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Rift remains in perceptions of contentious era

In the minds of many white Bostonians, the court-ordered desegregation plan implemented in the 1970s seems to boil down to a two-word phrase that’s as vile as an epithet: “forced busing.”

After California Sen. Kamala Harris pounded at former Vice President Joe Biden for his stance in the 1970s in opposition to busing, white columnists in Boston and across the country came to Biden’s defense. “Joe Biden was right. Busing was wrong” was the headline on a July 2 column by conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby that has run in news outlets around the country.

For black activists and politicians who fought against overcrowded schools and subpar teachers in Boston’s black community, the court-ordered desegregation plan handed down by Judge Arthur Garrity in 1974 was the means to an end, but not an end in and of itself.

While blacks saw desegregation as the culmination of a decades-long struggle for resources, some whites see busing as the opening salvo in one of Boston’s most divisive decades. That distinction — often lost in the white media — underscores why the chapter remains contentious more than 40 years after the fact.

“It’s racism. It’s anger. It’s fear,” says Horace Small, who in 2011 ran a series of citywide dialogues called the Busing and Desegregation Project in an attempt to help Bostonians move beyond the painful chapter. “It explains everything that’s going on in America right now. Whites want to go back to 1950. They’re still stuck there.”

Seeking equal resources

For blacks, the battle over education was never about integration. It was about equal resources.

That struggle stretches back to the 18th century when black parents complained that their children were bullied and harassed by white peers and in 1798 opened a school on Revere Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood where most blacks then lived. In 1802, the Boston School Committee agreed to fund the school, which moved in 1835 to the African Meetinghouse, then the Abiel Smith School building.

By then, however, black parents were already seeing unequal resources going to black students. In a fight that foreshadowed the desegregation battle more than 100 years later, the city’s growing black population began petitioning for desegregation of all Boston schools, believing that to be the only way their children would receive an equal allocation of the public education resources.

After petitioning the Boston School Committee to no avail, black parents sued in 1849, losing the case after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the matter was in the hands of the Legislature. In 1855 the Legislature passed Chapter 256, barring public schools from discriminating on the basis of race.

More than 100 years later, black Boston parents were again at loggerheads with an all-white Boston School Committee. The city’s black community had grown from 2,500 in the mid-1800s to 104,000 in 1970. As blacks gained majority populations in the South End and Roxbury, the schools had re-segregated. The School Committee had drawn school districts that limited black students to schools in predominantly black communities.

Faced with dilapidated buildings so overcrowded that students were forced to take classes in basements, and a system that locked blacks out of jobs, the city’s growing black community turned to legal action, arguing that the Boston School Committee was violating state law in its efforts to maintain segregated schools. At the time, out of 13 black schools, four had been recommended for closure for health and safety reasons and eight needed repairs to meet city standards. While the district supplied $340 a year for white pupils, it supplied just $240 for black pupils.

Busing — the last remaining option

While Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen refers to busing as a grand experiment in social engineering, for black parents facing a School Committee so insistent on maintaining segregation that it forewent $65 million in state and federal funding in 1973 — court-ordered desegregation was the only legal lever at their disposal.

As Mel King detailed in his book, “Chain of Change,” black elected officials and activists exhausted every avenue in their efforts to gain equal access to resources for black students, including an 11th-hour appeal to the School Committee to change the system to a community-control model, where each neighborhood would have the power to make hires and receive funding commensurate with the number of students in its schools. The School Committee dug in its heels and Garrity pulled the trigger.

Desegregation works

One thing lost in the current controversy over desegregation is research that shows that it actually can achieve the end for which black parents in Boston and across the country fought: better educational outcomes. Racially and economically mixed schools have, in fact, boosted educational outcomes for black students without diminishing educational outcomes for white students, according to research by groups including the Century Foundation.

In Boston, as was the case in cities across the U.S., graduation rates and college completion rates increased in the decades following school desegregation. While the city has shifted back toward a neighborhood schools model that, owing to the city’s persistently segregated housing patterns, has accelerated re-segregation in its schools, the city’s schools are now funded on a per-pupil basis. Boston’s school system has black staff, teachers and administrators, including its third black superintendent, Barbara Cassellius, who began her tenure on July 1.

For black parents, pursuing desegregation as a tactic broke the back of an intransigent all-white School Committee and paved the way for a fairer school system.

In his opinion piece, the Globe’s Jacoby quotes historians Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom positing that parents opposed busing because it took away their agency.

“They had been ‘accustomed to dealing with a school system that was democratically governed, one in which their opinions mattered.’” he quotes.

But for black parents who had no representation on a School Committee that was so thoroughly hostile to their interests, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.