In Boston, the school busing era brings to mind a series of indelible images: police on motorcycles escorting school buses from Roxbury into South Boston; angry crowds of white students and parents protesting on the Boston Common; a white teenager assaulting Ted Landsmark, a Black civil rights attorney, with an American flag on City Hall Plaza.
What’s not as well remembered are the many years of Black community activism to achieve racial equity in the Boston Public Schools that preceded W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s seismic school desegregation ruling in 1974. Like the Reverend Vernon Carter’s 114-day picket of the Boston School Committee in 1965, to protest inequity and segregation in Boston schools.
At a forum in Roxbury on Tuesday, his daughter, Vernita Carter-Weller, read an excerpt of her father’s personal manifesto in which he recounted spending the first 12 hours of his picket alone before a white school teacher joined him in his protest. It was after two in the morning, Carter recalled in his manifesto, when they were surprised by 50 people from the Congress on Racial Equity, who turned up to support them.
“This was the defining moment that capstoned the reality of the Freedom Vigil of 1965 in Boston, and caught hold of the coattails of the civil rights movement of America,” he wrote, as his daughter recounted. “This was my answer to those who were discouraged, disheartened and disappointed.”
The history of community organizing and legal campaigns led by the Black community, especially Black women, that set the stage for the Garrity decision has often been overlooked in the retelling of Boston’s desegregation story, overshadowed by the story of white reaction to Garrity’s decision, and the racial unrest that followed. The story of those activists, and their long fight for better schools, isn’t well known.
Tuesday’s forum, hosted by The Boston Desegregation and Busing Initiative, and held at Roxbury Community College, aimed to bring their stories to light. The forum was the first of five on the history and impact of the Garrity decision scheduled to run through the fall of next year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling next summer. In addition to delving further into the history and impact of the Garrity decision, future events will provoke discussion on how the Boston Public Schools can improve quality and equity in education for all Boston students.
At the discussion, a panel of activists shared their memories of that historic work.
“We need to tell all of these stories,” Kim Janey, the city’s former acting mayor, who moderated the event, and who was bused to Charlestown during desegregation.
Lyda Peters was only 22 years old when she first met Ruth Batson, a Black mother and activist who was one of the most influential leaders of the push to desegregate Boston Public Schools in the 1960s and 1970s.
Batson’s impassioned presentation before the Boston School Committee in 1963, in which she demanded the members acknowledge the de facto segregation in the school district, was a critical moment in the events that led to the momentous Garrity decision, more than a decade later.
“There are few people in the world with such a pointed direction in their lives,” Peters told those gathered for the panel discussion Tuesday. “And I know that her direction was to help children get a better education, live a good life, to help parents feel whole, feel as if they have power, and to make their lives, their children’s lives change.”
Peters, a school teacher at the time, was deeply moved and inspired by Batson’s efforts, and went on to work with her for 35 years.
“When you work with someone who has that kind of strength, they spread that strength, and that’s where action comes from,” said Peters. “Ruth’s life was really a life of service.”
Hubie Jones, a veteran social justice activist and dean emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work, recalled organizing a one-day economic boycott to “get the attention of white leaders, business as well as civic leaders and political leaders, to know that they have been ignoring the grievances of Black people for too long.”
He said he marched with hundreds of people down Columbus Avenue, and by the time they reached the Boston Common, the crowd had grown to nearly 1,000 people.
“The presence was felt, and the message was sent,” said Jones.
Charles Glenn, a white minister at Roxbury Crossing Church in the 1960s, remembered helping to organize a Freedom Stay Out, in which students boycotted school for a day, to protest the lack of equity in Boston Public Schools. On Tuesday, he said that the Roxbury teenagers in his church’s youth group were galvanized and moved to action after hearing from teenagers from North Carolina about what freedom meant to them.
During the Freedom Stay Out at Roxbury Crossing Church, he said all the leadership and teaching was done by the teenagers, except for one assignment he gave them, in which he asked the students to write an essay about what freedom meant to them. Glenn brought copies of dozens of the letters the students wrote that day to Tuesday’s forum.
“Mind you, they weren’t talking about what we call civil rights, they weren’t talking about laws,” Glenn said. “They were talking about the dignity of standing up as a human being, the way in which they saw that reflected in the bravery of the youth they had heard from North Carolina, which in turn they intended to express in their own lives, and many of them did.”
While the forum focused on the history and legacy of Black activism that led to the Garrity decision in 1974, the next four forums will feature discussions on what happened after the consequential court order, what lessons were learned during the busing movement and the controversy that ensued, and what future changes are necessary to improve equity in Boston Public Schools.