BOSTON — TWENTY years ago this month, Boston students began a school year they will never forget.
Amid violent protests, boycotts, and rallies, young people across the city rode yellow buses to school as the rest of the nation watched. It was a time of racial turmoil for Boston, a Northern liberal city that once played a key role in the abolitionist movement.
That was back in September 1974, when public-school students experienced their first days of court-ordered desegregation. Of the system's 80,000 students, 17,000 to 18,000 were bused to other parts of the city as part of a desegregation plan ordered by United States District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.
Organized resistance - led by famed antibusing activist Louise Day Hicks and others - continued here for the next three to four years. Meanwhile, thousands of white families protested in quieter ways. They moved out of the city to the green lawns and quiet streets of suburbia. Many sent their kids to private or parochial schools.
Today, Boston's school system is quite different from what it was two decades ago. As a result of ``white flight'' - a phenomenon that was already under way before desegregation - 80 percent of the system's students are minorities. And though there are pockets of excellence, Boston's public schools are plagued by the same problems as other urban schools: high dropout rates, low test scores, and occasional incidents of violence.
Looking back after 20 years, educators, academics, and city residents are divided over the merits of busing. Some argue that the plan was successful because it provided for the first time equal educational and employment opportunities for minority students, teachers, and administrators.
Others say student busing drove out a significant portion of the city's middle class, failed to achieve integration, and lowered the overall quality of the schools.
Those who were there recall a tumultuous era in this city's history.
``You had a school system that was totally unprepared for what was coming and how to deal with it,'' says Mary Ellen Smith, who during busing served as executive director of Boston's Citywide Educational Coalition, a pro-integration education advocacy organization. ``You had virtually a chaotic situation for at least the first and into the second year.'' How Busing Changed Boston's Schools
Some of the most vivid images of desegregation portrayed by the national media were of angry white crowds throwing rocks at black students bused to ``Southie,'' South Boston High School in the all-white, predominantly Irish neighborhood of South Boston. Similar protests and riots broke out in three other city schools during the school year.
But these were not the only images of desegregation. Television crews were absent at other city schools where students generally attended classes peacefully.
Boston's experience follows a pattern of school desegregation around the country over the last 40 years. It began after the US Supreme Court ruled in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that segregated or ``separate but equal'' educational facilities were unconstitutional. Since then, hundreds of school districts around the country have been under desegregation orders. Boston's troubled experience - occurring 17 years after the 1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Ark. - is something most cities try to avoid, says Gary Orfield, education expert at Harvard University.
``It was one of the only systems where [school] leaders were ready to go to jail rather than obey the court order,'' Mr. Orfield says. ``Many believe Boston is a typical case. It was an extreme case, and it informed the rest of the country of what not to do.''
Teachers and students experienced different aspects of the busing era.
Charlestown High School social-studies teacher Larry Matthews remembers the federal marshals, state troopers, and city police surrounding the school, including the police sniper stationed on the roof. Each day when he arrived at work, he would see the sign on the school door listing every weapon imaginable that was not allowed in the building.
Mr. Matthews was the school basketball coach. It was his job to organize the new team - white students and black - for the coming season in the fall of 1975.
``My purpose was to get the team together, and I was not going to be distracted by all the elements outside,'' he says. ``We got the black players and the white players to hash it out.'' Eventually, things clicked, with the two starting guards - a white student from Charlestown and black student from Roxbury - building a nice friendship, says Matthews, who still teaches at the school.
It was this kind of racial healing for which civil rights leaders and education experts yearned. But for many in the trenches - teachers, students, parents, and city leaders - desegregation was an idealistic social experiment in which they took part as involuntary subjects.
``Here are all these policymakers and the people charged with keeping the peace, and they are going to throw all these little kids and teachers into the school and say: `Work it out.' But they were outside, and we were inside,'' says Maryann Matthews, an English teacher in Charlestown High School during busing and wife of Larry Matthews.
``The people who had to be on the front lines of this were given no preparation whatever. You were thrown in,'' says Mrs. Matthews, who also still teaches at the school.
Some students, as well as teachers, felt they were being used. Mrs. Matthews's students kept journals during busing.
``Some of the students felt betrayed by forces they had no control over,'' she says. ``They had lost their high school year; the prom wasn't something they could look forward to. Some of them were forced into playing adult roles, as defenders [of the status quo].
``They were told a few things by adults directly or indirectly, and as the year progressed they felt they were being used,'' she continues.
A former student looks back
Joe Lockhart, a black 1976 graduate of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston, says busing only intensified racial hatred.
``If you are forced to do something, then you don't want to do it,'' says Mr. Lockhart. ``I had no problem going to Carson Beach in South Boston until they said forced busing.... At that time, you would go to Carson Beach and they [the residents] would look at you and call you things and throw stuff at you.''
Looking back, Lockhart says he would have favored a more gradual school integration instead of the abrupt way it was done in 1974.
Many agree with Lockhart. Judge Garrity's 1974 plan required sending students from all-white South Boston into the heart of Boston's minority neighborhood of Roxbury and vice versa.
It had all the elements of an explosive situation since both groups - from low-income backgrounds - were unprepared for such a big change, political observers note.
``What happened in Boston was that poor black and white people were told on very short notice that their lives were being disrupted during a severe recession,'' says Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston city councilor.
The desegregation battle in Boston began in 1972 when civil rights lawyers filed a class action suit in US District Court on behalf of black parents against the Boston School Committee and state Board of Education. In the case, the plaintiffs alleged that black children were denied equal protection of the law because of racially segregated schools.
The decision to desegregate
Garrity, who issued his decision on June 21, 1974, found that the school committee was guilty of maintaining segregated schools. The judge based his findings on how students were assigned to schools, among other things. In essence, white students were assigned to all-white schools even to the point of overcrowding, while black students were sent to all-black schools.
In his 152-page opinion, Garrity stated that at least 80 percent of Boston's schools were segregated and that the racial breakdown within each of these schools was ``sharply out of line with the racial composition of the Boston public-school system.''
With 20 years of hindsight since issuing his 1974 court order and the more than 400 other orders that later accompanied it, Garrity says he does not regret his actions.
``When I look back on those orders that were made in the context they were made ... on that basis, I don't know that I would have ordered anything differently,'' he says.
Antibusing activism, however, was not kept in check, he says.
``I was disappointed, honestly, more than surprised ... I didn't anticipate, quite frankly, that the city would do as little as it did to preserve the peace of the schools when they were opening,'' he says. ``They were scrambling, you see, to address the problems and that isn't the way it worked in a lot of other cities where you had the agencies of government and business and so forth collaborating.''
Even Garrity himself faced the threat of physical harm. During the first years of desegregation, he frequently received hate mail and death threats. One October night in the fall of 1974, a motorcade drove to his home in suburban Wellesley, Mass., and city activists held a two-hour antibusing demonstration. Another time a man was apprehended on his way to Garrity's house with a homemade bomb. The US District Court judge thus remained under 24-hour guard both at his home and office for 3-1/2 years from 1974 to '78.
Over the years, Garrity's work with the schools continued beyond desegregation. His later court orders included a sweeping reorganization of the school system, new bilingual and special-education programs, a parent-council system, and equal-employment opportunities for minority teachers and administrators.
Civil rights leaders say he helped initiate some of the most far-reaching educational reforms of any city school system.
Before desegregation, the school system ``was a very closed white-dominated power structure with very little attention to black people or people of color,'' says Robert Pressman, one of the attorneys that represented the black plaintiffs in the 1972 civil rights case.
``I think the desegregation case helped to bring out the notion that other people besides white people have rights. I think there is more appreciation for that in the school committee and in some cases the city council,'' he adds.
Boston schools today
Today, the system operates differently from the way it did in the 1970s. With Garrity's jurisdiction over student assignment virtually ending in 1987, the old citywide busing system has been reformed. Today, most high school students take city subway or buses to school. Children in lower grades, however, do take school buses or walk if possible.
Under the system's current ``controlled choice'' plan, parents choose the city school they want their child to attend. Racial guidelines are still in place to prevent segregation, although this is no a longer as big an issue as during the '70s.
Racial distribution has changed. In 1972, the schools were filled with 60 percent white students, 33 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian. By 1993, that breakdown had changed to 48 percent black, 23 percent Hispanic, 19 percent white, and 9 percent Asian.
Take Charlestown High School. Before desegregation, the student population, like South Boston High School, was all-white and predominantly Irish. The atmosphere today is quite different.
Here at the school this day at about 7:15 a.m., students from all racial backgrounds chat together noisily outside before they begin their second day of school. Standing in front of the school is Pat Greatorex, a math and computer teacher, who checks on school bus arrivals. ``Hey, how are you doing, fellas?'' he says to a group of boys. ``Morning! Welcome back,'' he calls to another group of kids.
Like other Boston public high schoolers, Charlestown High students take public transportation to nearby city subway or bus stops and are then bused in yellow buses from these points to their schools. A total of eight school ``shuttle'' buses rumble up Medford Street to Charlestown High each morning.
A diverse student body
School corridors are filled with a melting pot of students whose families come from places like like China, Vietnam, Haiti, Ireland, Hong Kong, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and more. About one-third of the school's student population is in the system's bilingual program, while about one-quarter takes special-needs classes. Many from Charlestown High - like those in rest of the school system - come from low-income backgrounds and live in public housing.
Students usually get along peacefully although racial incidents occasionally flare up.
A year ago last June, a racial melee involving over 200 white and black students - each hurling racial epithets and rocks at the other - erupted at South Boston High School. Five people were sent to the hospital, including then-Mayor Raymond Flynn who was struck by a brick.
Though it has been 20 years, the racial hostility stirred up during desegregation is still felt. Loretta Roach, a black parent in Boston during busing, says many issues still remain unresolved in the school system. Desegregation ``essentially opened up the city. It sort of opened up the neighborhood and exposed kids to other kids and other people,'' she says. ``But too many people ran to the suburbs, and a lot of the power brokers here walked away from it. I think we are still seeing the repercussions of this city not grappling with the issue of racism.''