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Schuster Institute-WGBH News partnership

Brown v. Board, North & South

 Boston's Busing 40 Years Later

WGBH News, in partnership with the Schuster Institute, launched on September 8, 2014, a yearlong multimedia news series that chronicles the impact of busing and desegregation on Boston over the past 40 years. The series kicks off with historical documents newly discovered in Mayor Kevin White's papers, and will include new reporting across radio, TV, and digital.


Research assistance has been provided by the Boston Busing and Desegregation Project. Original content was produced in conjunction with Brandeis Sociology Professor David Cunningham and Brandeis students in the Civil Rights and Educational Equity in the U.S. Justice Brandeis Semester.  


The Battle over Desegregating Schools

What was it like to go to school during desegregation in two cities that were prominent in that fight: Boston, Massachusetts and Jackson, Mississippi, one in the north, one in the south? Both cities violently resisted one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century: Brown v. Board of Education,* which declared that keeping the races separated in school violated the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law.


Both gave us painfully iconic images: from Boston, a 1976 photograph by Stanley Forman of a white man nearly spearing a black lawyer with an American flag on City Hall Plaza; from Jackson, a 1965 photograph by Matt Heron of a white police officer wresting an American flag from a five-year-old African American boy’s hands. In Boston, white adults rioted and threw rocks at schoolbuses bearing black children. In Jackson, four years earlier, white adults had pulled their children from the public schools and enrolled them in new “private” all-white academies that hijacked public land, school materials, and funds.  


All that is public record. But what was happening inside the schools, away from the news cameras?


What was the more intimate, more daily experience of students, teachers, principals, guidance counselors, and others who lived through desegregation?


Schuster Institute Senior Fellow and WGBH Senior Investigative Reporter Phillip Martin interviews Dorchester students for some of the answers, here in three parts:

  • In "Dorchester Students' Essays Echo Boston's Busing Crisis, 40 Years Later," Senior Fellow Phillip Martin interviews former students from the Oliver Wendell Holmes School in Dorchester, who in 1975 wrote class essays about their experiences with desegregation. Listen here>   

  • "What Happened To The Sixth Graders Who Wrote Essays About Busing?" Listen here>

  • Echoes of Boston's Busing Crisis

















Why desegregate?


Civil rights activists and academic researchers remind us that mixing the races was never the goal; rather, equal funding and equal opportunity were. As long as black and white students were in separate schools, black schools were starved for funds, materials, teachers, and building repairs. By putting white and black students in the same classrooms, activists hoped to make that that funding discrepancy impossible.


In the end, in both cities, segregation triumphed -- in practice, if not in law. In Boston, “white flight” accelerated: many families moved to the suburbs (with black families denied mortgages at a much higher rate than white families). Others moved their children into parochial schools, leaving Boston’s schools overwhelmingly black, Hispanic and poor. In Jackson, Mississippi, public schools today are overwhelmingly black.


Boston, Massachusetts


Boston’s busing riots shocked the nation. On national television, Americans watched adults in two of Boston’s poor white neighborhoods throwing stones at buses full of terrified black children as they were bused into previously all-white schools under federal court order. "Liberal" Boston was exposed as a hotbed of racial hatred as virulent as what had been seen in the South.


But the sixth graders at the Oliver Wendell Holmes school--based in a black section of Dorchester and integrated without violence--wrote essays about their year inside this social experiment. These essays have never before been publicly seen in their entirerity. We post them in full here:









   Essays 1-17 | Essays 18-31 (PDFs)

Schuster Institute Senior Contributing Editor and New York Times bestselling author, Michael Patrick MacDonald, grew up in South Boston during the era of forced busing. Home was the Old Colony Housing Project just across the street from James "Whitey" Bulger's alleged liquor-store headquarters on Old Colony Ave. 


"Busing was the best thing that ever happened to Whitey Bulger," writes MacDonald in "Whitey Bulger, Boston's Busing, and Southie's Lost Generation," an original essay for our website.

Police show of force as busing begins in Boston.


Images from the video clip "Pam Bullard reviews the events of school desegregation in 1974," WGBH Media Library & Archives.

In the face of racial unrest, police escorted some school buses.

A Schuster Institute-WGBH News partnership


In the summer of 2014, the Schuster Institute brought never-before-seen archival material and selected reporting to our Senior Fellow and WGBH
Senior Investigative Reporter Phillip Martin. The result is a Schuster Institute partnership with Martin and WGBH Boston Public Radio-TV-Digital and a yearlong multimedia examination of the impact of busing and desegregation in Boston over the past 40 years. 


This website offers more detail, context, and history.


The Schuster Institute reporting team included former Associate Editor Neena Pathak and Senior Fellow Maria Stenzel.


Other contributors are acknowledged here.


"THE AFRICAN AMERICAN STRUGGLE for desegregation," observes Gary Orfield, co-director at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and among the nation's leading experts on desegregation, "did not arise because anyone believed that there was something magical about sitting next to whites in a classroom. It was, however, based on a belief that the dominant group would keep control of the most successful schools and that the only way to get full range of opportunities for a minority child was to get access to those schools."


--from The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education, Civil Rights 101: School Desegregation and Civil Rights Opportunity

"Southie," Center of Boston's Busing Resistance

Schuster Institute Senior Fellow Phillip Martin and NPR remembered forced busing in South Boston in the "reality check" broadcast:

Author reads from his book "All Souls: A Family Story
from Southie"

Author and Schuster Institute Consulting Editor Michael Patrick MacDonald reads from his book "All Souls: A Family Story from Southie." In this chapter, a grade-school-age MacDonald encounters South Boston's outraged sense of his Irish American enclave being occupied, like Belfast, by "the rich English."

IN THE BREAKTHROUGH 1954 DECISION Brown vs. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court declared that there is no such thing as “separate but equal,” and that therefore legally segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equality under law. Brown was the first major crack in the Jim Crow laws that, for a century after slavery, continued to enforce the subordination of black people, especially in the former Confederate states.


While Brown was decided in the 1950s, actually dismantling the laws and rules that kept black students out of previously all-white schools throughout the legally segregated South took another fifteen years--and not until 1974 did a federal judge apply it to schools in the North, in Boston’s Morgan v. Hennigan.

Sixth grade students from the class of 1974, Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School in Boston, recounted their experiences of the school year in 31 essays that, until now, were filed away in archives. Read their essays here. (In cases where permission to publish has not been granted, names have been redacted for privacy.)

In 1974, kids in the Boston Public Schools were facing forced busing and desegregation. Pictured above are a few students from the sixth grade class of 1974 from Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School. Their entire class photo can be seen below, with essays about their school experiences that year. 

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