Marking a momentous date in Boston history

Last Friday (June 21) marked the 50th anniversary of Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s decision in Morgan vs. Hennigan, the Boston school desegregation case that led to busing. The plaintiffs comprised 14 adults and 43 children, including Tallulah Morgan, a 29-year-old woman who wanted a better education for her children. The defendant was James Hennigan, who at the time was the chairman of the Boston School Committee.

The roots of the case went back at least a decade to 1963 when Boston’s Black community organized 400 individuals to bring 14 proposals aimed at improving public schools to the Boston School Committee. Led by Ruth Batson and Paul Parks, the group documented how Black schools had less funding, more schools in disrepair, and more inexperienced teachers than schools in white sections of the city.  The committee, chaired by Louise Day Hicks at the time, dismissed their proposals, claiming there was no unequal education provided and no de facto segregation.

It was a bitter irony that the very same night the School Committee was dismissing the education issues of the Black parents, President John F. Kennedy was delivering a speech to the nation about filing a civil rights bill. While Kennedy’s speech was directed mainly at southern, white, Jim Crow defenders, the white leadership in Boston was — in some ways— no different than its southern brethren.

The local campaign continued with Black residents and liberal white allies working to pass the state’s Racial Imbalance Law in 1965, which mandated that schools that were more than 50 percent Black had to be desegregated. The Black community also supported staging “Freedom Stay Outs” to protest second-rate education. Upwards of 10,000 students boycotted school and went to Freedom Schools held at churches and community centers on June 19, 1963, and February 26, 1964.  Operation Exodus, launched in 1966, and car-pooled more than 900 Black students to white schools with vacant seats and more resources. METCO was started in 1967 to bus Black students to participating suburban school districts.

School Committee members took a different route, embarking on a 11-year campaign to delay, deflect, deny, denigrate as they refused to abide by the Racial Imbalance Law. Twice, the state’s top court upheld the withholding of millions of dollars in education aid to Boston for refusing to comply with the law. Finally, the justices of the SJC ordered the State Department of Education to prepare a plan for busing for the fall of 1974.

Judge Garrity had held a trial on the Morgan vs. Hennigan desegregation case in 1973.  There was a mountain of evidence of actions by the School Committee that perpetuated segregation; feeder patterns to schools, busing past other schools, different grade levels in schools, which ones were overcrowded. 

Finally, on June 21, 1974, Garrity issued his decision, ruling that the Boston School Committee had “intentionally brought about and maintained a dual school system...that was unconstitutional.”  He then affirmed that the State Department of Education›s busing plan for September 1974 would proceed and some 18,000 students would be bused that fall in a so-called Phase One. Garrity devised his own plan with more students bused in September 1975, which was dubbed Phase Two.

Garrity was very deliberate in his work. The Boston desegregation case took more than two years for him to decide. He did not want his ruling to be overturned on an appeal and it was instead affirmed when the School Committee appealed. 

In 1980, when I was between organizing jobs, I worked a for a few months for the Citywide Parent Council that was established by Garrity’s orders. I wrote a memo suggesting that instead of paying 140 parents to be part-time staff to the Racial Ethnic Parents Councils in each school, they could have over 70 full-time organizers and get more done with them. Judge Garrity got his hands on this memo and wrote something back to the effect of “who is this guy who is questioning my court orders?”

There were powerful anti-busing organizations in the white neighborhoods of the city who mounted fierce opposition to busing. Some were responsible for shameful acts of violence, including rock throwing at buses and shouting racist epithets at students. Additionally, Garrity didn’t just order busing, he ordered many education reforms. But more on that in September as September 12 is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of school busing in Boston.

I’m proud to be the co-chair of the Boston Desegregation and Busing Initiative along with fellow Dorchester resident Karilyn Crockett. We are organizing forums, exhibits, partnerships for this year’s 50th anniversary. We hope to answer about what happened, what lessons learned, and what’s next for the Boston Public Schools. You can check out what we are doing at

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.

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