“Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 2

In part 1, posted last week, Matt Kautz looked at the origins of school policing in Boston: as students peacefully protested conditions in the city’s segregated schools, their dissent was criminalized.

That post details efforts by the Boston School Committee, led by Louise Day Hicks, to frame student protest as dangerous, leading to police presence in schools and even the founding of Boston’s police union. Meanwhile, civil rights leaders – like the NAACP’s Ruth Batson and Rev. James Breedon – described student non-violent protest as the “start of the Northern Freedom Movement” and “a process of involving students and parents in the making of democracy.” In Rev. James Breedon, readers may recognize Boston’s counterpart to NYC’s Rev. Milton Galamison– clergy members influential in early school segregation protests, whose moral vision and voice have been pushed to the margins of history.

In part 2, Matt picks up in 1968, looking at two stunning events – a conflict between protesters and police after two students were suspended from English High School for wearing African dashikis, and a related counter-protest led by white students in East Boston. Even being based in Boston, I knew vaguely of the English High School conflict, and I knew nothing of the counter-protest. As Matt describes below, that latter event, led by white students, was handled much differently by the police. 

Part 2 – Student Protest and Police Force: 1968-1974, by Matt Kautz (Teachers’ College at Columbia University)

The police presence in and around schools escalated even further later in 1968 when two Black students challenged English High School’s dress code by wearing African dashikis. The school’s administration quickly suspended the two students, and, within hours, Black students organized a protest outside the school in which they demanded the two students be reinstated immediately, changes to the dress code, an immediate evaluation of school regulations that were a “direct insult to the Black man,” the power for Black students to review any complaints filed against teachers, and the hiring of more Black faculty and staff.

Though the Headmaster initially rebuffed the student activists, he later agreed to most of their demands after meeting with adults from the community. However, the following Monday (September 23), the Associate Superintendent who oversaw the district’s high schools invalidated the headmaster’s concessions. This quick reversal and the hostility of English High’s overwhelmingly white faculty sparked new protests.

In response, the police commissioner sent in twenty-five patrolmen to monitor the roughly 100 students protesting outside the school. As the activists left the premises, they distributed leaflets for a community meeting on Wednesday, September 25. The next morning, more student activists distributed flyers at M.B.T.A stations to spread the word to students at other city high schools. Later that day, more than 100 Black students took part in demonstrations “to make the school system relevant to black people” by demanding the teaching of Black history, the recognition of Black Student Unions, and the right to wear African clothing. The number of protestors continued to grow throughout the day as fire alarms pulled across the district released more and more students into the streets.

The city’s response was swift and punitive. The police department mobilized 600 officers, detectives, clerks, and trainees for deployment at nine “trouble spots.” Superintendent William Ohrenberger called for police “to take immediate steps to arrest any person who participate[d]” in the demonstrations. BSC Chairman Thomas Eisenstadt, in the middle of a campaign for Suffolk County Sheriff, called an emergency meeting in which the Committee voted unanimously to put the National Guard on standby, stating “force will be met with force.” All this, despite the fact neither the police commissioner nor the Mayor’s office could confirm “anything more serious than a few broken windows.” The militant response to “a few broken windows” was a harbinger of things to come.

The demonstrations and police force became more violent the following day. Student activists began the morning with a two-hour rally at Franklin Park in Dorchester to unite the city’s Black students in demands for equality. Following the rally, 300 to 500 student activists marched to the Jeremiah Burke school, where they met police who prevented them from entering. Shortly after the students arrived, twenty-four more officers were called in as back up. Like they had during the “police riot” of 1967, described in part 1.

Boston Police search for a man with a gun near 315 Blue Hill Ave. in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston on June 4, 1967. (Photo by Bill Brett/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

BPD officers took off their shirt badges to prevent being identified and moved swiftly into the crowd. Helmeted police officers wielding riot sticks struck down demonstrators. One student, who had been throwing rocks at the police in response to their show of force, was caught by officers who battered his legs with their night sticks before throwing him into a patrol wagon. The police became so violent outside Burke that a member of the Mayor’s Human Relations Task Force angrily cried out, “To hell with the job! I quit as of right now. When they start using clubs, they split a soul brother’s head, then I say the hell with ‘em. I’m through.”

Later that night, student and adult activists planned a boycott. While it was undoubtedly a political demonstration to enact change, leaders like Mel King also encouraged the move to “ensure the safety of Black youths” because of the unrestrained violence of police earlier that day. The next morning 6,000 students stayed home from school, and 5,000 more remained absent from school that Friday. Middle and high schools serving large Black populations saw their attendance numbers dip below fifty percent. Following the first day of the boycott, student activists were invited as guests on a local television program, “Say Brother,” to share their stories of repression in Boston’s school system. One student shared how she was told she couldn’t attend Burke unless she straightened her hair. Another pointed out how students were “taught that Washington and Jefferson were great men but never that they were slave owners.” Many of the student activists described their brutal encounters with police, and one of them warned those watching, “if you want a blood bath, keep the white police in Roxbury.” By the end of the week, nearly fifty people reported injuries, and police arrested at least eight young demonstrators.

Between 1969 and 1974, the city regularly deployed police in response to Black student demands for equality in the school system. Notably, even as the militancy of students increased, their protests remained nonviolent. Indeed, the boycott proved the single most effective tactic for extracting changes from a hostile white political structure. Moreover, white students, who began to stage counter protests regarding the “unfair treatment” of Black students, did not see the same brutality from police. For instance, when East Boston students launched a counter protest to the English demonstrations of 1968, where they chanted “two, four, six, eight, Eastie wants to segregate,” their anger was quelled without bloodshed.

Part 3, the final installment, will look at school policing following Boston’s famous 1974 school desegregation court order, including the long-term impact of school policing on student discipline and arrests.

2 thoughts on ““Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 2

  1. Pingback: “Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 1 | School Diversity Notebook

  2. Pingback: “Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 3 | School Diversity Notebook

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