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Commentary: Remnants of ’70s defiance persist on Boston City Council

Melvin B. Miller

None of the present members of the Boston City Council are old enough to remember the enormous impact on American society when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. With the emergence of a law with such national impact, Boston was embarrassed by the pathetic opposition to school desegregation.

In 1896, the court had sanctioned Jim Crow in Plessy v. Ferguson. For 58 years, Americans of African origin had to survive as second class citizens under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Racial segregation was lawful everywhere, unless it was prohibited by state laws.

In progressive parts of the country, people were elated with the announcement of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. With the renunciation of “separate but equal” in the Brown decision, people began to hope for a time when all citizens, regardless of race, could expect fair and equal treatment. It is disturbing to find that three members of the City Council, President Bill Linehan of South Boston, at-large Councilor Stephen Murphy, and Councilor Salvatore LaMattina of East Boston were all unwilling to endorse that principal in a resolution proposed by Councilor Charles Yancey of Mattapan and at-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley.

Perhaps the recalcitrant councilors were identifying with the failed effort in Boston to oppose school desegregation. In the early days of the school conflict, black families were not even trying to achieve racial integration in the schools. Their main concern was overcrowding, insufficient school supplies, and inexperienced teachers in the schools with black students.

Black parents organized Operation Exodus to provide private transportation for students from overcrowded or deteriorating schools to available open seats in schools with white students. When negotiations between the NAACP and the Boston School Committee failed, community activists filed Morgan v. Hennigan, the case charging racial discrimination.

The Boston School Committee lost the case in 1974, and school committee members refused to cooperate with the federal district court judge to find a constitutionally satisfactory resolution. They forced the judge to impose a solution that did not require the support and cooperation of the defiant school committee. That solution was busing.

For the past 40 years the Hennigan case has diminished the reputation of the City of Boston. Voters eventually became so irate over the unproductive political maneuvers of the school committee that they willingly disbanded the institution under Mayor Tom Menino.

Brown v. Board of Education was a major turning point in American history. It might be well for the city councilors who voted only “present” for the resolution before the council to explain why they are unable to assure that “the City of Boston provides equal opportunities for all students to succeed in Boston Public Schools.”