All Deliberate Speed & All Souls: Two perspectives on the Boston busing riots

Second installment in a series of posts about “All Deliberate Speed” by Charles Ogletree. Click here for the first post.

When I was reading chapter 4 of “All Deliberate Speed” – about the 1974-75 Boston busing riots – it reminded me of the account in “All Souls” of the anger/racism that gripped the city that year. So, I decided to try to bring that together in one post. For those who aren’t familiar, “All Souls” is the memoir of an Irish family in South Boston, written by the 9th child in a family of 11 raised by a single mother. Having lost five of his siblings before their 25th birthday, the story is an homage to their lives/the love of their family and – at times – a critique of the extremely harsh, gang-ruled neighborhood they grew up in. MacDonald describes the busing riots from his perspective as an eight year-old.

First, here’s what struck me as most important in Olgetree’s review –

  • Between 1940 and 1970, black population in Boston increased by 342% to about 16% of the city’s total population.
  • Separate was indeed unequal in Boston: an NAACP review in the early 60’s found that school buildings with at least 60% black students were “simply hazardous to the health of their occupants.” And, the district spent $60 less per student at majority black schools.
  • In 1965, the state passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which required large districts to integrate and provided incentives for them to do so. Boston delayed implementation for 9 years, but was eventually forced to act by an NAACP lawsuit.
  • Part of a trend in which district court judges took a more active role in enforcing legislation, Judge Wendell Garrity required Boston “to transform the school system from a racially discriminatory, dual system into a unitary one” through mandated busing of about 20,000 students across the city. Intra-district busing had been approved by a series of earlier Supreme Court decisions, and Garrity said he saw no other way to enforce what was a constitutional obligation (via Brown) and a statutory obligation (via the Racial Imbalance Act).

Then came the resistance. The local NAACP office was firebombed, and mobs of residents greeted buses in South Boston each morning clashing both with the black students integrating the schools and with the police who were enforcing the order. Here’s where we turn over to MacDonald, who describes several difficult and gruesome scenes:

  • Busing riot – After describing that the busing brought “a feeling of loss, of being beaten down, of humiliation,” MacDonald reflects that with “a burst of flying glass, 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.”
  • National Boycott Day – “We’d all heard about the kids who’d gone to school during boycotts and who were threatened over the phone with getting their things cut off. Kevin told Ma we’d better not risk castration, and we got to stay home and watch the rally and march down Broadway.”
  • Ongoing fights at school – “Then yet another racial fight broke out in the classroom, and Frankie’d knocked out one more black kid. That’s when they suspended him for thirty days, and Frankie never went back. By the ninth grade, he was a dropout, and Ma couldn’t afford to send any more kids to Catholic school.”
  • Violent clashes with police – “The mothers on the stoop were yelling up to windows that the Tactical Police Force was beating people at the Rabbit Inn to get back at them from the night before. Ma wasn’t home, so I ran to Darius Court with all of the neighbors, some of them carrying baseball bats, hockey sticks, and big rocks. When I got there, the dark streets were packed with mobs rushing the police.”
  • Senseless racial violence – “A cop stood at the intersection with his gun pointed in the air, and he fired a second shot. He was trying to disperse a crowd that was dragging a black man from his car.” I couldn’t bring myself to type the worst parts of this. The man survived the attack, and later revealed he was in South Boston to pick his wife up from a laundromat.

Olgetree describes the reaction in Boston as “among the most extreme.” Stopping short of justification (in my opinion), here’s MacDonald’s take on what fueled the response: Irish immigrants in South Boston felt they were slipping off the only rung they had in the so-called social ladder. With violent and ugly racial hatred, they pushed down in order to stay up. Olgetree notes that the “protests reflect the ease with which these residents were able to justify their racism by a desire to maintain their sense of home.” Yep. MacDonald explains that protesters sung the same Irish rebel songs, except the English were replaced with the American Tactical Police Force and the Queen was replaced with Judge Garrity. It was about keeping the place and “freedom” they had carved out in this new society. When the black man is pulled from his car, the Ma character describes him as a scapegoat, “the only one my neighbors could get their hands on, someone worse off than us.”

I wish I had a nice analysis that could sum this up. In a way, that’s sort of what I’ll be looking for across all my posts, though I’m not sure it exists. I will say that I don’t think it’s possible to write about school desegregation without trying (as much as is possible) to look into this history, understand its causes and the forms in which it persists today.

Really, though, all of it is virtually incomprehensible – the living/learning conditions in segregated black communities, the violent racism of protest. And, it troubles me that we’ve perhaps allowed the perniciousness of the latter to justify lack of action on the former.

13 thoughts on “All Deliberate Speed & All Souls: Two perspectives on the Boston busing riots

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