What events or historical forces contributed to the Boston busing crisis of the mid-1970s?

Boston Busing Crisis, history homework help

Question Description


The desegregation of Boston’s public schools was a major historical event that was the product of many different historical forces and events. In turn, it gave rise to many other important events. The following questions ask you to consider the Boston busing experience in relation to some of those historical forces and events. Be sure to respond to each question in 2-3 complete sentences, using proper grammar.

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1. What events or historical forces contributed to the Boston busing crisis of the mid-1970s? Name at least three, and briefly explain why you think each one was a contributory cause of the Boston busing crisis.

2. Name three specific consequences of the Boston busing crisis

Boston, Busing, and Backlash

The struggle for voting rights, which we looked at in Theme 3, Learning Block 3, was a struggle against de jure segregation* that existed in just one part of the country: the states of the Old South. But the problem of de facto segregation* was one that existed throughout the country, and its effects were perhaps seen most clearly in the nation’s public schools.

A series of Supreme Court cases in the early 1960s made it clear that de facto school segregation was unconstitutional and that segregated schools would be integrated by court order if necessary. Beginning in the early 1970s, the Court began requiring school busing* plans, which would send African-American students to largely white schools and send white students to largely African-American schools, as a means of achieving greater racial balance.

In Boston, the city’s small but growing African-American community began protesting the quality of public schools in largely black neighborhoods in the early 1960s. In 1965, in response to a federal investigation of possible segregation in the Boston public schools, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act. The new law outlawed segregation in Massachusetts schools and threatened to cut off state funding for any school district that did not comply. (Levy, 1971)

A R.O.A.R button opposing Boston’s desegregation. (Click button for citation) 

Of the 55 Massachusetts schools identified as racially imbalanced, 45 were in the City of Boston. But the Boston School Committee, an all-white elected body led by Louise Day Hicks, refused to acknowledge the segregation and balked at any plan to remedy the situation. Hicks’s opposition to school desegregation boosted her popularity, particularly in the city’s working-class, heavily Irish-American neighborhoods; in 1967, she narrowly missed being elected mayor, but in 1969, she was elected to the city council, and in 1970, she was elected to Congress to represent her home neighborhood, the Irish-American enclave of South Boston. (Lukas, 1985)

The School Committee continued to stonewall demands to implement a meaningful desegregation plan. But in June 1974, federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, deciding a lawsuit brought against the School Committee by the NAACP*, ruled that Boston’s schools were unconstitutionally segregated. He ordered that any school whose enrollment was more than 50 percent nonwhite must be balanced according to race.

To achieve that balance, Garrity ordered the schools to adopt a widespread busing plan by the first day of school in September. That announcement triggered a powerful backlash among white parents and students. Hicks formed an anti-busing group called Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) that spearheaded much of the opposition to Garrity’s desegregation order.

While the plan involved the busing of thousands of students from different neighborhoods across the city, the greatest attention was focused on the high schools in South Boston—a heavily working-class and overwhelmingly Irish-American part of town—and Roxbury, an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood. Garrity’s order effectively paired the two schools, by requiring that they essentially swap hundreds of students.

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Decades after the fact, Garrity’s busing order is still hotly debated in Boston. Supporters say that his unyielding approach was the only way to overcome white resistance and achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools. Critics say Garrity focused too much on the goal of achieving mathematical balance, rather than focusing on a plan to improve school quality for both African-American and white children. (Gellerman, 2014)

Robert J. Allison, chair of the History Department of Suffolk University in Boston and author of A Short History of Boston, describes the causes and consequences of the Boston busing crisis in this video:

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When school opened in September, resistance to the busing plan was fierce. A throng of white protesters greeted the buses rolling into South Boston High School that September with jeers and epithets; some of the protesters began throwing bricks and rocks at the buses and at the state police escorting them. The incident marked the beginning of two years of angry and often violent confrontations between white and black parents, students, police, and protesters. (Wolff, 2015)

Anti-busing protesters attack attorney Theodore Landsmark as he exits Boston City Hall, 1976. (Click button for citation) 

From 1974 through 1976, the process of public education in Boston was turned into an ongoing tableau of state troopers and National Guardsmen in riot gear, escorting children into schools past jeering crowds; fights both inside and outside of schools, leading to hundreds of arrests; thousands of high-school students, both white and African-American, boycotting classes on a regular basis; and angry confrontations between protesters and public officials, such as Mayor Kevin White and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who were deemed to be “pro-busing.” (Lukas, 1985)

All of this did not leave a lot of time for actual education. In the 1974-75 school year, school officials estimated that 12,000 of the school system’s 93,000 students were chronically or permanently absent; in the following year, that figure was estimated at 14,000. (Wolff, 2015) The average rate of absenteeism during the 1974-75 school year was approximately 50 percent. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1975)

The Boston protests, taking place in the heart of what was presumed to be one of the most “liberal” cities in America, attracted widespread media attention. They exposed sharp racial divisions in the city, and they also highlighted divisions based on class: many of the white protesters in working-class neighborhoods such as South Boston and Charlestown felt aggrieved that theirneighborhoods had been singled out for busing, while schools in Boston’s more affluent suburbs were unaffected. (Lukas, 1985)

The worst of the violence and protests was over by the end of 1976, but the city and its schools were permanently changed. By the time Boston’s schools were declared desegregated in 1987, the student population had declined by almost 40 percent and the overwhelming majority of students were nonwhite. (Hoover Institution, 1998) While historians still debate whether the Boston busing crisis was a necessary cause* of these sharp demographic shifts in the city’s public school system, the events of 1974-1976 clearly contributed to changing perceptions of the school system among parents and students.

he Consequences of Boston’s Busing Crisis

Forty years after the fact, it’s worth asking the obvious question: what were the effects of Boston’s tumultuous school desegregation effort? To put it another way: What were the consequences of this historical event?

In assessing the consequences of any event, we first need to identify the groups or institutions that might have been affected. We could, for instance, look at the effects of busing on individual students—by tape-recording interviews with former students who were actually on the buses, to see what effect the experience had on their later lives. This type of research is known as oral history*.

We could also look at the impact of busing on the public school system itself. A few relevant statistics:

  • In 1971-72, three years before busing began, there were 93,000 students in the Boston public schools; 61% were white; 32% were African-American; and 7% were other racial minorities. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1975)
  • In 1990, three years after the schools were declared desegregated, there were 60,000 students in the Boston public schools; 22% were white; 48% were African-American; and 30% were other racial minorities. (Boston Studies Group, 2010)
  • In 1971-72, Boston public schools had one of the highest dropout rates in the country. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1975) In 1990, the dropout rate had dropped below the national average. (Boston Studies Group, 2010; National Center for Education Statistics, 2015)
  • In 1970, 10 percent of Boston public school students went on to graduate from college; in 1990, 30 percent did so. (Boston Studies Group, 2010)

Do these statistics tell us all we need to know about the impact of busing on the public school system? Are there factors, other than school busing, that might have caused some or all of these statistical shifts? Are there other ways that we might be able to measure the quality of the Boston public schools, both before and after busing?

What about the impact on the city itself? In the early and mid-1970s, there was a lot of discussion about the possibility of white flight*, the phenomenon in which white residents move out of mixed-race urban areas and relocate to largely white suburbs. In a narrower sense of the term, white flightcan refer to the decision by white parents to take their children out of public schools and send them to largely white private or parochial schools.

Again, consider a few statistics:

  • In 1970, Boston’s population was 641,071, and approximately 82% of residents were white. (U.S. Civil Rights Commission, 1975)
  • In 1990, Boston’s population was 574,283; approximately 59% of residents were white. (Boston Redevelopment Authority, 2011)

Do these statistics suggest that Boston experienced a period of white flight between 1970 and 1990? Would it affect your thinking if you knew that Boston’s overall population had declined by 20 percent between 1950 and 1970—well before school busing began? (Kennedy, 1992)

Are there any other factors that might have caused these demographic changes? It’s worth noting that this was a time of strong suburban growth all around the country: between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of Americans living in suburbs rose from 37.6 percent to 46.2 percent. (US Census Bureau, 2002) Was Boston simply following the national trend toward suburbanization—a trend spurred by increased automobile ownership, expanded access to home mortgages, job growth in suburban areas, and the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation, among many other factors? Or was Boston a special case, with the busing crisis serving as the driving force behind suburbanization in the region?

Next, consider one more statistic:

  • In 2010, Boston’s population was 617,594; approximately 47% of residents were white. (Boston Redevelopment Authority, 2011)

Long after the end of busing, then, the city’s population was increasing, but the proportion of white residents was still declining. Do you think that’s evidence of white flight or some other demographic trend—or maybe a combination of factors?

Mel King. Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society.

Finally, let’s look at the impact of busing on the city’s leadership and institutions. One of the leaders of the resistance to busing was Raymond L. Flynn, an Irish-American state representative and city councilor from South Boston. One of the strongest supporters of the desegregation plan was Mel King, an African-American state representative from Boston’s South End. In 1983, Flynn and King ran against each other for mayor.

Ray Flynn speaking in Boston. (Click button for citation) 

King was the first African-American candidate for mayor ever to make it past the preliminary round and into the November final election. Although Flynn won the mayoralty with 65 percent of the vote in 1983, King’s emergence as a strong and credible candidate was seen as evidence that Boston was at least beginning to move past the racial animus that marked the busing era. And Flynn, as mayor, devoted a great deal of time and effort to cooling racial tensions and promoting housing and economic development in largely African-American neighborhoods. (Walker, 2015)

Among Flynn’s significant accomplishments as mayor: in 1991, he sponsored, and Boston voters approved, a referendum to abolish the elected school committee and replace it with a panel appointed by, and directly answerable to, the mayor. The old School Committee that was, throughout the busing era, a defiant symbol of opposition to school desegregation, is now a long-gone relic of the distant past.

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