Boston Busing and School Desegregation During the 1970s: A Look Back
“It’s not a question of if the Constitution will be enforced. It’s a question of — at what cost?”
Last night, I watched American Experience on PBS. It’s one of my favorite programs. Again, I’ll plea with and rant to readers that if you’re not watching these kinds of documentaries (especially on PBS), then you’re missing something important and wasting an opportunity to learn.
This week American Experience focused on the forced busing and desegregation of public schools controversy in Boston during the 1970s. I remember the news reports about Boston busing students, entirely based on race. Since this is the anniversary of Boston’s era of infamy, now is a good time to look back so we can think ahead. To know where you’re going you have to know where you’ve been. That’s the history-minor in me talking.
The documentary did an outstanding job of balance. It showed both sides of a very heated issue, which has a carryover to today’s domestic problems and political divisions. I knew *nothing* about Boston before watching last night’s show. I’ve never even been there (except to Logan Airport). Seeing Boston’s (then, and perhaps still now) segregated neighborhoods was remarkable. It was every bit as divided and hostile as anything happening in the American South. A decade after Gov. George Wallace blockaded the rights of Black students in Alabama to get access to fair and equal education, thousands of Bostonian were doing the same thing and using the same threats and gutter language.
What happened was this: Several court decisions led to Boston being forced to “desegregate” its public schools in the 1970s, and that led to forced busing. Black children were bused into White sections of town to attend schools there. And White children were bused into Black sections of town to attend schools there. Needless to say, busing did not go over well, especially with White Bostonians. However, many Blacks also came to resent busing as a means of social engineering.
I tend to be very liberal on the wide spectrum of these issues. I even embrace the extreme on some things like this. But I’m glad I watched this show because it revealed the folly — and the tragedy — of good intentions in the face of impossible obstacles. I came away with a much better understanding, both of Boston and how there are limitations as to societal reconstruction. This isn’t intended as advocacy of one side or the other. But the failed experiment of forced busing teaches us profound lessons, that is, if we’re willing to watch, open our minds, and learn.
Perhaps the most lasting memory that lingers to this day from Boston’s busing disaster fifty years ago was the stunning imagery of a White protestor at City Hall using the American flag as a weapon against a Black demonstrator (see photo above). That Pulitzer Prize winning photo later named “The Soiling of Old Glory” is worth a thousand words. Indeed, for more than two centuries, many of America’s discriminatory laws and archaic traditions have conspired against minorities, the working class, the poor, and the disenfranchised (and also women, which is a monumental travesty all its own). I’m appalled by the constant drumbeat of jingoistic patriotism, while we turn a blind eye to the horrors of our own history (where teaching actual history is illegal — see the White-fueled outrage against Critical Race Theory). Then, there’s the move to try and push for so-called “school choice,” which is another current controversy with massive implications. Again, those topics will be discussed later and in more detail. The fight never ends.
Boston busing is essentially gone now. It failed. The reasons for its failure are complex, and it’s not entirely due to hate and racism. I was glad to have watched American Experience and learned much more about a city and a period I didn’t know before, but now do better understand.
Watch the PBS trailer for the show HERE.