City Has to Excorise Demons of Busing

This article originally appeared on page 2 of the June 24, 2004 edition of the Dorchester Reporter.

Boston’s bogeyman made a return trip to town this past week. Not to worry, though; the tabloid press and political establishment successfully bludgeoned it to death before it could do any harm. Or any good. It happens this way every time the “R” word - Race - comes up for air. And it’s a sorry sign of a city that’s not willing or able to deal with reality.

First, the man who’s heading up New York’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention stepped in it by balking at the L Street Bathhouse as a location for his state’s convention soiree in July. Then, Barry Bonds poured an as-yet-undetermined substance on the fire by making a series of outrageous, ignorant comments in the Globe sports section.

Bonds has never even been to this city and richly deserves the wrath of the boo-birds who’ll descend on him next month at his Fenway debut. But Bonds and the unfortunate New Yorker who vented his angst more rationally in a letter to DNC officials aren’t an aberration. They speak for millions of black Americans for whom Boston is still the Birmingham of the North, a reputation that was recklessly but sturdily built rock-by-rock, brick-by-brick by the morons who played target practice with yellow buses 30 years ago. Some of the same clowns are still out there, only now they’re wearing suits and masquerading as respectable citizens.

An old grammar school classmate of mine from St. Gregory’s - who now lives in Atlanta - put it into perspective pretty well for me the other day. Most of the folks she encounters - who abhor Boston but have never been here - think we’re still living in the 1970s. Back home, she says, too many
Bostonians like to pretend like the 1970s never happened. Both sides are living a lie. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

The thing is, we’re the ones who have to live with the consequences on a day to day basis, not just for four days in July. So shame on us for not making our case more plain - and believable.

But there’s still no room for middle ground in this town. The man who dared raise a question about Southie’s history on the matter was so soundly thrashed this past week that he was compelled to make a personal pilgrimage to L Street to extend his mea culpas. It was a brave and, perhaps, an appropriate gesture.

But where are the statements of regret from the loyal opposition: the supremely self-righteous, “we-toldyou-so” anti-busing crowd whose irresponsible leadership, on the streets and in the hearing rooms of this city, triggered the turmoil in the first place? When is their day of reckoning to come?

Not anytime soon, it seems. Jimmy Kelly, the South Boston pol with a busing-era rap sheet as long as a council docket, last week pooh-poohed the violence on Dorchester Heights and instead told the Herald that he’d be happy to give the New York fellow a lesson in why busing failed. Maybe he could also give him a tip or two in rocktossing down at Carson Beach. And we wonder why outsiders look at us askance when we say things have changed.

Last month, the Friends of the City of Boston Archives hosted an evening forum at the Old State House to mark the release of Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s papers, which are stored at UMass-Boston and have been indexed for researchers to peruse. The forum included a panel discussion featuring Bill Bulger, the former UMass president and ardent busing foe, alongside two fierce proponents: Robert A. Dentler and Charles V. Willie, two of Garrity’s trusted lieutenants and keepers of his flame, so to speak. David Finnegan, the former school committeeman was also there.

One person who wasn’t on the panel, but should’ve been, was Jim Hennigan, the gentlemanly former state senator from West Roxbury, whose name, in a sad twist of history, adorns the federal case that triggered the Garrity decision and the September ’74 crisis. Hennigan was a school committeeman at the time - and warned presciently of the reckless legal and political missteps of city officials which led directly to the federal takeover.

The most reckless of them all happened right here on Dorchester Avenue at the O’Hearn School, where a special hearing of the School Committee convened in 1971 and voted to defy an order of the State Board of Education to integrate two newly-built schools, one of them Talbot Ave’s Lee School. That night, as a rabble of antibusing activists cursed his name, Hennigan voted in the minority to balance the schools racially - and warned his colleagues not to defy the law.

“It is evident that we are in conflict with the law, evident we are going into court, and evident we are going to lose,” Hennigan said, warning that the result would be a court takeover, and the much ballyhooed loss of “parental rights” that is the keystone argument of anti-busing revisionists today.

At the Old State House forum last month, Jim Hennigan stood up and recalled that night at the O’Hearn. A full three years before it all hit the fan, it marked the turning point, Hennigan said. And he’s right. That was the moment when the school committee - urged on by the likes of Dapper O’Neil and John Kerrigan and Louise Day Hicks among other figures - shamelessly put their finger in the eye of the federal court and then feigned shock, shock three years later when it came back to haunt them.

It’s not as if they didn’t know it would happen. They knew full well that Hennigan, himself on the record as an opponent of the Racial Imbalance Law, was right on. But rather than take a tough vote and incur the wrath of their constituency, they took the easy way out.

Kind of like what our political leaders and talk-masters are doing today. Instead of a serious discussion of whether we’ve really changed or not we get, “How dare you pick on poor South Boston? Don’t you know that was 30 years ago?”

It’s true that time can help heal old wounds. But it’s not the only salve needed on a trauma so deep. Both sides have to own up to their role in the debacle. To date, that conversation has been decidedly one-sided.

Yes, Garrity and his agents turned out to be villains, but he was but one in a cavalcade of men, and at least one woman, who were regularly picked to run our affairs over more than a decade. When it came to the schools, they ran them into the ground, blatantly and deliberately discriminating against black children to soothe the racist fears of the voters and abrogating their responsibilities to all of the people. And make no mistake: Boston’s largely white citizenry of the era has to take some responsibility too. It was they who put the match to the keg with their ballot-box mischief - ticket-topping people who had no business governing this city, then or now.

It’s time for us to start acknowledging, 30 years after the fact, that busing’s stain is still deep and dark. Blaming some out-of-towner for our ills isn’t the answer. It’s time to start talking honestly about what happened. Until, then, the “New Boston” will be nothing more than a cheap, conventioneer’s slogan.