The 1974 Garrity Decision: Forced Busing, Racial Conflict, and a Summer of Protest in Southie
June 19, 2014
On June 21, 1974, US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. found Boston’s schools to be unconstitutionally segregated, instituting a plan of forced busing between some of the city’s poorest (and most racially divided) schools. Far from correcting the racial imbalance in the Boston city schools, Garrity’s decision instead sparked wide protest, racial conflict, and riots throughout the city. Michael Patrick MacDonald was a young boy in South Boston—targeted as one of the first schools to be integrated—when news of the decision swept through this troubled, fiercly insular, mostly white and poor working-class enclave. In an excerpt from his powerful memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, MacDonald writes about the firestorm of racial tension that spread throughout the neighborhood in the wake of Garrity’s decision, leading up to the tempestuous autumn when Garrity’s plan was set to begin.
It was on one of those days at the intersection in the spring of 1974 that we saw the headlights blinking and heard the honking and loudspeakers screaming something about the communists trying to take over South Boston. Everyone came running out of the project to line the streets. At first it was scary, like the end of the world was being announced. But then it seemed more like a parade. It was even along the same route as the St. Paddy’s Day parade. One neighbor said it was what they called a motorcade. The cars in the motorcade never seemed to stop coming. It went on for a good half hour. Irish flags waved out of car windows and one sign on a car read WELCOME TO MOSCOW AMERICA. Many more had RESIST or NEVER written on them. My favorite one was HELL NO SOUTHIE WON’T GO. That was a good one, I said. I started clapping with everyone else. But then I had to ask someone, “Where are we not going?” One of the mothers said, “They’re trying to send you to Roxbury with the niggers. To get a beatin’,” she added. Someone else told her not to say that word to the kids, that they were blacks, not niggers. “Well it’s no time to fight over that one,” someone else said. “It’s time now to stick together.” When I asked who was trying to send us, someone told me about Judge Garrity; that a bunch of rich people from the suburbs wanted to tell us where we had to send our kids to school; that they wanted us to mix with the blacks, but that their own kids wouldn’t have to mix with no one, because there were no blacks in the suburbs.
Everyone waved to Dapper O’Neil when he rode by in the motorcade. They loved him. But they got really excited when they saw Louise Day Hicks, their favorite committee woman. I’d never heard of her before. She looked nice enough, though, like someone’s grandmother, a tubby older woman with a flowery old-fashioned dress like Nana wore and a small church hat perched on top of her round Irish face. People said she was from Southie, but she didn’t have a face that looked like she’d been through much. Her father was a judge and she lived in a big beachfront house in City Point, but she was okay with us. “She’s the only one sticking up for us,” someone said. So I liked her too. Someone on a bullhorn started shouting about the rights of the people, and about not letting the government force this and force that on us. I knew he was right, and I felt myself getting angry along with him. And I also knew that these adults were going to put up a fight for me. God, we couldn’t have been living in a better neighborhood! Everyone’s sticking together, I thought. Everyone’s going to fight for us kids. We all cheered as the motorcade made its way toward City Point.
When the motorcade had passed, everyone lingered on street corners in the project talking about “forced busing.” It was going to begin in the fall, they said. They all seemed to know it was going to happen, but win or lose, everyone believed in going down fighting. I saw neighbors talking, people I knew had grudges against each other before. In the following days, I even saw people who were from different parts of Southie getting over their differences to talk about the busing. Mothers from City Point talking on Broadway to mothers from the projects. I couldn’t believe it. The whole feeling in the neighborhood was changing. Before long, we kids could cross any turf line. We were united. Some said it was the communists who were making this happen. Still others said it was rich lawyers, judges, and politicians from the suburbs, and that it had nothing to do with the blacks, that they didn’t want to come to Southie any more than we wanted to go to Roxbury. In the end it didn’t really matter who we were united against, as long as we kept up our Southie loyalty.
Some of the neighbors raged against “the niggers” more than ever before. But others were starting to talk about how this wasn’t about race. That it was about poor people being told that they have to do things that rich people don’t have to do. Our mothers couldn’t get over people thinking that we had something in our schools that blacks in Roxbury didn’t have. “Our kids have just as little,” they said. “Neither side has a pot to piss in and now they want us to fight over who can piss in what alley.” I couldn’t believe that there were people who were now willing to admit they were poor. I’d never heard that one before in Southie, especially not in the project. We weren’t poor; that was a black thing, being poor. But the ones who talked about us being poor were few and far between, and it wasn’t long before the talk became all “niggers this” and “niggers that.”
Toward the end of the school year, we could feel that our lives were about to change. Like most of the mothers in Old Colony and in South Boston, Ma was trying to get us out of the public schools so we wouldn’t have to be bused. The first year of busing, Phase One, would only include kids at the high school levels, matching up Roxbury with South Boston. Then the next year, Phase Two, would bring busing to the whole city. But parents were in a race to get their kids into Catholic schools before the seats filled up. The teachers at the John Boyle O’Reilly were talking to each other about how strange it was that the officials had picked the poorest all-black neighborhood and the poorest all-white neighborhood for “their social experiment.” Even the second graders at the O’Reilly talked about getting ready for the bloodbath. Ma got us into St. Augustine’s School down the road. The priests were letting people pay according to their incomes, and some of the poorer mothers would now have to work St. Augustine’s bingo nights for their cheap tuition. I’d been getting to like the O’Reilly School, but I was glad that I’d be able to stay in the neighborhood, away from the bloodbath.
One day that June, we had to stay in our classroom a couple of hours extra. It was getting warm outside and we all wanted to go home and play and get ready for the motorcades, which had become a weekly protest in the neighborhood. But we weren’t allowed to leave. We saw the police and state troopers starting to assemble on the streets outside. The teachers told us that they were afraid there would be riots today and that we couldn’t go home until it was safe. Racial fights were breaking out around the city after a white woman had been covered in gasoline and set on fire in Roxbury. A police officer came to all of the homerooms to make it clear that we weren’t allowed to leave the school. I was scared and just wanted to be with my family. After a while they let us go, and when I got back to Old Colony, with the police cruisers still speeding up and down streets, all the talk in the neighborhood was about the coming race war.
Along with the craziness and the cockroaches, the summer of 1974 brought with it great anticipation for the fight of our lives. Motorcades and marches became arenas for our daily play. We still set dumpster fires, and a couple times we were able to light up a stolen car, stripped and abandoned in Old Colony, before the BHA finally removed it. But organized protests brought more thrills than anything we’d ever known. Most of the marches and rallies were peaceful, though the threat of violence filled the air. You could hear it in the throats of politicians like Ray Flynn and Dapper O’Neil, who led the cheering crowds. And you could see it in the watery swelled-up eyes of mothers, not sure whether they would cry or lash out. I knew these women were doing everything in their power to do neither, to hide their pain. But what mattered most was seeing how much they cared about us kids, and to tell the truth I wouldn’t have minded if they’d brought out the Molotov cocktails from the beginning. My whole family kept up with the wheres and whens of the motorcades and rallies. In Southie, news spread best through word of mouth—besides we didn’t want the other side to sabotage our plans by knowing them ahead of time. Ma started to volunteer for Jimmy Kelly and his South Boston Information Center, which controlled much of the information in the neighborhood. Southie couldn’t rely on what Jimmy Kelly called “the liberal media establishment,” and whatever that meant I knew I too wanted nothing to do with it. It was us against them, and my family was now part of the “us,” as the neighborhood closed off more and more to the outside world.
Michael Patrick MacDonald helped launch Boston’s successful gun-buyback program and is founder of the South Boston Vigil Group. He has won the American Book Award, a New England Literary Lights Award, and the Myers Center Outstanding Book Award administered by the Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. His second book, the highly acclaimed memoir Easter Rising, was published in 2006. He currently writes and speaks on topics ranging from race and class in America to trauma, healing, and social change and is an author in residence in Northeastern University’s Honors Program.