Before filing lawsuit, Black leaders pressed for better schools in 1960s
Forum explores varied activism leading up to desegregation case
Before federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s school desegregation order in 1974 led to an explosion of white opposition in some Boston neighborhoods, Black leaders had spent about a decade trying just about everything they could to secure a better education for their community’s children.
Boston NAACP leaders and others called school boycotts and a general workers’ strike. They protested outside the Beacon Street headquarters of the School Department and appealed directly to the School Committee. A few ran unsuccessfully to diversify the all-white body, which at that time was elected.
A Black legislator pushed through a state law outlawing racial imbalance in public schools. To open better educational opportunities for some students, Black leaders created alternative freedom schools, an intra-city busing program called Operation Exodus and a city-suburban one that still operates, METCO.
None of those efforts moved the School Committee, whose majority denied that the schools were segregated and made racist campaign appeals to get votes. Finally, the NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit in 1972 on behalf of Black parents and children.
That history of Black advocacy was explored recently at the first forum hosted by an interracial group that is looking back at school desegregation in Boston as the 50th anniversary of Garrity’s order approaches next June. More than 120 people, mostly white, attended the Sept. 26 forum at Roxbury Community College organized by the Boston Desegregation and Busing Initiative.
“The federal court was literally, as Tom Atkins called it, the court of last resort,” said Zebulon Miletsky, a panelist who authored a book on school desegregation in Boston. “In the case of an absolutely defiant and intransigent School Committee, after almost nine years of protest, the founding of freedom schools, Black independent schools, Operation Exodus, METCO and many other creative ways of gaining a better education for their beloved children, the somewhat reluctant plaintiffs agreed to file suit against the School Committee.”
Most Black leaders who led the fight for desegregation have passed, including Ruth Batson and Atkins of the Boston NAACP, Ellen Jackson of Operation Exodus and Royal Bolling Sr. of the Massachusetts Legislature. But two who survive, Hubie Jones, who called for the general strike, and Jean McGuire, who became the longtime executive of METCO, participated in the panel discussion.
McGuire, who also was the first Black woman elected to the School Committee, recalled having a first-hand view when yellow buses carried Black students to South Boston.
“I remember sitting in a bus with Ruth Batson going to the Heights — that’s South Boston School. We were on the first bus that went out there,” McGuire said. “We wanted to protect the children. We were on the bus with children. It was Ruth’s idea, Ruth’s and Ellen Jackson’s. We felt that if we as adults were there on the bus, that would make the families who trusted us know that we put our lives on the line with their children, that it would be safe.”
Jones said he was present at a special meeting in June 1963 when Batson and Paul Parks, co-chairs of the Boston NAACP’s education committee, presented 14 demands to the School Committee, including that they acknowledge de facto segregation existed in the schools.
“They laid out a powerful case on things being unequal in the schools and something had to be done,” Jones said. “Louise Day Hicks, the chair of the School Committee, said, ‘Mrs. Batson, we do not segregate in the Boston Public Schools. We merely send kids to schools nearest their homes. So we reject your notion that we’re involved in segregating the schools.’ And, basically, ‘We’re not going to do anything.’”
Another panelist, Vernita Carter-Weller, recounted how her late father, the Rev. Vernon Carter, picketed in front of the School Committee’s headquarters — at first alone — for 114 days in 1965. She read from a manifesto he wrote about “the freedom vigil” as he called it.
Carter, then a minister at All Saints Lutheran Church in the South End, carried a sign that vowed he would demonstrate until the School Committee addressed racial imbalance in the schools and also invited others to join him. He started in the morning, attracting televised news coverage throughout the day.
After 12 hours of pacing alone back and forth, Carter wrote that a young white woman teacher from Billerica “came up to me and said, ‘I am here to walk with you.’ I smiled and said, ‘Thank you.’ Now it was two.”
Then at 2:00 the next morning, Carter wrote, “Suddenly, and to our surprise, out of the darkness appeared 50 people from the Congress [for] Racial Equality walking in quietly and taking their place in back of us.”
The protest continued until Gov. John Volpe, a Republican, signed the Racial Imbalance Act, which Bolling had filed as a state representative.
Another panelist’s recollections of her first year teaching in 1971 at an independent school in Roxbury produced one of the evening’s lighter moments. At one point, Gloria Lee held up a sheet of paper showing small pictures of students in her class, with their names. Former acting mayor Kim Janey, who moderated the panel, immediately started gesturing for the sheet to be passed to her.
“It was me. Oh, my God,” Janey said once she looked at the photos. “She was my teacher.”
Janey said she attended the New School for Children for two years, before she was bused to schools in Charlestown and, eventually, in Reading, as a METCO student.
“Wow. Wow. Wow,” she said, after a little clarifying back and forth with Lee. “That’s me with that big Afro.”
In the audience for this first of five forums the Initiative has scheduled through next fall was Charlotte Nelson, who served as Atkins’ secretary at the Boston NAACP in the early 1970s. She is another of the few surviving desegregation activists from that era.