A City in Turmoil: The Start of the Boston Busing Crisis
September 12, 2014
Forty years ago today, on September 12, 1974, desegregation busing officially began in Boston, sparking a racial crisis in the city that would last more than a decade. South Boston native Michael Patrick MacDonald was a young boy on that day, and in the following excerpt from his acclaimed memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, MacDonald writes about the climate of outrage that infused Southie during that period, and what it was like to come of age in that fiercely insular enclave with “the highest concentration of poor whites in America” during a time of radical disruption for the whole city.
That September, Ma let us skip the first week of school. The whole neighborhood was boycotting school. City Councilor Louise Day Hicks and her bodyguard with the bullhorn, Jimmy Kelly, were telling people to keep their kids home. It was supposed to be just the high school kids boycotting, but we all wanted to show our loyalty to the neighborhood. I was meant to be starting the third grade at St. Augustine’s School. Ma had enrolled Kevin and Kathy in the sixth and seventh grades there as well. Frankie was going to Southie High, and Mary and Joe were being sent to mostly black Roxbury, so they really had something to boycott. But on the first day, Kevin and Kathy begged Ma not to send them. “C’mon Ma, please?” I piped in. It was still warm outside and we wanted to join the crowds that were just then lining the streets to watch the busloads of black kids come into Southie. The excitement built as police helicopters hovered just above our third-floor windows, police in riot gear stood guard on the rooftops of Old Colony, and the national news camped out on every corner. Ma said okay, and we ran up to Darius Court, along the busing route, where in simpler times we’d watched the neighborhood St. Paddy’s Day parade.
The whole neighborhood was out. Even the mothers from the stoop made it to Darius Court, nightgowns and all. Mrs. Coyne, up on the rooftop in her housedress, got arrested before the buses even started rolling through the neighborhood. Everyone knew she was a little soft, and I thought the excitement that day must have been a bit too much for her. She ran up to the roof and called the police “nigger lovers” and “traitors,” and started dancing and singing James Brown songs. “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” She nearly fell off the roof before one cop grabbed her from behind and restrained her. Everyone was laughing at that one: big fat Mrs. Coyne rolling around on the rooftop kicking and screaming, with a cop in full riot gear on top of her. Little disturbances like that broke out here and there, but most people were too intent on seeing the buses roll to do anything that might get them carted away.
I looked up the road and saw a squadron of police motorcycles speeding down Dorchester Street, right along the curb, as if they would run over anyone who wasn’t on the sidewalk. The buses were coming. Police sirens wailed as hundreds of cops on motorcycles aimed at the crowds of mothers and kids, to clear the way for the law of the land. “Bacon . . . I smell bacon!” a few people yelled, sniffing at the cops. I knew that meant the cops were pigs. As the motorcycles came closer I fought to get back onto the sidewalk, but it was too crowded. I ran further into the road to avoid one motorcycle, when two more came at me from the middle of the street. I had to run across to the other side of the road, where the crowd quickly cleared a space for me on the sidewalk. All the adults welcomed me, patting me on the shoulder. “Are you all right?” “Those pricks would even kill a kid.” “Pigs!” someone else shouted. I thought I’d lost Kevin and Kathy, but just then I saw them sitting on top of a mailbox up the street for a good view of the buses. They waved to me, laughing because they’d seen me almost get run over.
The road was cleared, and the buses rolled slowly. We saw a line of yellow buses like there was no end to them. I couldn’t see any black faces though, and I was looking for them. Some people around me started to cry when they finally got a glimpse of the buses through the crowd. One woman made the sign of the cross and a few others copied her. “I never thought I’d see the day come,” said an old woman next to me. She lived downstairs from us, but I had never seen her leave her apartment before. I’d always thought she was crippled or something, sitting there in her window every day, waiting for Bobby, the delivery man who came daily with a package from J.J.’s Liquors. She was trembling now, and so was everyone else. I could feel it myself. It was a feeling of loss, of being beaten down, of humiliation. In minutes, though, it had turned to anger, rage, and hate, just like in those Irish rebel songs I’d heard all my life. Like “The Ballad of James Connolly”: “God’s curse on you England / You cruel hearted monster / Your deeds they would shame all the devils in Hell.” Except we’d changed it to “God’s curse on you Garrity.”
Smash! A burst of flying glass and all that rage exploded. We’d all been waiting for it, and so had the police in riot gear. It felt like a gunshot, but it was a brick. It went right through a bus window. Then all hell broke loose. I saw a milk crate fly from the other side of the street right for my face. More bricks, sticks, and bottles smashed against the buses, as police pulled out their billy clubs and charged with their riot shields in a line formation through the crowds. Teenagers were chased into the project and beaten to the cement wherever they were caught.
I raced away about a block from the fray, to a spot where everyone was chanting “Here We Go Southie, Here We Go,” like a battle cry. That’s when I realized we were at war. I started chanting too, at first just moving my lips because I didn’t know if a kid’s voice would ruin the strong chant. But then I belted it out, just as a few other kids I didn’t know joined the chorus. The kids in the crowd all looked at each other as if we were family. This is great, I thought. I’d never had such an easy time as this, making friends in Southie. The buses kept passing by, speeding now, and all I could see in the windows were black hands with their middle fingers up at us, still no faces though.
The buses got through the crowd surrounded by the police motorcycles. I saw Frankie running up toward Southie High along with everyone else. “What are you doing out here!” he yelled. “Get your ass home!” He said there was another riot with the cops up at the high school, and off he ran with the others. Not far behind were Kevin and his friends. He shouted the same thing at me: “Get your ass home!” I just wanted to find Ma now and make sure she wasn’t beaten or arrested or anything, so I ran home. The project was empty—everyone had followed the buses up the St. Paddy’s parade route. Ma wasn’t home, but the TV was on, with live coverage of the riots at Southie High. Every channel I turned to showed the same thing. I kept flipping the dial, looking for my family, and catching glimpses of what seemed to be all the people I knew hurling stones or being beaten by the police, or both. This is big, I thought. It was scary and thrilling at the same time, and I remembered the day we’d moved into this neighborhood, when Ma said it looked just like Belfast, and that we were in the best place in the world. I kept changing the channels, looking for my family, and I didn’t know anymore whether I was scared or thrilled, or if there was any difference between the two anyhow.
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.