Larry Johnson speaks in mild, measured tones. But to many of the black plaintiffs he has represented since 1977 in the Boston desegregation case, he seems a courageous lion.
Just about a year ago Mr. Johnson reversed his stand on rigid student allocations and busing. He proposed a more flexible ''freedom of choice'' policy , whereby parents would have at least a partial voice in choosing which schools their children would attend.
This action sent shock waves far beyond Boston where, since 1974, a small army of lawyers had been arguing about the busing of thousands of children to court-ordained destinations in metropolitan Boston. Indeed, Mr. Johnson's new stance provoked alarm nationwide among those committed to busing for school desegregation.
Mr. Johnson's actions reflect a national trend. Black parents nationwide want their children to receive a first-rate public education. Boston is a case study fraught with ironies, in that the position taken by many black parents represents a departure from the traditional views of desegregation advocates.
Historically, the words ''freedom of choice'' have angered civil rights activists and lawyers since the first decade after the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 and 1955 action in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered schools be integrated with ''all deliberate speed.'' During that period school boards, particularly in the South, used ''voluntary'' plans with built-in ''grandfather'' clauses to avoid fulfilling the court's demands. Many southern school districts submitted freedom-of-choice desegregation plans to subvert the intent of the law.
The Supreme Court decisively shot down this kind of plan during the '60s. But it did acknowledge in passing that there might be circumstances where a freedom of choice ''can serve as an effective device.''
Larry Johnson and his supporters feel, as do some black parents' groups in other parts of the country, that now is the time to test such a device on a local level.
How did this come about after an eight-year struggle in Boston to carry out a ''mandatory'' desegregation plan?
One cold night, Mr. Johnson trudged to the Harriet Tubman House in the South End. The message he heard that night was repeated at meetings that followed. Parents shared a simple desire: to ensure quality in education for their children. Many felt black students bore the brunt of mandatory busing but had not obtained a better education. Parents were now willing to go with a ''freedom of choice'' plan to achieve it.
There is an awareness among many black parents in Boston of the paradox of mandatory busing. Since 1974, thousands of families have taken their children out of the public schools altogether. In a city that is 70 percent white, two-thirds of all students now enrolled in the public schools are from minority families. And as white enrollment continues to decline, desegregation itself becomes more and more difficult to achieve.
Barbara Gray joined the Black Parent Committee after she saw that neither of her two eldest children in college, both straight-A students while in Boston public high school, felt adequately prepared to compete with students from other schools.
''I'm not against busing,'' said Mrs. Gray, ''Bus my kid to the moon, if when he gets done he's able to function in society. But I'm against it if the kids aren't getting quality education.''
Like the Boston Committee, black parents' groups which have sprung into existence in other cities - Dallas and Milwaukee, among others - have resisted the idea that mandatory plans are the only way to achieve desegregation. Too often, they feel, these plans have denied them control over their children's educations and thrust them into the hands of white-dominated bureaucracies.
Last year when Mr. Johnson announced his change of position on the schools case, a newspaper survey showed that four-fifths of black parents in Boston supported a ''voluntary'' assignment plan for desegregation.
Ironically, however, Johnson and the Black Parent Committee in Boston and parents' groups in other cities have some powerful allies whose attentions they did not solicit and whose larger intentions and purposes they most vehemently oppose.
US Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana and Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina have introduced in the Senate a bill that would prohibit the busing of students more than five miles or 15 minutes from their homes to achieve a racial balance. Johnston called busing ''a leech on the educational system of this country.''
The United States Justice Department, which has stated it regards the Senate bill as constitutional, supports local proposals to overturn busing plans.
Increased interest by the Justice Department in ''freedom of choice'' plans does not seem a good thing to Larry Johnson and other proponents of local use of such measures. The difference, of course, is that the Justice Department is supporting an across-the-board prohibition on the use of busing to achieve racial balance.
''This is a local fight,'' said Mr. Johnson, who opposes any action by Congress or the Justice Department to put constitutional limitations on the district courts.
His point is that his plan would be appropriate for one city right now. ''Any iron-clad rule causes problems,'' the concerned lawyer said.
He does not feel that a decade of court efforts to achieve desegregation in Boston was in vain. In fact, Mr. Johnson said, it is only because of such efforts that a ''voluntary'' plan could now succeed. Black students in formerly all-white schools would make a monitoring system for seat availability feasible.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union noted that that the universal rule the Justice Department wants to apply would deny local communities the freedom to determine the educational destinies of their children. That freedom, paradoxically, is just what Larry Johnson and the Black Parent Committee are striving to achieve.