Last week’s vote by the Boston City Council revealed a disturbing lack of judgment on the part of three city councillors who voted “present” rather than support a resolution supporting the 60th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision offered a new interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, paving the way for long-denied justice to black Americans and minority groups across the board. Most notably, it ruled that the separate and unequal treatment of any Americans in public schools was unconstitutional.
In explaining their lack of support for this resolution, two of the councillors— Stephen Murphy and Sal LaMattina— dug a deeper hole for themselves. Each claimed his vote was not directed at the Supreme Court ruling, but rather at “its implementation.” Boston Magazine quoted Murphy as saying, “No one opposes Brown v. Board of Education, but the implementation here in Boston was forced busing. That’s what I was voting against.”
But there was no mention of “busing”— or Boston’s failure to come up with its own desegregation plan— anywhere in the council resolution, which was offered by Dorchester Councillors Ayanna Pressley and Charles Yancey. The measure passed by a margin of 10-3. The language of the resolution dealt exclusively with the 1954 decision and resolved that the 2014 Boston City Council “recommits to upholding the philosophical goals” of the anti-segregation ruling. If no one “opposes Brown v. Board of Education”— as Councillor Murphy suggests, why then would he or his two colleagues stand against it?
There is an insidious strain of revisionist history and misdirection inherent in their “present” votes. First, in drawing a direct line between Brown v. Board of Education and Boston’s 1974 busing crisis, the councillors conveniently skip over the villainous behavior of their predecessors in city government — and the electorate that enabled them— in bringing about the federal takeover of Boston’s schools in the 1970s.
In the 20-year interval between the groundbreaking court decision and the takeover, Boston’s leaders deliberately ignored a cascade of state and federal laws aimed at desegregating schools. It was the state’s Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 —and not the ruling of a federal bench some ten years earlier—that was so blatantly flouted by the Boston School Committee and their allies.
Boston’s busing crisis was the result of a failure of leadership at the local level. Moderate political voices— men like Dorchester’s Arthur Gartland and West Roxbury’s Jim Hennigan (whose name, ironically, bears the name of the suit that led to the federal takeover) warned about the consequences of not desegregating our schools on our own watch. It was the ticket-topping political leaders of the time, including Louise Day Hicks and John Kerrigan, who refused to obey the laws of the land and hoped —as enemies of Obamacare do today— that the law would be overturned or otherwise go away.
The failure of Boston’s political leaders to design and implement a desegregation plan in the 1960s and early 1970s was the single worst failure of leadership in the history of Boston, and it resulted in a catastrophic disruption of our neighborhoods. That wasn't the doing of Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court. Ultimately, it wasn’t even the fault of Judge W. Arthur Garrity. This one was on the majority-white electorate and the leaders of the era who willfully marched the city off the cliff and then blamed others for the chaos that followed.
The apologists of the anti-busing crowd would like to muddy that reality by conflating Brown v. Board of Education and Boston’s homegrown crisis of 1974-75. They do a disservice to history — and to our city’s national reputation— in perpetuating such mythology.
We hope these three councilors will seek to amend their vote and affirm what every reasonable American should support with a firm and full-throat: That striking down the abhorrent Jim Crow-era “separate but equal” laws was a great advance for our nation.