Compelling tale of Boston desegregation: Journalist's book teaches like a textbook, but reads like a novel

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Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Illustrated. 659 pp. $19.95. Boston's history bristles with legendary names: Hancock, Revere, Kennedy. But it is also filled with the stories of lesser-known people with names like Diver, Twymon, and McGoff -- Yankee, black, and Irish.

In ``Common Ground,'' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas tells of the trials and triumphs these families experienced during one of Boston's most turbulent decades (1968 to 1978). Those were years plagued by racial turmoil that surfaced after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and intensified after a federal judge ordered the desegregation of the city's public schools in 1974.

Mr. Lukas detours the reader from tourist Boston, the quaint city of brownstones and cobblestones, into hometown Boston -- a city of 21 communities divided by racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, and political differences.

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He chronicles this decade in the lives of three families: Joan Diver and her husband, Colin, are liberals who moved to Boston's South End in 1969 hoping to integrate and improve the run-down inner-city neighborhood. Mr. Diver, a lawyer, worked for newly elected Boston Mayor Kevin H. White. Rachel Twymon is a black mother of six children, abandoned by her husband. She moves from welfare parent to ``working poor'' status; from a public-housing project to Methunion, a subsidized South End development spon sored by her church, Union United Methodist, ``around the corner'' from the Divers. Alice McGoff is an Irish Roman Catholic widow with seven children living in public housing in the white Charlestown community, the center of strident opposition to busing.

``Common Ground'' blends their stories with the careers of five influential decisionmakers: anti-busing activist and Boston School Committee head Louise Day Hicks; United States District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who ordered school desegregation and administered the Boston school system from 1974 until this past September; Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, a Portuguese who ``refused to enter South Boston or Charlestown for fear of being stoned,'' says Lukas; Thomas Winship, editor of the Boston Globe, whose po litically liberal editorial stands were resented by anti-busing forces; and Mayor White, who defeated Mrs. Hicks in two mayoral races.

All five are out of the limelight in Boston today. Judge Garrity withdrew from the school case on Sept. 3. Mrs. Hicks is retired from public life. Mayor White declined to run in 1983 after 16 years in office. Bernard Cardinal Law has succeeded the late Cardinal Medeiros. Mr. Winship has retired from the Globe.

Lukas does not flatter Boston in ``Common Ground.'' Neither does Mrs. Diver, who is director of the Godfrey M. Hyams Trust, Boston's largest private foundation and a donor to local causes.

``Yes, I love Boston,'' Mrs. Diver said in an interview recently. ``But I can't live here.'' She paused and whispered. ``The frustration of city living wore me down. The crowning factor was the continued assault of crime. Night after night. We just really loved our South End home. But then the city's barbarisms started eating our insides.''

The Divers moved to suburban Newton in 1976. The Twymons and the McGoffs still live in Boston. They don't have enough money to move away. They endure troubles common to other US cities -- crime, poor city services, low political clout, high unemployment, inadequate schools. As a reporter who covered Boston's busing crisis, however, this reviewer sees Lukas making the same mistake White did: dropping black leaders into the background of a new Boston.

``Common Ground'' opens with a dramatic account of how singer James Brown quelled a budding race riot in April 1968; how City Councilor Thomas I. Atkins, then the city's only black elected official, pushed White to calm the city's angry blacks. The book then ignores blacks as a decisive factor in Boston's future.

Freedom House, a local civil rights and social organization, became the nerve center of the black community in Boston, protecting black children from violence, working to avert blacks from taking vengeance on whites, coordinating a citywide effort of whites as well as blacks to keep Boston peaceful. Lukas barely mentions it.

Today a new Boston is emerging under the leadership of two unlikely persons -- populist Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who was an angry foe of busing in 1974, and recent arrival Laval S. Wilson, the city's first black superintendent of schools. Both symbolize the coming of a Boston in which the racism and antagonism that marked the 1970s are buried and best forgotten.

Read ``Common Ground.'' Read it to hear the Boston story ``the way it is''; read it as a warning to other urban centers -- this story could have been their own; read it as the universal story of families caught in a crisis. It's paced like a novel, it teaches like a textbook. Read it.

Staff writer Luix Overbea has reported on Boston school desegregation since 1974.

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