Boston leaders work to erase city's image as a center for racial strife

Bostonians still recall with regret an incident seven years ago, when a white protester wielding the American flag as his weapon led an attack on a black man in front of City Hall.

Many here say: Never again!

The 1975 incident sprang from a demonstration over forced busing, part of court-ordered school desegregation in Boston.

To shake the city's racist image - dramatized effectively on the nation's television screens and newspapers' front pages - people and organizations are beating the drum for Boston as a city of interracial good will.

Boston is promoting its schools through billboards around the nation - a gift to the city from a local advertising firm. The signs feature a multiracial, multiethnic group of students, spotlighting their national honors ranging from -science to chess.

Nevertheless, black visitors from around the nation - whether attending a civil-rights convention, a conference on housing, or a gathering of a volunteer organization - are warned bluntly through word of mouth: Boston is racist, be careful where you go.

In addition, the sprawling Boston standard metropolitan area, 2.6 million people, slightly more than 5 percent black, includes many suburbs that are near replicas of Boston in ethnic makeup, often reflecting the tensions of the city itself.

Boston's effort to erase the image of racial discord has centered, first, on regaining control of its public schools, said to be the barometer of local race relations.

US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. is winding down his control over city schools, which have been under his supervision since 1974. Schools opened quietly this fall after eight troubled years that began with a white boycott of forced busing, white outrage over what some viewed as the destruction of neighborhood schools, and open hostility between black and white students at several high schools.

Other actions designed to reduce racial tensions include:

* A two-day conference on dealing with racial and anti-Semitic violence, vandalism, and hatred, held in October by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the New England Anti-Defamation League. The meeting emphasized the role of education in reducing prejudice. At the gathering, John H. Lawson, Massachusetts educational commissioner, pledged, ''We will move on this issue (race relations).'' He said his office is developing a human-relations curriculum, is planning an annual Brotherhood Day, will form a speakers bureau, and will monitor racial incidents.

* The Boston Police Department's Community Disorders Unit, which investigates racial incidents, now has five times the staff it had when it was set up in 1977 . ''We don't have a 100 percent track record, but our unit is effective because it has the support of (Police) Commissioner (Joseph) Jordan,'' says Sgt. Mickey Roach, the unit's commander. ''And we conduct an ongoing program to train other officers on the force in race relations.''

* Various organizations - including the Massachusetts Civic Leadership Conference, The Boston Committee, and the Corporation of Boston - have been formed to combat racism beyond the city limits. Nearby communities are also acting individually by holding meetings, socials, and workshops, to improve race relations.

In spite of these activities, recent incidents - vandalism against blacks moving into predominantly white neighborhoods, black youths retaliating with attacks on whites, antiblack graffiti, anti-Semitic activities in nearby suburbs , and a more visible public presence of the Ku Klux Klan - are reinforcing the Hub's image of intolerance.

Most of the city's racial disturbances are directed at blacks, says Sergeant Roach.

Continuing racial problems do not provide fertile ground for the type of development the city's political and business leaders envision - a tourist and convention center, a growing industrial base, mainly in the service and high-tech areas. Boston isn't suffering from the recession to the same degree as most aging Northern industrial cities. It's building new hotels, doubling the capacity of its convention center, and attracting new industry.

Changing the racial atmosphere may not be easy, ''even in a climate of emerging good will,'' says Dean Hubert Jones of the Boston University School of Social Work. The Hub remains a metropolis in which blacks and whites tiptoe past one another in certain neighborhoods and try to ignore chronic racial troubles that could explode into violence, he says.

And Boston is a city with ethnic enclaves unsafe for whites or unsafe for blacks, says a recently published study, ''Black and White Perspectives on the Quality of Life in Boston.'' Author Floyd J. Fowler Jr. works for the Center for Survey Research of the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.

The Fowler survey, financed by the Boston Committee, studies how Bostonians ''see themselves and their city.'' It says that although the city's residents recognize continued ''differences'' between whites and blacks, there is an overall commitment to Boston as their city. This points to a basis for progress, says the report.

On the positive side, racial incidents within schools are down sharply. School Superintendent Robert Spillane and parents have chiseled an agreement that make them partners in achieving quality desegregated schools. City schools are setting the pace for innovation - magnet schools, interracial parent councils, black and minority teachers and administrators, and community (business, college, and cultural) concern.

Two blacks serve on the school board, and one black is a member of the City Council. The city has established a five-member Fair Housing Commission. Segregated housing is a key factor in local racial tensions.

Throughout its 350-year history Boston has borne the image of the ''Cradle of Liberty.'' The first African settled in Boston in 1683. Crispus Attucks, a black man, was the first fatality in the Boston Massacre. To black people Boston was a citadel of freedom because of its ardent abolitionists, its strategic value as a depot for the so-called underground railroad, its fiery post-Civil War radicals working in behalf of the freed slaves, and its 1960s ''freedom ride'' heroes.

That Boston does not exist for black people today, says Dean Jones. Black people in Boston ''endure a pressure-packed existence,'' but they expect to help bring about changes, not through street demonstrations, but in ''today's way, achievement and innovative pressure,'' he says.

Nor does the radical ''white Boston'' of former City Council member Louise Day Hicks and her war on ''forced busing'' survive, he adds. Mrs. Hicks holds a quiet governmental post. Angry whites no longer hit the streets to hoot at school buses loaded with black children.

Black people have never led a smooth life in Boston, local blacks say. But, they add, progress is being made.

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