fb-pixel

Rev. James P. Breeden, civil rights activist and organizer of Boston’s Stay Out for Freedom protests, dies at 85

The Rev. James Breeden was among the Freedom Riders, including 15 clergy, arrested in 1961 in Jackson, Miss., for entering a segregated restaurant at a bus stop.
The Rev. James Breeden was among the Freedom Riders, including 15 clergy, arrested in 1961 in Jackson, Miss., for entering a segregated restaurant at a bus stop.

More than a decade before court-ordered busing pushed Boston school desegregation into national prominence, the Rev. Dr. James P. Breeden co-organized the Stay Out for Freedom one-day boycotts that led thousands of Black students to trade the city’s public schools for Freedom Schools to protest racial inequities.

“It is sometimes necessary to break a law to achieve justice,” he told a law school forum in February 1964, a few days before some 10,000 students participated in the second boycott day.

Well-acquainted with using civil disobedience to right wrongs, he had been arrested in Mississippi three years earlier when he was among 15 Black and white clergy who entered a segregated restaurant at a bus stop during the era’s Freedom Rides.

Advertisement



Rev. Breeden, whose activism reached from the civil rights era through anti-apartheid demonstrations and beyond, died in his Easthampton home Sept. 20 of cancer. He was 85.

“He was a quiet radical and a great strategist,” said Byron Rushing, a former longtime state representative.

As an Episcopal priest and vicar for race relations in the diocese, Rev. Breeden was practiced at negotiating with virtually all-white power structures, Rushing recalled.

“He was probably the first person to have set up meetings with the governor and the mayor,” Rushing said. “That was an important piece of his strategy in the community.”

Rev. Breeden, a former canon at St. James Church in Roxbury, also played an integral role in persuading white liberals — clergy, activists, professors, and high school and college students — to join in the Stay Out protests.

“Jim was a very kind person and quite a wordsmith,” said Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, who had gathered with her then-husband, Noel Day, Rev. Breeden, and his wife, Jeanne, to write the Freedom Schools curriculum.

Rev. Breeden, she added, “had a way of phrasing things that helped people see a vision and a future for humanity.”

Advertisement



Encouraging the boycotts “does not mean we are neglecting our children’s education,” Rev. Breeden said then of moving students into Freedom Schools for a day. “On the contrary, we are trying to give our children more of the education we think they should have.”

With Noel Day, a social worker, he had founded Citizens for Human Rights, which helped launch Stay Out for Freedom. The first boycott, in June 1963, drew thousands of participants.

The Stay Out protests were a response to what organizers called de facto segregation. The Boston School Committee was largely unreceptive to their complaints.

Black youths in junior high and senior high composed more than 90 percent of the students at a dozen or so of Boston’s public schools, Rev. Breeden said in an early 1964 Globe interview.

“This condition is largely a result of housing patterns and school district lines,” Rev. Breeden said, “but regardless of its origin, it is educationally harmful and contributes to the inability of children to live together and appreciate each other as children of God, human beings, and American citizens.”

In February 1964, when state officials said a second planned Stay Out for Freedom protest would be unlawful, Rev. Breeden shrugged off potential reprisals.

“There is very little they can do to us now that they haven’t done before — we’ve all been to jail,” he said.

Hundreds of teenagers from nearly two dozen suburban schools — many of them white — joined thousands of Black students in that boycott, as did college professors and students.

Advertisement



Participation estimates topped 10,000. Many students gathered for a late afternoon rally on Boston Common and marched to City Hall.

“We have a freedom movement in Boston at last,” Rev. Breeden said afterward.

The protests, which helped inspire boycotts in other cities, were seen as a stepping stone toward the state’s Racial Imbalance Act and US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.'s ruling that led to busing as a way to desegregate the schools.

“This is the start of a process of involving students and parents in the making of democracy,” Rev. Breeden said in February 1964. “This is just the beginning. It will increase and spread.”

James Pleasant Breeden was born in Minneapolis on Oct. 14, 1934. An only child, he grew up in Minneapolis and was an Eagle Boy Scout, the son of Pleasant George Breeden, a waiter who worked for the railroad, and Florence Beatrice Thomas, a secretary and homemaker.

The salutatorian of his high school class, Rev. Breeden went to Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1956.

He and the other two Black men in his class roomed together and sometimes found racist notes outside their door.

“We didn’t even consider protesting that,” he told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2011. “We just accepted it as what one would expect at an institution like Dartmouth.”

Rev. Breeden graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1960, and received a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1972.

Advertisement



He met Jeanne Marie Savoye when they were undergraduates — she at Middlebury College — and they attended a student Christian conference in Boston.

Rev. Breeden “gave a great speech and I was very impressed,” she recalled.

They were seminary students at Union together and married in 1958. In their years of planning activism together, she said, "he gave me credit for always saying, ‘Well, what are we going to do about it?’ "

“For my mom and dad, the kitchen table was where things happened,” said their daughter Margaret of Roslindale.

In the late 1960s, Rev. Breeden helped organize the innovative Highland Park Free School in Boston, and then joined the faculty of Harvard’s education school.

He and his family moved in the mid-1970s to Tanzania, where he taught at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Returning to Boston, he became executive director of the Citywide Coordinating Council, which monitored implementation of the federal court’s desegregation orders.

In that role he hired Beverly Caffee Glenn, one of his former Harvard graduate students. Even though Rev. Breeden was executive director, he “gave me the big corner office,” she said.

“To see a Black woman sitting in the corner office and negotiating and doing the things Jim had me do was amazing,” recalled Glenn, who is the retired executive director of the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence at George Washington University. “Women didn’t have those kinds of positions. Black women certainly didn’t have those kinds of positions.”

Advertisement



Rev. Breeden subsequently was dean of Dartmouth College’s Tucker Foundation for religious life, and later taught at Howard University. In retirement, he and his wife moved to Western Massachusetts.

An online memorial service will be announced for Rev. Breeden, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves another daughter, Johanna of Mattapan; two sons, Frederick of Ashfield and Paul of Waltham; and three grandchildren.

As a classroom teacher, Rev. Breeden “was brilliant,” Glenn said. “He encouraged us to be independent learners and to keep learning.”

And he delivered many lessons from the pulpit, including at a Harvard Memorial Church service in 1964 in memory of three civil rights activists who had been murdered in Mississippi.

“We dishonor them by simply remembering them,” Rev. Breeden said that August day. “We should be ready to die for them. Love is not just a word — it must be genuine and it must sow itself in action.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.