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This podcast revisits Boston’s 1974 busing crisis

Sept. 12, 1974: A Black student was escorted by police officers off a bus outside South Boston High School. It was the first day of school under a new busing system designed to desegregate Boston Public Schools.Dan Sheehan/Globe Staff/file

Leon Neyfakh went digging into the history of the city where his journalism career began.

In the third season of his “Fiasco” podcast, the Boston Globe and Slate alumnus dives into the 1974 effort to end segregation in Boston public schools. Over seven episodes, Neyfakh and his team lay out the historical moments on both sides of the movement, talk to key players, and detail the sometimes violent ramifications of the Boston busing crisis. The podcast will be available on the Luminary podcast subscription network starting Thursday.

Neyfakh is well-known in the podcast world for co-creating the Slate podcast “Slow Burn.” He also created the previous two seasons of “Fiasco,” which covered the 1980s Iran-Contra affair and the 2000 Bush v. Gore election. Reached by phone, the New York podcaster spoke with the Globe about the desegregation movement and the city he once called home.


Q. Why did you choose the Boston busing crisis as your subject?

A. Our team really fell in love with the story. And it checked a lot of boxes. It was about something really big: civil rights movements and school segregation. But it was full of all these subplots and small stories we are always looking for when we choose a topic, whether it’s Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election, or Iran-Contra.

It was also full of unbelievable characters, many of whom I’d never heard of before — on the side of the anti-busing operation, like Louise Day Hicks, but also on the side of the Black activists who worked to put desegregation on the agenda. When we started talking to activists, we realized there was an opportunity to break new ground in terms of telling the prehistory of the busing crisis.

Sept. 12, 1974: Boston students looked through a broken school bus window. Protesters threw rocks at buses carrying Black students that day.Globe File photo

Q. What was it like to dive into the history of an area where you’ve lived?


A. When I worked at the Globe and before when I was at Harvard, I was always conscious of the fact that I wasn’t making the most of being there. I wish I was the kind of person who could move to a city and absorb its history. But I never did that.

Doing this podcast made me understand Boston a lot better. If you live in the city now, you might not see evidence of the effects of the busing crisis, even though there’s a lot still there. Segregation is as bad as it’s ever been.

An anti-busing rally in Charlestown in the mid-1970s.The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl/Boston Globe

Q. Can you talk about the timing of the podcast’s release?

A. The timing was purely unplanned. Obviously, race and racism are always going to be part of the news, just because it’s so key to our country. So I think it could’ve come out anytime, and there would be resonance. But certainly, the show’s coming out at a time when people are so primed to pay attention to how race shapes our world.

Q. Anything you learned that was particularly interesting or surprising?

A. I was really interested in how different Black activists thought about the problem of school inequality. Sometimes there’s a tendency to talk about Black activists as a monolith. But some of the most interesting stuff we read about, or talked to our interview subjects about, was this debate within the community. Some of them thought integration would help and said getting Black kids into schools with white kids was the best way to help improve education for Black kids. But there were other people who believe in community control, who felt like, “The best way to get the best education outcomes for our kids is to get more resources for our own institutions.”


Leon Neyfakh devotes the third season of "Fiasco" to 1970s school desegregation efforts in Boston.Leon Neyfakh

Q. In the end, what do you hope people take away from the season?

A. I want people to question their assumptions about busing. We want people to look back at what’s gone down in history as the Boston busing crisis, which has become shorthand for “liberal intervention gone wrong.” If you really look at how busing played out in Boston, it’s less obvious than that. I think you’re starting to see this from certain writers, especially Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times, that busing worked in a lot of places.

Interview was edited for clarity and length. Diti Kohli can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_

Diti Kohli can be reached at her @ditikohli_.