Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle: Southie explodes

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

His announcement came one day after school let out for the summer, leaving only eleven weeks to fashion a busing plan to send some 17,000 Boston students to different schools.
While Garrity and his advisors finalized the details of “Phase I” of the desegregation plan, its opponents organized to thwart its implementation at all costs. The result was a year of invective and violence that branded the Irish American community of South Boston as irredeemably racist.
The anti-busing movement had taken shape long before Garrity’s decision. Having staged many protests before June 1974, they now moved into high gear. Only days before schools were set to open in September, busing opponents organized a huge motorcade through the streets of South Boston.
At the rally that followed, City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil promised the crowd, “[T]hey won’t be bused!”
Eight thousand protesters crowded into City Hall Plaza two days later. Senator Edward M. Kennedy initially agreed to meet a small delegation of anti-busing activists in his nearby office, but at the last minute decided to attend the rally and speak.
The mood of the crowd was ugly and in no mood for Kennedy’s call for calm and compromise. He had barely begun speaking when the boos and catcalls became deafening. Then the crowd turned its back on him. As Kennedy made to leave for his office at the nearby John F. Kennedy Federal Building, he was showered with eggs, tomatoes, and rocks. Protesters jostled, punched, and kicked the senator and his aides.
“The words were uglier than the gestures,” wrote historian Ronald Formisano. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish … Why don’t you put your one-legged son on a bus for Roxbury … Let your daughter get bused there so she can get raped … Why don’t you let them shoot you like they shot your two brothers.”
The intensity of the crowd’s anger did not diminish over the few days leading up to the first day of school. The entire city was on edge on September 12, 1974, with no one quite knowing what would happen. In most parts of the city, public schools opened without incident, including those substantially affected by the busing plan. But South Boston that morning was a powder keg that exploded the moment the first yellow school buses pulled in view of South Boston High School.
Parents shook their fists and shouted, while younger members of the crowd hurled bottles and rocks at the buses bearing African American students. Scores of police in full riot gear struggled to maintain order and escort the students safely into the building. Hundreds of families heeded the call to boycott the school and kept their children home. That afternoon the violence and venom were repeated when the buses drove the students home — and all of it was captured on film and broadcast across the nation with many commentators comparing the shameful scene to that of Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1963.
The residents of South Boston had much to be angry over. Theirs was a neighborhood struggling with high rates of poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, and despair. Many lived in run-down public housing projects or old private housing stock. They’d seen the economic fortunes of their neighborhood decline sharply since 1960 — about the same time they saw the city government begin to draw up big “urban renewal” plans for Southie that they saw as harmful and heavy-handed.
They were already angry when the school desegregation plan was announced and they correctly pointed out that it had been concocted by outside “experts” with little or no knowledge of the social realities on the ground in South Boston and Roxbury.
Still, an honest appraisal of the situation in South Boston in the fall of 1974 must conclude that racism also played a major role in how events unfolded. Even before the first day of school, South Boston High was covered in racist graffiti. On several occasions mobs of angry Southie youths randomly assaulted African Americans on subway platforms and other places far removed from the high school. Sadly, this sentiment was the vestige of the long-troubled relationship between blacks and the Irish that dated back to the mid-nineteenth century.
This is not to argue, as the national media did in typical journalistic oversimplification, that all residents of South Boston were racists. But many did harbor, in addition to legitimate concerns over the safety of their children and the wisdom of the busing program, intense hostility toward blacks.
The violence and ugliness of September 12 was repeated day after day. Before long, it took on the appearance of an Irish American civil war, with daily clashes between the heavily Irish American police and crowds. Violence flared on a daily basis within the school as well, culminating in the stabbing of a white student by a black in December. Somehow, administrators, teachers, and students managed to get through the school year, but how much actual learning took place was anyone’s guess.
Judge Garrity’s Phase II plan contained some welcome differences from Phase I, but it also increased the number of students bused to 25,000 and kept in place the policy of direct transfers of white students from South Boston and blacks from Roxbury. In September 1975, the cycle of violence commenced anew and by December, Garrity placed the school under federal control. Chaos, nonetheless, continued until June.
The next year, despite a huge race riot on a South Boston beach in August 1976, the scene at South Boston High began to cool. It did so not so much because blacks and whites began to get along, but rather due to three strategies pursued by South Boston residents, such as moving to the suburbs; sending their children to parochial schools or an alternative schools, and sent their children to public schools in other parts of the city or in the suburbs by registering them with relatives.
These tended to be the families most bitterly opposed to busing so their departure diminished the zeal of the anti-busing movement. Another factor was demographic change as South Boston became increasingly diverse, which was one-third non-white by the mid-1990s.
Federal oversight of the Boston schools ended in 1989 and Boston adopted a new desegregation program called “controlled choice” that was designed to be more flexible and sensitive than the earlier busing program. It brought a decade of relative peace to the city’s schools. But in 1999 the Boston School Committee abandoned the program in part because of a successful lawsuit filed by Michael McLaughlin charging that the use of race in school admissions had denied his daughter admission to Boston Latin, the city’s top public school.
Judge Garrity retired from the bench in 1985. During a 1998 interview, Garrity maintained he would have done nothing differently. He died in 1999 at the age of 79. Predictably, his passing elicited tributes of praise from people who saw him as a courageous reformer and scathing denunciations from those who viewed him as an elitist meddler who set Boston ablaze 25 years earlier.
Sources: Thomas O’Connor, The Boston Irish: A Political History (1995); Ronald P. Formisano, Boston Against Busing (1991); and J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985).

Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm

June 26, 1963: President John F. Kennedy delivers his memorable speech at the Berlin Wall. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I’d take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.”
June 28, 1922: The Free State Army launches an attack against the anti-Treaty forces at Four Courts in Dublin, starting the Irish Civil War.

June 22, 1837: First American chess champion, Paul Morphy, is born in New Orleans.
June 24, 1935: Journalist and novelist, Pete Hamil, is born in Brooklyn.
June 25, 1874: Illustrator, author, and creator of the Kewpie Dolls, Rose O’Neill, is born in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

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