The Legacy of Forced Busing in Boston Series: COVER STORY

Article excerpt

TWENTY years ago this month, Boston students began a school year they will never forget.

Amid violent protests, boycotts, and rallies, young people across the city rode yellow buses to school as the rest of the nation watched. It was a time of racial turmoil for Boston, a Northern liberal city that once played a key role in the abolitionist movement.

That was back in September 1974, when public-school students experienced their first days of court-ordered desegregation. Of the system's 80,000 students, 17,000 to 18,000 were bused to other parts of the city as part of a desegregation plan ordered by United States District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.

Organized resistance - led by famed antibusing activist Louise Day Hicks and others - continued here for the next three to four years. Meanwhile, thousands of white families protested in quieter ways. They moved out of the city to the green lawns and quiet streets of suburbia. Many sent their kids to private or parochial schools.

Today, Boston's school system is quite different from what it was two decades ago. As a result of "white flight" - a phenomenon that was already under way before desegregation - 80 percent of the system's students are minorities. And though there are pockets of excellence, Boston's public schools are plagued by the same problems as other urban schools: high dropout rates, low test scores, and occasional incidents of violence.

Looking back after 20 years, educators, academics, and city residents are divided over the merits of busing. Some argue that the plan was successful because it provided for the first time equal educational and employment opportunities for minority students, teachers, and administrators.

Others say student busing drove out a significant portion of the city's middle class, failed to achieve integration, and lowered the overall quality of the schools.

Those who were there recall a tumultuous era in this city's history.

"You had a school system that was totally unprepared for what was coming and how to deal with it," says Mary Ellen Smith, who during busing served as executive director of Boston's Citywide Educational Coalition, a pro-integration education advocacy organization. "You had virtually a chaotic situation for at least the first and into the second year." How Busing Changed Boston's Schools

Some of the most vivid images of desegregation portrayed by the national media were of angry white crowds throwing rocks at black students bused to "Southie," South Boston High School in the all-white, predominantly Irish neighborhood of South Boston. Similar protests and riots broke out in three other city schools during the school year.

But these were not the only images of desegregation. Television crews were absent at other city schools where students generally attended classes peacefully.

Boston's experience follows a pattern of school desegregation around the country over the last 40 years. It began after the US Supreme Court ruled in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that segregated or "separate but equal" educational facilities were unconstitutional. Since then, hundreds of school districts around the country have been under desegregation orders. Boston's troubled experience - occurring 17 years after the 1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Ark. - is something most cities try to avoid, says Gary Orfield, education expert at Harvard University.

"It was one of the only systems where {school} leaders were ready to go to jail rather than obey the court order," Mr. Orfield says. "Many believe Boston is a typical case. It was an extreme case, and it informed the rest of the country of what not to do." Personal recollections

Teachers and students experienced different aspects of the busing era.

Charlestown High School social-studies teacher Larry Matthews remembers the federal marshals, state troopers, and city police surrounding the school, including the police sniper stationed on the roof. …

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