When US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his 152-page order desegregating public schools in Boston 40 years ago, the federal jurist was ready for the firestorm that ensued.
“He knew full well that there were people that would not accept it, that were blind to the facts or just didn’t care about the facts,” said Brian LeClair, a law clerk for Garrity when the landmark decision was issued June 21, 1974.
“He knew there was going to be a lot of opposition,” LeClair, now a lawyer in Marblehead, said in a phone interview Friday.
The opinion was the culmination of more than two years of legal action dating to March 1972, when a group of black parents filed a lawsuit alleging that the public schools were segregated and that they gave black students an inferior education.
Garrity ruled that the Boston school system was unconstitutionally divided, writing that school officials “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers, and facilities and have intentionally brought about and maintained a dual school system.”
‘I think the evidence was sort of overwhelming for anyone who honestly looked at the circumstances. I really don’t think there were any surprises.’
The order directed the schools to implement the state Board of Education’s busing program until a longer-term plan was worked out. Thousands of students, teachers, and administrators were reasssigned, based on race, to different schools, often requiring the children to be bused into unfamiliar neighborhoods.
LeClair, now 66, remembered sifting through thousands of pages of documents including depositions and trial transcripts while the decision was being drafted. He provided Garrity with drafts that the judge painstakingly reviewed, working through lunches that he routinely ended with two rituals: eating an apple and doing chinups in a small men’s room.
Garrity’s secretary, Alice O’Neil, using an IBM Selectric, typed up the final product.
“She was the one grinding this thing out,” LeClair said. “We would make corrections in pen on the pages, and then Alice had to go back and retype it.”
Once the opinion was finished, it provided a long and detailed account of segregation in the Boston public schools.
“I think the evidence was sort of overwhelming for anyone who honestly looked at the circumstances,” said LeClair. “I really don’t think there were any surprises.”
Former mayor Raymond Flynn recalled sitting in the courtroom at the John W. McCormack US Post Office and Courthouse, listening intently, when the decision was announced.
“I saw so many flaws with it,” said Flynn, who was a state representative at the time.
“It’s one thing to tell people this is what’s going to happen to your children,” Flynn said. “It’s another thing to say this is what’s going to happen to your children and we don’t care what you think about it.”
Garrity’s son, W. Arthur Garrity III, said by phone Friday that he had come home from college for the summer a few weeks before the opinion was issued. He recalled a woman coming to the family’s Wellesley home after the decision came down to speak with his father about it.
“I have a distinct memory of him sitting on the step outside the house and spending maybe a half hour or so just talking to her about whatever her situation was in kind of a mild-
mannered way, which was always his style, in an attempt to help her understand,” Garrity III said.
Federal marshals were assigned to protect Garrity because of death threats against him and other judges presiding over desegregation cases across the country, his son said.
Garrity gave up taking the train to work, and was driven in by a deputy US marshal, but his family never changed their home phone number or screened the mail, his son said.
“He never exhibited any signs that he himself was concerned for his safety,” his son said. “He never acted nervous or ever said anything about the security.”
In Roxbury, Lyda Peters, a former Boston public school teacher, said that once the desegregation order was issued, activists in the black community turned their attention to trying to ensure the safety of students when the busing began at the start of the school year.
“People were preparing to protect the kids,” said Peters, who later worked for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity and the School Desegregation Response Project at Boston University School of Medicine.
Michael Curry, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-Boston, which filed the lawsuit that resulted in Garrity’s decision, was 6 years old when he was bused from Roxbury to Charlestown to attend first grade at the Warren-Prescott School in 1975.
He recalled the bus driving past the Museum of Science and over a bridge into Charlestown, where a crowd had gathered.
“I didn’t understand race. I didn’t understand busing. I didn’t understand who Garrity was,” Curry said by phone. “I did understand that our lives were at risk, by the fear of the adults on the bus.”
Donna Bivens is collecting stories like Curry’s for a project for the Union of Minority Neighborhoods called the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project. The group held a forum Thursday at City Hall to discuss the court decision’s legacy.
“That’s the kind of exchange that still needs to happen for people to not get so stuck in their stories but to see how this history is impacting Boston today,” Bivens said. “We really want to continue to collect stories and deepen our understanding of how different racial groups and communities experienced this history.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement that “many people who lived through that time feel their voices have not yet been heard.”
“It is healthy for Bostonians to share their memories and for all of us to learn from the city’s past,” Walsh said. “At the same time, we have made great progress as a city, and our children give us hope for an even brighter future. I take this occasion to voice, once again, my commitment to making sure every child in Boston has access to high-quality, nurturing schools that are integral parts of safe and welcoming communities.”
Garrity’s son said that if his father were alive today, he would most likely be occupied by another milestone in his life, his 94th birthday, which would have occurred on Friday. The judge died in 1999.
“He wouldn’t be looking for any more than spending time with his family on this coincidental anniversary,” Garrity III said.