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The Athens of America

This week students in the American Seminar discussed Ronald P. Formisano’s Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (1991).  Reading this moving and well-documented book brought memories flooding back that seemed as fresh as if they had happened yesterday.

I arrived in Boston for graduate school in the summer of 1973, half expecting to see Emerson, Longfellow, and Thoreau strolling in Harvard Yard.  I did meet Formisano not long after in a history seminar.  In October of that year Evelyn Rene Wagler, 24, who was living in Roxbury in a bi-racial women’s collective, ran out of gas a few blocks from her apartment.  She walked down the street to a gas station.  On her return, she was assaulted by six teenagers, who dragged her into a vacant lot, poured the gasoline over her, and set her afire.  She was so badly charred that emergency room workers could tell her race only from the soles of her feet.  She died after a few hours.  No one was arrested for her murder and the crime has never been solved.

That same year, Louis Barba, 65, a retired contractor and lifelong resident of Boston, was fishing behind the Columbia Point housing project on the harbor.  A group of teens stoned him, and stabbed him to death with his own fishing knife.   Three were arrested.  And teenager George Pratt was killed by an unknown sniper while standing in the courtyard of his housing project.

The first year of what in Boston was always called “forced busing” was 1974.  I had the sense that Federal law should not apply in The Hub, unlike Alabama.  It was somehow different from the desegregation struggles in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.  Few whites I met, regardless of background, seemed to have any understanding of what southerners of both races had already experienced at the hands of Federal judges.  In 1974 Michael D. Faith was stabbed at South Boston High School, and almost killed, suffering a punctured lung and liver.  A 20-year-old cab driver working to pay his college tuition was found stabbed to death in a vacant lot.  Jean-Louis Andre Yvon, 33, was driving into South Boston to pick up his wife from her job.  A mob pulled him from his car and almost beat him to death with hockey sticks and other weapons.  Only a police officer who fired his weapon in the air saved him.  He went into a coma a few days later.

The Soiling of Old Glory, by Stanley Forman

In April 1976 a group of teeangers attacked a lawyer in his favorite three piece suit near City Hall.  The Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the incident shows one of the males trying to spear Theodore Landsmark with a pole  holding the American flag.  In retaliation, the next day a group of teens dragged a man from his car at a stop light, and beat him to death.  When the police arrived, they were yelling “Let him die.”

Those who are curious can search the internet for the names above;  some were black and some were white, but all were Americans who suffered violence at the hands of fellow Americans.

There were hundreds and probably thousands of incidents of violence after time ran out on the Boston school committee’s nine years of delay to desegregation.  School buses, and the police protecting them, were stoned.  Violence was inflicted on children not just by adults, but by other children, from elementary tykes to high school seniors.  It was so frequent, and often so random, that only the most serious incidents were recorded, though some of them are noted in first hand accounts like Ione Malloy’s Southie Won’t Go: A Teacher’s Diary of the Desegregation of South Boston High School (1986).

The most feared and hated of all the law enforcement personnel during the busing crisis were the 125 members of the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF), an elite riot squad that wore special uniforms.  New York City had its own TPF, which attacked gays viciously in Greenwich Village’s Stonewall riot in June 1969.  The gays fought back, and won a standoff with the police.  When a brick came through the windshield of a TPF cruiser one night in October 1974, Boston had its own straight version of Stonewall.  Three TPF officers pursued the brick thrower into the Rabbit Inn, where patrons assaulted them and the culprit escaped.  The next night the TPF raided the bar, caused $20,000 in damage, and sent ten patrons to the hospital.  The police said they were responding to a call of trouble from the saloon, but most in Southie thought the raid was retaliation.

Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity refused Mayor Kevin White’s request for federal marshals, but sent them when black parents demanded protection.  Massachusetts Governor Frank Sargent was a political rival of the mayor’s, and dragged his feet  providing state troopers, but eventually they joined the fray.  The FBI alleged that there was a plot to blow up all the bridges leading into South Boston, but no evidence was ever found.  Of course, the agency has never been able to find Whitey Bulger, because one or more agents tipped him off to his pending indictment and arrest, and there may still be FBI personnel who do not want him apprehended.

There were some positive developments from the busing crisis.  It launched many political careers, like that of Louise Day Hicks and Elvira “Pixie” Palladino, and helped others like Raymond Flynn, later the city’s mayor.  Established figures like Mayor White and state senator William Bulger, Whitey’s brother, navigated the turbulent rapids of the crisis as skillfully as Olympic competitors.  Less talented pols resorted to invisibility, like the great liberal Michael Dukakis, when he became governor of the Commonwealth in 1975.

After years of struggle, Judge Garrity, returned control of the schools to the city.  Boston’s public schools, with the exception of the competitive exam or Latin schools, had never been very good, but because of white flight to parochial schools or outside the city altogether, they were now mostly minority.  The METCO program, funded by the state, sent what W.E.B. DuBois might have called “the Talented Tenth” of black students to choice suburban schools, easing the conscience of white liberals in those leafy districts, and enabling black flight.  The judge and his team of arrogant academic experts reluctantly concluded that there were too few whites left in Boston to achieve their goal of racial balance in the schools.  A generation of  youngsters lost not only their childhood, but any chance at even a fraction of a decent education because of the adults around them.  Today Boston’s public school students are only 16% white, with the rest being African-American, Hispanic, and Asian.

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About The Author: Michael Chesson was the Founding Dean of the American College of History and Legal Studies.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Paul Morceau August 12, 2011, 9:20 am

    I remember my wife being stopped by police asking to search her baby carriage. She told them off and asked them if they thought Charlestown was Northern Ireland. I could not get a teaching job because Garrity stopped hiring white teachers the summer I received my degree and my teacher certification. The governmenet was at war with the working class. The banks wanted the real estate that was approximate to downtown. It was not about improving education.

  • Rocky Mountain November 3, 2011, 4:34 pm

    “The banks wanted the real estate that was approximate to downtown. It was not about improving education”

    That’s just preposterous.

  • Enlightened Man February 1, 2012, 5:34 pm

    Rocky Mountain,

    Paul’s theory is plausible. Cleansing whites from the urban benefits developers greatly. Lot’s of “blight” followed and blight means eminent domain.

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