Opinion

farah stockman | Boston after busing

How a standoff over schools changed the country

A woman and her daughter paused outside the fence before entering Gavin School in South Boston on Sept. 12, 1974, the first day of school under the new busing system put in place to desegregate Boston Public Schools.
Phil Preston/Globe Staff/file
A woman and her daughter paused outside the fence before entering Gavin School in South Boston on Sept. 12, 1974, the first day of school under the new busing system put in place to desegregate Boston Public Schools.

For more than a decade, this city was held in the grip of an epic battle between two notoriously tenacious women: Ruth Batson, a black activist and mother of three, who demanded that schools be desegregated, and Louise Day Hicks, an Irish-American politician and mother of two, who denied that segregation existed in Boston.

The standoff between Batson, chair of the NAACP’s education committee, and Hicks, chair of Boston Public School Committee, evolved into the bitterest school desegregation battle any Northern city had ever seen. To this day, Boston is held up as a cautionary tale.

Maybe they fought so hard because they thought the future of their people was at stake. Or maybe it was because they were both women who’d overcome so many odds to become leaders that they refused to lose.

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“If two men were in charge of the NAACP-school board dispute,” one male NAACP activist fumed in the mid-60s, “it would have been over by now.”

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Hicks is sometimes remembered as the Bull Connor of Boston — the staunchest defender of a racist status quo. Batson is rarely remembered at all.

But she ought to be, because her life story — perhaps more than any other — represents both the victory and the tragedy of the struggle to integrate schools in the North. Victory, because Batson — a black woman without a college degree — took on the power structure of Boston and won. Tragedy, because the things she fought for — equality and racial integration — elude us to this day.

Ruth Batson was born in Roxbury in 1921 to a single mother who spent money she didn’t have on the black nationalist cause. Batson’s mother brought her to meetings about Marcus Garvey and black empowerment. But Batson came to believe that integration was the best path for blacks to get ahead.

“Integration is as much a part of education as is reading, writing, and arithmetic,” she said in an interview with the Civil Rights Documentation Project in 1967. “I don’t see how you can live in a country where the majority of people are white and learn in an isolated situation.”

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Poor and black as Batson was as a child, she experienced integration firsthand. Although the rules of the city relegated black families to the South End and Roxbury, plenty of Jews, Italians, and Irish lived in those neighborhoods as well. In the 1930s, blacks made up less than 3 percent of the city, too few to fill a neighborhood of their own.

Batson went to the Everett School in the South End, where white classmates wrote loving tributes to her in her school autograph book in 1935. In 1940, she was one of only a handful of black graduates of the prestigious Girls’ Latin school.

But by the time Batson married and had kids of her own, Boston had become far more segregated. As more and more blacks moved to Roxbury, more and more whites moved away. By 1950, Boston’s black population had nearly doubled, to 40,000.

Batson’s daughter attended a predominantly black school. Batson didn’t think much of it, until a white friend casually mentioned her child’s science project. Batson wondered why her own daughter had never been assigned homework like that.

file 1974
Ruth Batson.

She began to investigate and discovered vast disparities in schools. She complained to the NAACP and ended up chairing a new committee on education. She interviewed principals of predominantly black schools, all whom were white.

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One admitted right away that she did not think that “Negroes could learn at the same rate at which white children learn,” Batson wrote in “The Black Educational Movement in Boston,” a manuscript kept with her personal papers at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. “It was the general consensus among the other principals that the Negro students did not do as well.”

It didn’t help that many of the new black students hailed from the sharecropping American South, the poorest, least educated region in the country. Some kids were so backward they shocked middle-class blacks who’d grown up in Boston.

“I can’t imagine that a child should come up here from Laurel, Miss., and not know how to write his name,” Batson once declared.

“Measures should be taken to ensure that all children come to school CLEAN,” black parents at the Higgison School complained to the school committee in 1963. “Unsanitary children should be referred . . . to the school nurse, who in turn would make a home visit to instruct the parents on proper hygiene care.”

The school committee routinely took pity on whites who begged to transfer from schools that were filling with black students from the South.

“The Southern Negro pupil is not as spry usually in his eagerness to learn as other children,” one Boston School Committee member noted. “Therefore the more lively children, the lively Negro children and the lively white children, start to move out.”

But black families were rarely given permission to transfer to other schools. They found themselves increasingly trapped.

That’s what led to Batson’s first encounter with Louise Day Hicks, in the summer of 1963.

George Rizer/globe file 1978
Louise Day Hicks (wearing white, standing at microphone) spoke at an anti-busing rally in 1978 at Doherty playground in Charlestown.

Louise Day Hicks was the daughter of a wealthy judge and banker from South Boston so beloved that they named a beautiful boulevard after him.

Legend has it that on his death bed, he made Hicks promise to take care of his “people” — the tight-knit community of working-class Irish he’d always looked after when they fell behind in their mortgages or when their kids got hauled into court.

Hicks followed in his footsteps and graduated from law school, where she was one of only nine women in the class. In 1961, she ran for the school committee, even though she and her sons had gone to Catholic schools instead of the public system. At the time, the school committee was a springboard for higher office, and the one elected position in the city deemed suitable for women. Her campaign slogan — “The only mother on the ballot” — echoed the slogan Batson chose when she had run unsuccessfully a decade earlier: “Elect a mother.”

At first, Hicks appeared to be a reformer. A black friend she made in law school helped with her campaign. When black leaders shared their concerns about the poor state of the schools in Roxbury, she expressed shock and sympathy.

And why not? Hicks’s own Irish people had experienced the same exclusion in Boston public schools a century earlier, when the Great Migration out of Ireland overwhelmed the city with impoverished, illiterate Irish kids. In the 1840s and ’50s, the overwhelmingly Protestant teaching staff looked at the newcomers with disdain and whipped them if they refused to recite the King James version of the Bible.

But over time, the Irish came to dominate the school committee and the teachers union, doling out thousands of jobs — from custodians to superintendents — to the Irish Catholics who had elected them.

Such was the state of affairs when Batson testified before the committee in June of 1963.

She demanded a review of the school transfer policy, an end to the policy of assigning temporary teachers to Roxbury schools, and a review of IQ testing, which she said was unfair to children who’d just arrived “from rural communities.”

But it was Batson’s top demand — an immediate acknowledgment of de facto segregation in Boston — that caused the biggest stir.

“The ‘best possible education’ is not possible where segregation exists,” Batson said.

But Hicks refused.

“We do not have segregation in Boston schools,” she insisted time and time again.

Outraged, Batson agreed to support a school boycott that kept thousands of students out of school. Outraged, Hicks called it illegal.

The governor tried break the impasse with a carefully worded statement that blamed “widely recognized residential patterns” for “de facto segregation” in Boston and other cities. Three school committee members agreed to sign it after a marathon meeting that ended at nearly midnight. But Hicks had refused to attend the meeting. Then Batson refused to accept the statement.

The impasse went on for years.

Each woman’s identity got wrapped up in the fight.

“Aren’t you the de facto lady?” cab drivers would ask Batson.

Hicks ran for mayor — and later briefly served in Congress — with the slogan “you know where I stand.”

Both women were inundated with hate mail and death threats, as well as gushing letters of admiration. Both women worried about the toll that their activism took on their children.

“I’m sure it wasn’t easy being the children of Louise Day Hicks," Hicks told a reporter after her sons got into trouble with the law.

Years later, Batson mused that if she had to live her life over again, she’d simply be a housewife.

“My entire family was affected by my involvement in this struggle,” Batson wrote.

Ruth Batson, shown here in a campaign flier, demanded that the Boston School Committe acknowledge a system of de facto segregation.
Farah Stockman/globe staff
Ruth Batson, shown here in a campaign flier, demanded that the Boston School Committe acknowledge a system of de facto segregation.

As the years wore on, segregation in the city deepened, even as demands that it end increased.

Boston’s black population surged from 63,000 to 104,000 between 1960 and 1970, as the white population in the city shrank. As blacks became a numerical force to be reckoned with — rising from 9 to 16 percent of the city, whites fought harder to keep them at bay.

In 1961, only seven schools in Boston were more than 90 percent black, according to data compiled by Harvard researcher Nancy St. John. By 1965, that had risen to 18 schools. In 1974, it had risen again, to more than 32.

Middle-class black parents tried every possible strategy to get their kids out of failing schools.

Ellen Jackson, a black parent activist, raised $80,000 to pay for private buses to transport children from Roxbury to open seats in better-performing schools in other parts of the city.

Meanwhile, Batson struck up alliances with schools in the suburbs. At first, she just took parents from Roxbury on tours there, to show them what their children’s schools were missing. “You need to know what an overhead projector is in order to advocate for your child’s school to have one,” she said. But eventually, she took the helm of METCO, a voluntary busing program that brought kids from Roxbury to Brookline, Newton, and other wealthy schools.

That was the kind of integration Batson wanted. She didn’t see much value in mixing with the kind of people who supported Hicks.

She felt they were narrow-minded, parochial, too obsessed with “little municipal jobs.”

“I’m not interested in forming any alliances with poor whites,” Batson told the Civil Rights Documentation Project. “I want the best that white people have to offer. I’ll be very honest and very selfish about it. I don’t want the worst.”

And yet, after years of wrangling with the Boston School Committee, Batson supported the NAACP’s decision to bring a federal lawsuit on behalf of black students who were stuck in failing schools. In 1974, Judge Arthur Garrity ruled that the school committee had intentionally created and maintained racially segregated schools.

At long last, Batson had won.

But Hicks didn’t give up.

She adopted Batson’s tactics. Suddenly, it was whites in South Boston who boycotted schools, held rallies, and filed lawsuits. Whites from all around the country wrote to Hicks, encouraging her to stand strong.

“You are the only woman I could vote for as president,” a white man wrote her from San Carlos, Calif.

“Don’t let the blacks do this to your children!” wrote Mrs. Howard Dodge Sumlin from Atlanta. “They have ruined the public schools here and are still not satisfied. Half of them stay out of school every day. They don’t want an education. They just want to keep whites from getting one.”

Chapters of Hicks’s organization, Restore Our Alienated Rights, cropped up elsewhere in the country, a testament to the reservoir of white resentment that spread in the 1970s.

“It is certainly gratifying to know that there is support for my position, not only in the city of Boston, but indeed in Belleville, Illinois,” Hicks wrote a young man who’d started a chapter. “We will win this fight, Gary, because we are right.”

Eventually, Hicks’s star faded. After it became clear that she couldn’t preserve neighborhood schools, she had a hard time winning elections. She retired and watched more liberal politicians take center stage in the city.

Both Batson and Hicks lived until 2003, long enough to wonder who really won that war.

Between 1970 and 1980, 27 percent of the whites in Boston left the city, so many that integration became even more elusive than it had been before.

Boston’s white flight — said to be the worst of any Northern city — has been used in more than 100 court cases around the country as fodder against desegregation plans.

States that have launched ambitious efforts to desegregate — like Connecticut — have used Boston as an example of what not to do.

And yet, Batson’s battle made important gains. Today Boston is a unified city — not just a collection of ethnic enclaves. Schools have improved. Teachers are more representative of the students they serve. And the school committee — its members no longer elected — isn’t a bunch of political hacks.

Middle-class blacks today have far more options than they did in the 1960s. They get their kids into METCO. Or a charter school. Or a parochial school. Of the 20,000 children living in Boston who don’t attend Boston public schools, 45 percent are black.

But for the poor in this city — black, white, Asian, and Latino — the struggle for better schools continues. The last battle in Batson’s war has yet to be won.

This piece is part of a series of columns about Boston — four decades after busing — supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.