Boston's Busing Crisis

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Busing’s Boston Massacre
A Boston judge’s experiment in social engineering has unraveled neighborhoods and frustrated black achievement

A federal judge’s experiment in social engineering has unraveled neighborhoods and frustrated black achievement

It’s the story South Boston schoolboys love to hear. On March 4, 1776, under cover of darkness, General George Washington ordered his men to position dozens of captured British cannon atop Dorchester Heights. The code word that night was "Boston" and the reply was "Saint Patrick," in honor of the many Irish volunteers who strained to haul those cannon up the steep slopes of the Heights overlooking Boston Harbor. For days, Washington’s men bombarded the British fleet until the ships finally withdrew from Boston on March 17—St. Patrick’s Day.

Some two hundred years later, on that very ground, a different kind of revolution was fought by the distant kinsmen of those cannon haulers. This is the story Bostonians do not like to hear, for it was a battle they could not win. On June 21, 1974—a date that has lived in local infamy—U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered massive forced busing to integrate the Boston Public Schools. It was the shot heard ’round the city.

It is difficult to chart the stages of this urban earthquake or distinguish its aftershocks. But the initial tremors began when the U.S. Supreme Court released its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). In Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren claimed that segregation is psychologically harmful to black children and implied that all-black classrooms are inherently inferior. Warren’s ambiguous opinion allowed lower courts and lawmakers to infer that stopping segregation was not enough, but that social justice depended upon integrating the races in school, at whatever cost to neighborhoods and to children, black and white.

By 1968, the courts were equating desegregation with massive, forced cross-city busing. In Green vs. Board of Education, Justice William Brennan ruled that there can no longer be black or white schools, "just schools," and that schools must integrate "now." Judges across America soon began to order busing to integrate urban school systems in the name of "racial equality." (In Missouri vs. Jenkins (1995), Justice Clarence Thomas marveled at this trend: "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.")

In 1965, the Massachusetts state legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which outlawed "racially imbalanced" schools, defined as any school whose student body was more than 50 percent minority. Every suburban legislator voted in favor of the Act; only those from Boston and Springfield voted against it.

For nine years, like a patient in denial about his condition, the Boston School Committee pretended the Racial Imbalance Act did not exist. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought suit, Garrity found the Boston School Committee guilty of "segregative intent" by establishing a "dual school system" that deliberately separated black and white students and underfunded black schools. Although few could disagree with the judge’s conclusion, his remedy shook the city to its foundations.

Garrity ordered the implementation of the Massachusetts State Board of Education’s drastic "Master Plan" to achieve racial balance in the public schools. The Master Plan generally required students from designated white neighborhoods to be bused to schools in designated black neighborhoods and vice versa. But the plan’s ugliest element was the cross-town busing of children attending South Boston and Roxbury high schools, exchanging students from Boston’s most insular Irish Catholic neighborhood with students from the heart of the black ghetto.

The Master Plan, however, was only one of several options available to Garrity. For example, Boston school superintendent...
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