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‘The Busing Battleground’ revisits a painful chapter in Boston’s history, one that still reverberates

Violence erupted in the wake of an order to desegregate Boston public schools in 1974 — and a long struggle for educational equity preceded it. On PBS, ‘American Experience’ tells the story.

Black and white students ride the bus together to South Boston High School on Sept. 11, 1975.Associated Press

For Bostonians, the memories are painful. Rocks pelting motorcades of yellow school buses. Protesting mothers being roughed up by police officers. Fear in the eyes of schoolchildren.

When Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered a recalcitrant Boston School Committee to comply with his plan to desegregate the Boston public school system in 1974, the city exploded in rancor and riots. “The Busing Battleground,” a two-hour “American Experience” program that premiered Monday on PBS (it’s available to stream on the PBS site), revisits one of the ugliest periods in the city’s history, one that continues to feed the notion that Boston — a home to the abolition movement in the 19th century — is fundamentally racist.


GlobeDocs (the Globe’s documentary film series) and GBH will cohost a special event at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Sept. 20, featuring the documentary’s co-producers and -directors, Sharon Grimberg and Cyndee Readdean, and Cameo George, executive producer of “American Experience.”

Children in Boston, as seen in the documentary “The Busing Battleground."Globe Archive

Neither Grimberg nor Readdean lived through the busing crisis in Boston. Grimberg grew up in Singapore; Readdean is from Schenectady, N.Y.

But as filmmakers, they bring a welcome perspective to the story. Grimberg, who lives in Brookline, was an award-winning senior producer for “American Experience” for more than a decade. She was executive producer of “The Abolitionists” (2013), which recounted the history of anti-slavery activism.

Readdean, who lives in New York City, produced “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” which premiered at Sundance in 2017.

As the team met with various people, white and Black, who witnessed the crisis firsthand, “my emotions around the story changed probably every time we did an interview,” said Readdean on a recent video call. “It’s hard for me to understand people being racist, period. But I can have — I don’t know if empathy is the right word — understanding for how and why they felt the way they did at the time.”


These personal accounts covered a wide spectrum of emotions and opinions, as the filmmakers point out. Led by the civil rights activist Ruth Batson, Black families in Boston had been asking since the early 1960s for remedies for the inadequacies of their children’s schools. In response to Garrity’s court-ordered desegregation plan, many parents in predominantly white neighborhoods, such as Charlestown and South Boston, objected to their children being asked to bus across town, past local schools within walking distance of their homes.

Opponents of the court-ordered school desegregation plan rally at Thomas Park in South Boston.Spencer Grant

But there were also some Black families who were uneasy about sending their children into “the lion’s den” of another, supposedly better neighborhood (as Roxbury resident Leon Rock notes). And although news coverage focused on bused students and protests against their being bused, only about 18,000 students out of some 100,000 were actually bused during the 1974-75 school year.

The roll call of contemporary interview subjects is impressive, including the late Bryant Rollins, a onetime Globe reporter who founded The Bay State Banner; Ira Jackson, chief of staff for Boston Mayor Kevin White; Jim Vrabel, author of “A People’s History of the New Boston”; and two law clerks for Garrity (who died in 1999). We also hear from several teachers and lifelong Boston residents. The Globe became part of the story, too, with editors receiving death threats and the paper earning a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage in 1975.


Garry Armstrong, a fixture on local television for decades, says in the film that some reporters were instructed to cover the violence — the more sensational, the better.

Students begin to fight outside Hyde Park High School in Boston, Feb. 14, 1975. AP Photo/DPG

“What people did with their frustration, some did some really awful things,” said Grimberg. “It kind of revealed or unleashed the ugliness and depth of the racism among certain people. Unfortunately, I think the ugliest voices who were the loudest ruined the experience for everyone.”

In the program, Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie” (1999), explains that his peers, who were growing up in the projects, were impoverished — not “middle class.” It was unfair, they felt, to ask them to sacrifice by attending school outside their neighborhood.

“When I read his book, it was eye-opening,” said Readdean. “He’s a terrific writer. He’s thought so thoroughly about his community and that time, and his desire for things to be different.”

According to Grimberg, the idea of revisiting the busing crisis had been considered from time to time at “American Experience.” But it took the arrival of Cameo George, the series’ first Black executive producer, in 2020, for the proposal to find a champion.

Previous leadership may have felt “it was too much of a Boston story,” said Grimberg, “which I think is wrongheaded, because it’s a story that has ramifications for the entire country. It’s very personal to people here, but it’s really much bigger, I think, than Boston.”


She was convinced to pitch the program after her son was assigned to read “Common Ground,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 book by J. Anthony Lukas, which explored the busing crisis through the experiences of three families: two white families and one Black family.

“That’s a very particular take, one that is not ours at all,” she said. “But it was front of mind for me.” After she read the late Mel King’s 1981 book “Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development,” she added, “I thought, ‘Whoa, there’s a whole lot that’s not in ‘Common Ground’ that’s really important.”

When Grimberg first moved to Boston, in the mid-1990s — she lived in a Cambridge home once owned by a Black abolitionist — she had most recently lived in Atlanta. There, she said, middle-class Black and white people work together, and eat at the same restaurants. She saw little of that in Boston.

“My first impression was that Boston was an incredibly white city,” she said.

“I can’t speak to how it feels to live here as somebody who’s a minority. I know from talking to people that it’s still not great, not comfortable.”

There’s no doubt that the city is much different today, she continued. “Boston in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s was this run-down place. It’s booming now. We have a dynamic young mayor, and much more representation on the City Council. But I would say it’s probably a mixed bag.”


Today, there are around 48,000 students in the Boston public school system — a drastic reduction from the height of the busing crisis. Much of that loss can be attributed to “white flight” to the suburbs or to private schools in the wake of the desegregation order.

A Black student looks out of bus window as white protesters crowd around South Boston High School.VCG Wilson/Bettmann Archive

Readdean, who lives in a “rapidly gentrifying” neighborhood in Harlem, believes that the story of Boston’s education struggles in the 1970s is indicative of a much broader history of entrenched racism in the North.

“We still haven’t solved the school equity problem that Boston had in the ‘70s,” she said. “It’s still with us.

“You know, we haven’t solved the racism in this country. The veils have been lifted. We’re seeing it very clearly now.”

Grimberg said she looks at the story of “The Busing Battleground” as “a microcosm. I know it is very specific in terms of time and place, but that’s what all stories are.”

With the busing crisis nearly 50 years in the rearview mirror, there are younger generations who aren’t aware of it, Grimberg said. But even those who lived through it will learn a lot from the documentary, she hopes.

“It’s a story that people don’t know, period,” she said, “and then it’s a story that people think they know, but they don’t.”


At the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m. RSVP:

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated longtime television reporter Garry Armstrong was deceased. The Globe regrets the error.