Attitudes in Dorchester were tied to the desegregation crisis of the ’70s

By Lew Finfer

Forty years ago this month, US Judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that the Boston School Committee had “intentionally brought about and maintained racial segregation” in the city’s schools. He then ordered an extensive remedy: the busing of students between and within most neighborhoods of Boston. Four decades later, the reverberations of this decision still resound profoundly in our race relations, and in our public schools.

The Garrity ruling was influenced by events in Dorchester. The School Department had received state funding to build the new Lee, Marshall, and Holland schools with the implicit understanding that when they opened they would be racially balanced. But when white kids who had been enrolled in the O’Hearn and Fifield schools were re-assigned to the newly built schools in adjoining, predominantly black neighborhoods, their parents organized against the moves and the School Committee reversed the assignments.

This violation of the state’s racial imbalance law, with school district lines being drawn to prevent integration, contributed to the court’s decision mandating desegregation.

The city’s African-American community, whose schools were over- crowded and lacking basic educational quality, saw integrated schools as the way to better education for their children. White parents felt that their children should be able to go to their neighborhood schools just as children in suburban schools did. When the federal judge weighed in with his controlling decision, the city’s adult African Americans and white liberals called it “desegregation” and the whites who lived in Dorchester and other neighborhoods called it “busing.” This difference in describing the court’s order put into stark relief the divisions already in place across the city.

Terrible racial incidents occurred during the months and years of the busing/desegregation era. Buses carrying black children were repeatedly stoned by white teenagers as they drove the students through neighborhoods far from home. And numerous fights broke out inside the schools. People were assaulted, in some cases apparently due to racial rancor. Most infamously for Boston, Ted Landsmark, an African-American lawyer, was approaching City Hall one day in 1976 just as a group of white South Boston High School students were leaving a Boston City Council meeting with anti-busing city councillors. The students beat him up and one of the assailants appeared to be trying to stab him with a staff holding an American flag. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the event by the Boston Herald’s Stanley Forman went around the world in short order, further besmirching our city’s reputation.

In Dorchester, white parents organized an anti-busing group that often met at the First Parish Church on Meetinghouse Hill. Rev. James Allen hosted the meetings, and residents like Olive Costello led the group. I remember going to a meeting to see how they discussed the issue; people were fiercely determined to oppose the court’s mandate. This group, and similar ones in other neighborhoods, were relentless in organizing protests – at City Hall, the State House, the US Capitol, and at Judge Garrity’s home in Wellesley.

Meanwhile, at the headquarters of the social service agency Freedom House in Dorchester’s Grove Hall, parents gathered each night to discuss what had happened to their kids that day. They often met there with Mayor Kevin H. White and the police commissioner and pressed them to better protect their kids.

In 1974, I was for integration as I’d grown up and admired the civil rights movement and had even participated in 1968 in organizing people to attend the Poor People’s Campaign rally in Washington. This was Rev. Martin Luther King’s last campaign where he sought to broaden the civil rights cause to take on economic justice issues for people of all races.

However, in listening to the white members of our community group and my neighbors, I grew to understand their anger, which was based on the sense that they were victims of class discrimination. A federal judge from Wellesley was ordering them to put their kids on buses to go to schools in other neighborhoods. The court order did not cover the suburbs because of an earlier Supreme Court decision limiting remedies to within a single community. They felt lectured to by the Boston Globe, whose editor lived in Lincoln, and by politicians, including US Sen. Ted Kennedy, who didn’t live in Boston.

I was an organizer then with the Dorchester-based community improvement group called Dorchester Community Action Council that in late 1975 became a founding chapter of the statewide community group Massachusetts Fair Share. For more than a year, the Grover Cleveland School in Fields Corner was the only neutral site where both white and African-American members felt relatively safe. So every time we scheduled a meeting we had to balance having it at the Grover Cleveland vs. having it in the neighborhood of Dorchester where the particular issue we were meeting on was most in play.

I was proud that we had the largest integrated community organization in Boston in those divisive days. We worked on issues like abandoned houses, unfair home assessments (Dorchester homes had been assessed for city property taxes at higher rates than most other neighborhoods), crime prevention, redlining by banks, and remedies for homeowners whose properties had not been inspected at the time of sale by the government when FHA-insured mortgages were involved.

But we did not tackle the divisions over busing and desegregation. At 24, I did not have enough experience to help our members find ways to act on education issues. And with a federal judge making the decisions, we could not force him to attend a meeting with us or organize pressure for any changes in his decisions the way we could if we were trying to influence a politician. White Dorchester residents like Jane Margulis and Patricia Jones did help lead the Citywide Education Coalition, which worked to keep peace in the schools and attempted to get parents to work together in the schools across racial lines.

The Boston school system certainly changed in the 40 years after the Garrity decisions: In the early 1970s, the student racial ratio was roughly 60 percent white and 40 percent black; today it is 13 percent white. Whites fled the schools in opposition to the court decision, over concerns about the quality of education in the city schools, and because of racial fears.

Because of the legacy of the court order, we still do not have neighborhood schools because parents can apply to any school under the current parental choice system. It is a loss for our neighborhoods when the schools are not the significant local community institutions that they were when kids got to know each other from attending the same school in their neighborhood for six or more years. It would be politically hard to return to those kinds of schools when parents want, and have, the option to try to get their kids into whatever schools they think are doing better.

Race relations in Boston today are better than they were four decades ago. However, for some of us of a certain age, we see events of today through the lens of history. That was the case for me when City Councillor Bill Linehan and state Rep. Nick Collins initially tried to deny state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry the position of chairwoman of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in South Boston. And more explicitly when City Councillors Steve Murphy, Linehan, and Sal LaMattina objected to a resolution by Dorchester Councillors Ayana Pressley and Charles Yancey recognizing the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision of the US Supreme Court on school segregation. The opposing councillors felt that it led in part to the desegregation/busing court order in Boston in 1974.

We need to know this history, but now we also have to address the barriers to opportunity that race and class bring to community issues and race relations. We must work together across racial, class, neighborhood, and religious lines that threaten to divide us by hampering our chances to increase opportunities for many more people.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and Director of the Dorchester- based Massachusetts Communities Action Network.