathleen Sullivan Alioto, School committee Chair and member
  • John J. Kerrigan, School Committee Chair and member
  • Ruth Batson, in her work with the Boston Branch of the NAACP, spearheaded the effort for school desegregation in Boston.
  • Jean McGuire, executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO, Inc.) and the first female African American to gain a seat on the Boston School Committee at Large right after the Boston busing desegregation
  • Kevin White (mayor), United States politician best known as the Mayor of Boston, during the late 1960s and the 1970s. White won the mayoral office in the 1967 general election in a hard-fought campaign opposing the anti-busing and anti-desegregation Boston School Committee member Louise Day Hicks.[25]
  • Louise Day Hicks, an American politician and lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts, best known for her staunch opposition to desegregation in Boston Public Schools, and especially to court-ordered busing in the 1960s and 1970s[26]
  • Joe Moakley, a Democratic congressman from the Ninth District of Massachusetts. He won the seat from incumbent Louise Day Hicks in a 1972 rematch.[27]
  • South Boston High School was the site of many of the most vocal and violent protests of busing and desegregation. As a result of these protests, the school's community became unsafe for students; a federal court placed the school into receivership in December 1975.[28]
  • The Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian feminist organization based across the river in Cambridge, included members who worked on school desegregation in Boston.
  • Citywide Educational Coalition played an important role in the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools and advocated for school reform by providing parents with the skills necessary to participate in shaping education policy.[29]
  • List of incidents of civil unrest in the United States


  1. ^ a b Seelye, Katherine (March 14, 2013). "Boston Schools Drop Last Remnant of Forced Busing". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b "An Act providing for the elimination of racial imbalance in the public schools". Act No. 641 of August 18, 1965 (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 6, 2015. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Levy, Frank (1971). Northern schools and civil rights; the Racial imbalance act of Massachusetts. Chicago: Markham Publishing Co. pp. 138. ISBN 9780841009127. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  4. ^ Because It Is Right—EDUCATIONALLY (Report). Advisory Committee on Racial Imbalance and Education, Massachusetts State Board of Education. April 1965. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  5. ^ Handy, Delores (March 30, 2012). "40 Years Later, Boston Looks Back On Busing Crisis". WBUR.
  6. ^ "Stock Market Crash of 1929". The Gottesman Libraries @ Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. pp. 252–264. ISBN 978-0-465-04195-4.
  8. ^ a b c Gold, Allan R. (December 28, 1988). "Boston Ready to Overhaul School Busing Policy". The New York Times.
  9. ^ a b 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.
  10. ^ "Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy". American National Biography Online. Retrieved March 23, 2015.
  11. ^ Theodore Landsmark press conference Abstract. GBHT original air date: April 7, 1976.
  12. ^ Most Memorable Photos, Stanley Forman.
  13. ^ Contextualizing a Historical Photograph: Busing and the Anti-busing Movement in Boston Archived July 20, 2011, at the Wayback Machine UMBC Center for History Education.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "Stars and Strife". Archived from the original on September 10, 2012. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  16. ^ MacDonald, M. P. (1999). All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. New York: Ballantine 3, 95.
  17. ^ UPI (September 29, 1987). "Boston Schools Desegregated, Court Declares". Chicago Tribune.
  18. ^ "Busing's Boston Massacre". Hoover Institution. November 1, 1998. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  19. ^ Muriel Cohen "Hub schools' transition period runs to 1985," Boston Globe. December 24, 1982.
  20. ^ Peggy Hernandez "Garrity Ends Role In Schools; After 11 Years, Boston Regains Control," Boston Globe. September 4, 1985
  21. ^ Rimer, Sarah (September 25, 1995). "Challenge To Quotas Roils School In Boston". The New York Times.
  22. ^ Goldberg, Carey (July 15, 1999). "Busing's Day Ends: Boston Drops Race In Pupil Placement". The New York Times.
  23. ^ "Choosing a School: A Parent's Guide to Educational Choices in Massachusetts". Retrieved May 26, 2015.
  24. ^ Boston Public Schools At-A-Glance, 2014.
  25. ^ View guide to the records at Boston City Archives.
  26. ^ View guide to the records at Boston City Archives.
  27. ^ View guide to the records at Suffolk University.
  28. ^ The Morning Record - Google News Archive Search
  29. ^ View guide to the records

Further reading[edit]


Dissertations and theses[edit]

  • Brown, Charles Sumner (1973). Negro Protest and White Power Structure: The Boston School Controversy, 1963-1966. (Dissertation) Boston University.
  • Hyman, Daniel S. (2002). Public Transportation as an Integrative Institution: Race and Quality of Experience on the Boston Subway System. Waltham, Massachusetts: (Thesis) Brandeis University.
  • Klein, Rebecca H.; Brandeis University. Department of American Studies (2012). Analyzing the Failure of Integration in Education Through the Lens of Boston and Atlanta. Waltham, Massachusetts: (Thesis) Brandeis University.
  • McGrath, Susan Margaret (1992). Great Expectations: The History of School Desegregation in Atlanta and Boston, 1954-1990. (Dissertation) Emory University.
  • Offner, Amy C. (2001). "Too Late for Pleading": Black Boston and the Struggle for School Desegregation, 1963-1976. (Thesis) Harvard University.
  • Shaw, Edward R. (1988). The Limits of Theory: White Resistance to School Integration in Boston. (Thesis) St. Lawrence University.
  • Wetzler, Lauren Anne (2000). Democracy on Trial: The Boston School Committee and Desegregation, 1963-1976. (Thesis) Harvard University.

External links[edit]