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End of Segregation in Public Schools

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Boston, MA 1974: Boston's School System Flunks

In Boston in 1974, Judge Arthur Garrity set up a plan of mandatory school integration in reaction to the traditionally racist policies of educational officials there. The city—northern and with a tradition of progressivism—quickly splintered into violent subgroups as white families in Charlestown and South Boston fought bitterly against the notion of “outsiders” determining where and with whom their children would go to school. The polarizing social crisis that followed in Boston managed to bring out paranoia and stereotyping on both sides, and underlined the vast psychological distance that remained between white and African-American groups in urban America.

The Garrity plan, which was derided by white critics as “forced busing”, aimed to correct de jure (formally instituted) segregation, not de facto (incidental and unintentional) segregation. In other words, what Garrity was trying to remedy was Boston's long-standing policy of conscious, deliberate support and maintenance of segregation in the city's schools—segregation that deprived African-American students of their right to a quality education.

What's the Word?

De facto segregation arises from existing neighborhood configurations or recent trends in demographics; the courts have avoided action against this kind of segregation.
De jure segregation arises from the policies and decisions of officials; it is the deliberate, planned separation of the races. Only this second kind of segregation led to mandatory busing decrees in the United States.

Forced integration of the school system was supported by African-Americans, by the legal system, and by key media outlets (notably the Boston Globe, whose offices were subjected to rifle assaults during the crisis). It was opposed—vigorously—by families where virtually no African-Americans lived.

The Garrity plan turned school facilities into battlegrounds and school officials into crisis resolution specialists. Conflict on the streets and in school grounds was, in the years immediately following Garrity's initial decision in 1974, both common and bloody. How much effective teaching in subjects like mathematics and English actually occurred in this environment may be open to question, but it's hard to deny that African-American students and families received a lesson in Northern bigotry.

Schools Under Siege

In his extraordinary book Common Ground (Vintage Books, 1985), J. Anthony Lukas tells of an assistant principal in the Boston system informing a group of besieged African-American students that police had managed to sidetrack a group of belligerent white students. A group of buses gathered in an alley, positioned strategically to help the youngsters escape from the white mob by means of the fire stairs. Before long, though, the white students realized what was going on, and started screaming, “They're going out the side!”

The white boys turned, left the building, and headed for the alleys—but not in time to stop the buses' departure. Enraged, they flung stones at the departing school vehicles.

Clearly, entrenched racism was not simply a southern problem.

Making Diversity in the Classroom a Reality

It would take Boston—and many other American cities—years to come to terms with the notion of a racially diverse public school system. While that process unfolded, the city and the nation were subjected to scenes of chaos and social conflict that revealed how broad the fault lines between the races actually ran.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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