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Boston school desegregation crisis revisited

Allison Teixeira
November 28, 2011

How to most effectively desegregate public schools was the topic of conversation last week at a discussion on “Busing in Boston and its Aftermath.” An audience of about 50 students, faculty, and community members gathered in the Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center for the event, which dissected the various sides of the desegregation controversy that occurred in Boston during the 1970s, addressed ongoing race issues in schools, and brought forward voices of people who experienced the crisis firsthand.

Amy Ansell, dean of the Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies, introduced the two main speakers of the night: Susan Eaton, research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and author of The Other Boston Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line, and Ronald Formisano, professor of history at the University of Kentucky and author of Boston Against Busing: Race, Class and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ronald Formisano

Boston school intergration expert Ronald Formisano explained the significant role class issues played in the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s .

Formisano summarized the long and complex history of school desegregation in Boston and explained the conflicting reactions and beliefs among Bostonians and their political leaders to the court-ordered school desegregation that led to a city in turmoil. While white violence and backlash against busing garnered the headlines, he said, the sentiments and concerns of whites against busing were not only more diverse than ordinarily asserted, but also reveal more than simple racism; variables of class, ethnicity, and neighborhood were deeply entangled, too.

“The voices of the moderates who wanted peace were pushed to the side,” he said. “The loudest, most violent people took over the headlines and had influence out of proportion to their numbers….It’s a very sad story.”

The judge’s “diagnosis” about Boston’s school segregation, where students from the same neighborhoods, who were also the same race, attended neighborhood schools, was “flawless,” Formisano said. But the “prescription” of busing students within the city of Boston to other parts of the city to integrate them was flawed he said, because it exempted the suburbs that were all a part of the Greater Boston community. The plan was “basically asking the poorest blacks and the poorest whites to fight over the scraps of the educational system,” he said. Socioeconomics, he argued, should be a major consideration when integrating schools.

Eaton agreed that including suburbs in Boston’s plan for desegregation may have made it more successful. She is a proponent of regional integration plans. She said she experienced the controversy as a child living in the Boston suburb of Winchester and watched it unfold on television as if it were as far away as the war in Vietnam. Even though her entire street, she said, was tied to Boston—many people worked there and it was the cultural center of their lives— they never were held socially responsible for helping improve its educational system.

She talked about a voluntary regional desegregation program in the Boston area called METCO as an example of how regional programs can be successful. Since 1966, the METCO Program has been funded by a grant form the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is a voluntary program intended to expand educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation, by permitting students in certain cities, namely Boston and Springfield, to attend public schools in other, suburban, mostly white communities that have agreed to participate.

A reading of several quotes from METCO participants about how their involvement in the program had affected them concluded the presentation. Audience members, several of whom had been affected by the busing controversy in the 1970s, asked questions and interacted with the panelists.

The Institute sponsored the event along with the Performing Arts Department, and the Office of the Arts/ArtsEmerson. Performing Arts and ArtsEmerson have collaborated to offer a class this semester in which students are working with New York-based theater troupe The Civilians to create an original work based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning book about the busing crisis called Common Ground. They will present their work next month.

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