Half a century since the lawsuit that shook the city: Reexamining Boston school desegregation

Beverly Crockett-Taylor’s 1976 integrated junior high school class is pictured. Courtesy Beverly Crockett-Taylor
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“Boston made me feel that I didn’t have a chance, and that’s what racism does to you,” Beverly Crockett-Taylor said as a Black woman who grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston amid the tumultuous events preceding and during the desegregation of the Boston public school system that began in 1974.

Linda Norton, a white woman who concurrently grew up in the white, working-class part of Dorchester about a mile away from Crockett-Taylor, reflected that at the time “any Black person coming into our neighborhood would be in terrible danger.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, Boston was a de facto racially segregated city, as was reflected in the demographics of the city’s public school system, according to Steve Cohen, senior lecturer in Tufts’ Department of Education.

“So [to] make a long story short, from ’65 to ’72, the number of racially imbalanced schools in Boston went up. Because they didn’t do anything about it. In fact, they did less than nothing about it,” Cohen said. “By 1972, there were over 60 racially imbalanced schools just in Boston.”

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To combat such injustice, civil rights lawyers with the NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit in 1972, known as Morgan v. Hennigan, against the Boston School Committee, in which Beverly Crockett-Taylor and her family members were listed as plaintiffs. The lawsuit resulted in Judge Wendell Garrity’s landmark 1974 decision to order the integration of Boston public schools, which precipitated bitter racial conflict that would become known nationally as “Boston’s busing crisis.”

With this context in mind, Cohen elaborated on the racial tension that had existed in Boston, even prior to the 1974 decision.

“It’s not as if the judge made the decision in ’74, and then suddenly, there was racial animus. Many of the white families sort of saw it that way because they never thought about what Black kids were going through in those schools,” Cohen said. “Boston was also a very turf bound, neighborhood city. So kids from Southie, [for example], didn’t go to Charlestown. … They stayed where they were, for the most part.”

With the beginning of desegregation busing and the 1974 school year came an onslaught of heightened retaliatory violence from the white, primarily working-class demographic of Boston. Images of the violence were broadcast nationally, Cohen added, which sensationalized the issue, without contributing much to the situation on the ground. 

“Because we were trying to overthrow a system that has been intact for over 100 years of unfairness based on race. so you don’t change things overnight,” Cohen said. “And I think what media often did by looking at particular spokesmen [was] to inflame situations by getting people who make good TV. … But it [was] often not very helpful to understand the issues, at least in the complexity they deserve. I mean, there’s a reason that virtually all urban school districts have troubles.”

Out of the coverage came the prevailing title, “busing crisis,” which caught the nation’s attention, Norton explained. 

“[At the time] people my age who saw the popular media, there were only three channels … so everybody saw the same stuff. People my age and older … if you say ‘Boston busing,’ the images are right there [in their mind],” Norton said.

But what was the educational impact of desegregation on the Bostonian students, particularly on Black students? On the one hand, Black students were given the opportunity to attend more well-funded schools than they had previously. Some of those educational benefits, however, were undercut by the ever-present conflicts.

Crockett-Taylor shared her family’s difficult experiences. 

“I think for my siblings, it was incredibly painful, because they were older, and they had gone through the violence in the [bus] riding. And I have a brother who just left town as soon as he graduated. He wanted out of Boston and has never returned to live there,” Crockett-Taylor said. “I did the same. … My scars were so deep and the wounds still felt fresh after high school, and I left and moved to Washington D.C. and never returned.” 

On top of the violence many Black students experienced, Cohen cited many problems with the city’s public school system. He explained that the poor quality of even the formerly majority-white schools limited the positive effects of integration on the ground.

“At the end of the bus line … whether it was a school that was formally all Black, or a school that was formerly all white, they mostly were not good schools,” Cohen said.

The lack of a substantive, concerted effort by municipal leaders to make the desegregation effective along with the poor quality of Boston’s public schools led to an interrelated array of educational problems and racial tension.

Despite the integration’s challenges and issues, Crockett-Taylor expressed that for her, the desegregation did have significant benefits in her life. She went to an integrated magnet high school in Dorchester called Madison Park, which was announced in 1966, but Crockett-Taylor believes would never have existed if not for the tide of desegregation that took root during the 1960s.

Crockett-Taylor recounted the benefits of Boston’s public school desegregation efforts, despite its limitations.

“I [had] never had a conversation with a white person until high school. I had interactions such as ‘I’d like to buy that item, could I see it please?’ in a store. But that was the extent of my interaction with the white community,” she said. “So when I got to high school at Madison Park, my first conversation was with a young, [white] man, and he was in my media class, and … it opened [up] a lot of doors just to be able to pass that threshold of having a conversation to having a friendship to staying connected.”

In addition, Crockett-Taylor shared an anecdote to illustrate other social benefits of the desegregation that she perceived in Boston. 

“About four years after I left Boston … I did return, and I was walking down the street with a niece. And I saw a Black man holding hands with a white woman on the Commons, and I got really afraid. I said to my niece, ‘Oh my God, that’s dangerous, he shouldn’t hold her hand.’ … I was fearful of violence. And my niece said to me, ‘It’s okay Beverly, things are different now. That’s okay now,’” Crockett-Taylor said. “The city grew, it healed, it changed, because one aspect of the city changed, and that was the schools and it started to have a reverberating effect in other institutions and other social norms. … Boston’s not perfect but things [have] changed.”

As for making a decisive judgment on the success of the integration, though, Cohen noted that current evidence is insufficient in his view.

“[It is] too early to tell. … There hasn’t been desegregation. I mean, let’s put it that way,” Cohen said. “Desegregation is a dream that we have not tested yet.”

As Cohen suggested, while it is easy to think of segregation in Boston as a thing of the past, the city remains racially divided to this day, as one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, according to a report by the Othering and Belonging Institute at University of California, Berkeley. There is still a long way to go to achieve racial equity in Boston’s educational system, Cohen explained.

In light of the 1974 decision, Natasha Warikoo, professor of sociology at Tufts, also added that busing was not a complete solution in her view.

“I think maybe at the time of busing … we had this idea that if we just do this, then everything will be great, without also recognizing what gets lost when kids of color move from predominantly minority spaces to integrated spaces in which they’re no longer part of the majority,” Warikoo said. 

On such a view, busing was merely one component of a multitude of requisites for the quality education of Black and all Bostonian students. Today, we need a more well-rounded approach, Warikoo explained, emphasizing a wide range of factors that contribute to a strong academic environment for all. 

“We need to think about … educational opportunity more holistically … educational opportunities, health care, all of these things shape children’s access to quality and ability to make use of quality education,” Warikoo said.

Echoing Warikoo’s sentiment, Cohen called for a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to the issue, going forward. 

“I think it’s our failure as society to recognize complexity,” Cohen said. “When they say the ‘busing,’ it’s almost always negative, as if it was [about] the bus. … There were Black kids in Boston … who carried signs saying, ‘It’s not the bus, it’s us.’ The bus became a symbol that came out of shorthand, but it wasn’t about how the kids got to school.”

To challenge the narrative around the public school desegregation efforts, Cohen elaborated on what, in his view, can and should be done in the United States. 

“We’ve never done a really good job with poor kids, ever. … And it’s not going to be, I suspect, a single curriculum. … It is not going to be a particular pedagogy. You need teachers, parents, kids, administrators working together to make schools places that really work,” Cohen said. “What’s astounding to me is how many U.S. schools work so well. But they’re almost always in places with resources. That should tell us something.”

Crockett-Taylor emphasized that investment in schools, grounded in principles of equity and fairness, can be life-changing for many students. 

“When people invest in you, you feel worthy of the investment. When your surroundings are not up to par, and you’re in a place where everything’s broken and raggedy and underfunded, you feel that, and you begin to see yourself that way. Investing in people makes them feel that they are worthy,” she said. “The impact of changing these negative racial institutions is [that] you can start to chip away and make a real difference in a person’s life by recognizing that they deserve to get everything they’re getting.”

Now, half a century since the NAACP filed the lawsuit that would forever change Boston, there is much to take away from the complex, layered story of the city’s school integration. Within that intricacy, the story fosters an understanding that so many students like the young Crockett-Taylor were not concurrently “invested in” across both the southern and northern United States, and still are not today. 

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