School Busing

School Busing


The debate between Senator Harris and Vice President Biden on school busing evokes memories from my past. I remember seeing on TV the desegregation of the Little Rock, Arkansas high schools and the decisive action of President Eisenhower in ordering the troops to protect the students. As a very small boy I remember being in Little Rock and seeing segregated drinking fountains and driving through the Delta region and seeing black sharecroppers harvesting cotton and asking my father to explain.


Growing up in Cincinnati I took a bus (two city buses and two long walks in fact) to school for my three years of junior high – no problem. It was an excellent, integrated public school, and my parents were delighted that I was able to attend. The benefits of going to racially and economically integrated schools are enormous for the students of every ethnic background.

I lived in Boston during the court ordered mandatory busing of the 70’s when the city came apart at the seams. The Boston area was hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs in textiles, shoes, etc. to the South where wages were lower, and the city and the region were in very tough shape with no clear economic path forward.


The Boston Public Schools at the time (the 70’s) offered a poor quality education with the exception of the excellent citywide test schools like Boston Latin. The public schools were staffed with patronage appointments from the all white Boston School Committee. The city was severely residentially segregated: African Americans living in Roxbury, Irish Americans in South Boston and Charlestown, Italian Americans in East Boston and the North End. The public schools were poor in South Boston, and they were even poorer in Roxbury; they were poor in East Boston as well. They were far better in the more affluent Boston neighborhoods like West Roxbury and much better in the adjacent suburbs of Brookline and Newton, but there was no interface between the excellence of the suburban public schools and the poorly performing Boston public school system.


The Boston School Committee frequently redrew the lines of the neighborhood schools to maintain the segregated nature of the local schools in the mixed and changing neighborhoods like Dorchester, South End, Columbia Point and Mattapan. The School Committee was all white, and most of the teachers and all the principals were as well. In a lengthy and fully documented opinion in 1974, Federal District Court Judge Arthur Garrity found that the School Committee had engaged in systemic and long-standing segregation of the city’s public schools.


To remedy the School Board’s unconstitutional actions, he ordered mandatory busing of African American children from Roxbury into South Boston, and vice versa, South Boston kids into Roxbury. Louise Day Hicks of South Boston led the opposition from her position on the School Committee. The response was violence in South Boston and Charlestown, and abject lack of leadership from the city, state and federal politicians to the violence or in support of Judge Garrity’s orders. When school opened, virtually no children in either community got on the buses due to fears of horrendous violence. It generated affluent white flight from the City to the suburbs and into the parochial and private schools.


Judge Garrity oversaw school desegregation for 10 years achieving remarkable success in desegregating Boston’s public schools, then transferred authority back to the School Committee. Busing ended in 2013. Limited voluntary busing with suburban school districts continues to this day. In a city with 50% white population, the enrollment in Boston public schools comprises 13% white students.


In the 90’s, a reform minded Governor and state legislature led efforts to improve Massachusetts’ public schools to the point where they were consistently the nation’s best and on par with the excellence in other nations. Charter schools have played a key role in improving minority school achievements. But the Commonwealth’s public schools are still in need of more equitable funding, and improvements in accountability to close the educational achievement gaps, which are particularly pronounced between city and suburban school districts. and and


Reference reading: Anthony Lukas, Common Ground.


Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin

Dated: 7/26/19








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