In the spring of 1975, while sitting in a classroom at Wayne State University in Detroit, a fellow freshman handed me a flier imploring students to come to Boston that summer “to fight against racism.” The flier was distributed by a group called the Committee Against Racism, or CAR.
That year I was taking classes during the day and working at night on the loading docks of the Detroit Free Press. Reading the flier reminded me that months earlier, during a midnight lunch break, I had grabbed a just-off the-press newspaper and read a harrowing story about a brutal attack on a Haitian Black man in South Boston. After accidentally driving into a street filled with antibusing demonstrators, he’d been pulled from his car and beaten with an ax handle.
Court-ordered desegregation was the issue of the moment in America. Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s schematic for integrating Boston schools borrowed from a plan being considered in Detroit. But the US Supreme Court had earlier guaranteed that school desegregation would not include cross-district busing to Detroit’s white suburbs. The high court’s ruling also limited Boston’s options to the integration of inner-city schools only, which left working-class white and Black people fighting over limited resources.
As busing was playing out in the courts in Detroit, many folks, including myself, looked on in horror at the escalating racial violence in New England. Boston was a 1970s version of 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, in my view, with white grievance over desegregation and voting rights updated as white protests over school desegregation through court-ordered busing. That history was precisely why I enlisted, somewhat naively, to go to Boston in the summer of 1975: to fight against racism.
I volunteered to take part in a campaign that would thrust me and about 140 other students — black, Latino, Asian, and white — into the midst of a domestic civil war that included the firebombing of the CAR office and violent protests on Carson Beach in South Boston.
We were an idealistic bunch of students. We saw ourselves as liberals and progressives. Others considered themselves to be socialists, and there was even an anarchist or two. One participant described himself as a conservative antiracist studying for the ministry. Our mission was to counter overt acts of racism on the streets and elsewhere in Boston. We did not know it then, but we were in way over our heads.
That June I drove from Detroit to Boston in a beige Ford Pinto that broke down twice en route. I brought along a large knapsack filled with jeans, T-shirts, a jacket, and my mainstay cassette tapes of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, and Stevie Wonder, as well as my most important book at that time, a well-worn copy of The Poetry of Black America edited by Arnold Adoff.
I settled into a home on Waldeck Street in Dorchester with four roommates. I had spent part of my early youth boxing at Martin’s Recreation Center on Detroit’s tough East Side and knew how to defend myself. Days after moving in, I discovered that some of the working-class white kids in the neighborhood apparently grew up the same way. I was at the Fields Corner T stop waiting for the train when one of two youthful strangers yelled out the N word. I was the only other person on the platform. The fight that ensued ended with the police arriving, but I was the only person taken into custody — thankfully, I was released hours later. That experience with unequal justice would play out several times over the summer.
I taught writing and Black history to youngsters at Roxbury’s Highland Park Free School. The rest of the time, I handed out antiracism fliers and helped to protect the homes of Black families in Hyde Park, Dorchester, and East Boston. I recall the acrid smell of gasoline that still hung in the air hours after a Puerto Rican family’s home in the Maverick Square housing developments was burned nearly to the ground by white youth protesting their presence there.
Tensions led to physical confrontations with men who called themselves the South Boston Marshals. All of the CAR volunteers considered ourselves a tough group; we came from Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, and elsewhere. Most of us were from outside Boston and were unfamiliar with the alleged secretive leader of the marshals, rumored to be a gangster named Whitey Bulger; hearing his name didn’t instill the same fear in us as it seemed to have done to the locals. In reality, it was an open secret that the marshals were led by Jim Kelly, a Bulger rival who was associated with the Mullen Gang (Kelly went on to become a Boston city councilman).
But one night after the East Boston arson incident and moments after I had left the CAR office on Huntington Avenue, someone threw a firebomb through the window. The space was left charred and for the most part unusable. Some of the kids who arrived with me that summer packed up and left. I considered doing the same. Boston was living up to its reputation and more, and I started to lose some of the youthful bravado that I’d brought with me from Detroit.
Then came news of the six Black men selling Bibles, who had traveled from South Carolina, New York, Maryland, and other states to literally sell the Gospel. During a break on a scorching July day they headed to Carson Beach in Southie, apparently unaware of how dangerous that was. The Boston Globe reported that the six men were set upon by dozens of local white youth wielding pipes and sticks, leaving one man seriously injured. The incident was the latest in a flurry of racial assaults in Boston, but this one had the effect of bringing together an uneasy coalition of civil rights groups and progressives.
Carson Beach has long been portrayed as a melee between Blacks and whites. That is overly simplistic. More accurately, it was a violent confrontation between antiracists and South Boston residents who seemed animated by anti-Black racism. The starting point for a caravan of cars heading to Carson Beach that day in August was Franklin Park, where the Boston NAACP had organized a kickoff rally attended by hundreds, including Black, white, and Hispanic students recruited for the summer program. The NAACP urged calm and nonviolence, describing what we were heading to as a picnic and a peaceful sit-in on a public beach where Black and brown people were not wanted. But others warned that some South Boston residents would provoke a violent confrontation — and they did.
Hundreds of leaflets had been distributed in Southie and Dorchester alerting residents that Black people were driving in to take over the beach. An estimated 1,500 white youth chanting “Here we go, Southie, here we go!” were on that beach by the time I arrived, along with about a thousand would-be integrationists and Black nationalists. Hundreds of police officers were there — on horseback, in formation on the ground, in patrol boats and helicopters — to keep the two sides apart. Some of the antiracism protestors opened up chairs, and laid out beach towels and boxes of sandwiches. Then the rocks and bottles started flying. A policeman on horseback was hit in the head and the disciplined line of officers separating the two sides began to fragment. For the next hour or more there were fistfights up and down the beach and even in the water.
Prominent Bostonians, including activist Mel King, were accosted even as they were trying to maintain control over crowds. The irony is that years later, under different circumstances, I would become friends with some of the individuals on the other side of that police line.
The battle of Carson Beach made headlines internationally and cemented in the public mind a picture of Boston that decades later its leaders are still trying to shake. It was both the tragic high point and denouement of that summer.
I had no intention of staying in Boston and I did not.
I returned to Detroit at the end of the summer of 1975, shocked and physically bruised from the experience. But even more shocking to my friends and family was my decision to move to Boston, permanently, a year later.
Fellow students I befriended that summer went on to become community organizers, doctors, lawyers, mailmen, financiers, a minister, nurses, historians, filmmakers, and auto workers. After returning to the docks of the Detroit Free Press, I began imagining writing stories rather than riding delivery trucks, reporting the news rather than dropping off bundles of newspapers late into the night. I imagined writing about Boston in all its grime, crime, and racial complexity, and that is what I still do.