Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle: The Boston busing crisis

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

School had just let out for the summer, so for now the reaction to the Garrity decision in Boston would take the form of angry talk. By September, however, the animosity exploded into riots that made headlines across the country.
W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. was born in 1920 in Worcester, MA. The son of a successful lawyer, he attended Holy Cross College (1941), served in the Army during World War II, and then graduated from Harvard Law in 1946.
He worked as a government lawyer for two years and developed many influential contacts before going into private practice. His work on John F. Kennedy’s senate and presidential campaigns led to his being named U.S. Attorney in 1961. In 1966 Garrity was named to the U. S. Court for Massachusetts. A political liberal, Garrity welcomed the opportunity to take on the case of Morgan v. Hennigan that accused the city of Boston with maintaining a segregated public school system.
The conflict started in 1965 when the state of Massachusetts, inspired by the national Civil Rights movement, passed the Racial Imbalance Act. According to the law, any school with a student body that was more than 50 percent African American was deemed imbalanced and subject to sanctions. Boston’s schools immediately came under scrutiny when a study revealed that 60 percent of black students attended schools that were 70 black (or more) and 84 percent of white students attended schools that were 80 percent white (or more).
Over the next seven years the Boston School Committee denied the existence of any systematic policy of segregation, arguing that the racial composition of the city’s schools simply reflected residential patterns. In other words, predominantly black neighborhoods had school populations that were mostly black while predominantly white neighborhoods had schools that were mostly white.
Although the case involved the entire Boston school system, the strongest resistance came from the largely white, heavily Irish American, working-class neighborhoods of South Boston and Charlestown (and to a lesser extent heavily Italian American areas of East Boston and the North End).
By the 1960s the residents of these neighborhoods had come to see themselves as under siege from an insensitive and bullying city government. In part this mentality developed out of the Boston Irish experience. While the Irish had it tough nearly everywhere they settled in nineteenth-century America, Boston was perhaps the nation’s most bitterly anti-Irish city.
Boston was not only a far more homogeneous city compared to Philadelphia or New York, it also had a Protestant elite (the so-called Brahmins) that was unrivaled in power and unity. They loathed the Irish masses that began arriving in great numbers in the 1840’s and did their utmost to keep them down.
Thus, even as the Boston Irish achieved significant economic, political, and social power by the mid-20th century, many – especially those who lived in the more working-class neighborhoods — harbored a sense of inferiority that bordered on paranoia. They were, one observer joked, the “the only oppressed majority in the world.”
These feelings of insecurity were stoked in the 1960s by the heavy-handed urban renewal programs established by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Obsessed with “revitalizing” the city’s crumbling neighborhoods and flush with millions in federal dollars, the BRA began bulldozing housing and authorizing massive construction projects in the West End, South Boston, and elsewhere.
By the late 1960s, even before the school issue came to a head, residents of South Boston stood ready to oppose virtually ANY scheme proposed by the city government and, God forbid, the state. The irony, of course, was that the city government they opposed was no longer dominated by the Brahmin elite, but by their fellow Irish. As historian Thomas O’Connor writes, it “the result was a growing antagonism between the Irish-Catholic residents of the ethnic neighborhoods and the Irish-Catholic politicians who ran city government.”
The former viewed the latter “as an over-grown establishment that was continuously oppressing them, taxing them, conspiring to take away their land and knock down their houses.”
In 1971, in response to persistent school committee inaction on the segregation issue, the state of Massachusetts froze $200 million in school construction funds and $14 million in state aid. Then African American parents teamed up with the NAACP to file suit (Morgan v. Hennigan) against the school committee.
One year later it was assigned by lottery to Judge Arthur W. Garrity, Jr. On June 21, 1974, after two years of hearings and testimony, Garrity issued his decision. Charging that the Boston School Committee had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation” that resulted in a “dual system” of education, he declared “the entire school system of Boston is unconstitutionally segregated.”
Over the summer Garrity announced the details of Phase I of his desegregation plan, a plan drawn up by State Board of Education officials with little knowledge or sensitivity to the racial and ethnic realities of Boston’s neighborhoods. A system of busing would send 17,000 Boston students to different schools to achieve “racial balance.” The most ill-conceived aspect of the plan called for the exchange of students from South Boston and Roxbury, the city’s main black neighborhood. As one Boston Globe reporter put it, “To mix Southie and Roxbury … was not to ask for war, for war was inevitable, but it was to insure that the war would be bloody.”
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).


June 15, 1914: James Joyce publishes The Dubliners.

June 20, 1948: “Toast of the Town,” hosted by Ed Sullivan, debuts on CBS-TV. It is later renamed “The Ed Sullivan Show” and runs until 1971.


June 20, 1909: Actor Errol Flynn is born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

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June 17, 1800: Astronomer William Parsons is born in York, England.

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