Reflections on busing
For decades, they have symbolized the white flight that followed court-ordered busing. They were the middle-class couple who gave up on a Boston riven by racial strife as the ugliness exploded and the schools fell apart.
But, as with so much that came after US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s decision, handed down 40 years ago Saturday, the story of Colin and Joan Diver is more nuanced, and more painful, than that.
The Divers’ journey — from Brighton, to a tense but hopeful South End, then out of the city, to Newton — was captured in all of its complexity by J. Anthony Lukas in “Common Ground,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece on busing, Boston, and the tragedy of unintended consequences.
The Divers left the area in 1989, as Colin became dean of Penn Law School in Philadelphia, then president of Reed College, in Portland, Ore. They came back when Colin retired in the summer of 2012, and now live in a gracious old building in the Back Bay. They returned to a city both gloriously different and maddeningly unchanged from the one they left 25 years ago.
They’ve spent the better part of their lives living and reliving the agony of the 1970s, contemplating the indelible stain it left on the city they love. Last week, they sat on a blue velvet couch facing Commonwealth Avenue, talking about it yet once more.
When Garrity ruled that black students should be bused to schools in overwhelmingly white South Boston and Charlestown, and white students to schools in black neighborhoods, “I realized there would be trouble,” Colin said. “But a lot of us underestimated the degree of hostility.”
He had worked in Mayor Kevin White’s City Hall, had seen the tribalism of Boston’s neighborhoods, and the racism of some residents close up. Of course he also saw the rightness, the legal necessity, of Garrity’s ruling. He and Joan had moved with their two sons to the South End because they believed in the ideal of a city where people from different races and classes lived and strived together. They sent their sons to the kind of school Garrity envisioned: black and white kids, from poor and middle-class families, were thriving at the Bancroft school, not because of a court order, but because that was how their neighborhood was.
The ideal of desegregating the schools was unassailable. The implementation of Garrity’s order was a disaster, doomed from the start, led by experts who didn’t know the city’s fault lines well enough, and who pushed change with a suddenness and force that almost guaranteed an explosion.
“I was an incrementalist,” Colin said. “I was wanting to see the remedy start with grades K through 6 or 8, and maybe even focus on the marginal areas where you had the possibility of mixing people within a geographic area.”
What followed instead is seared on the city. The images shot across the country, redefining Boston, the Cradle of Liberty, for the world: the grown men and women hurling rocks and epithets at school buses carrying terrified black children. Black lawyer Ted Landsmark almost impaled on the staff of an American flag by a white teenager outside City Hall. Police and helmeted national guardsmen evoking the worst days of the civil rights era.
You could blame Bostonians for the racism. You couldn’t blame them for their horror at what was happening to their kids’ educations. Even the Bancroft was torn apart, the mechanistic decrees of busing laying waste to a living, breathing realization of the ideal. Black students whose families were invested in the school were bused out. Others were bused in. It became hopelessly overcrowded.
“It was just this whole upset, where children were being put into situations over which they had no control,” Joan said. Their older son’s reading scores dropped. They were fully committed to the idea of building a diverse city, on their street and in the schools. But, two years after Garrity’s ruling, the Divers moved out. Soon after, the Bancroft closed.
“You’ve heard the expression, ‘A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged,’ ” Colin said. “I guess I was thinking, ‘A suburbanite is an urbanite who has had his kid’s reading scores decline.’ ”
But leaving was about more than a failing school. Their ideal of racial harmony, always an uphill battle, was also faltering in Boston in those years. On West Newton Street, between Columbus and Tremont, the Divers had made strong connections with their neighbors, black and white. But these were troubled times, economically and racially, and the South End was in the grip of a crime wave. A neighborhood block patrol was run out of the Divers’ home. They monitored all of the break-ins and attacks. None of it seemed to be working.
“I chased a mugger and hit him over the head with a baseball bat,” Colin said. “Joan got mugged. Our son witnessed our house getting broken into. If we had just ignored it, maybe we would have stayed there, but we knew too much. I felt the city was falling apart.”
Garrity’s ruling accelerated the exodus of mostly white, middle-class families from the city. But it had begun years before, as families sought bigger properties, more services, safer neighborhoods, and, yes, better schools, in Quincy and Brookline and beyond. Busing ratcheted up tensions across the city. Joan said the hostility was palpable on the transit buses she rode each day. The Divers were exhausted.
“It had just become too much emotionally,” Joan said. “If it had just been the decline of the schools, we’d still be there . . . We are change people. We don’t run away; we see trash on the street and we pick it up. This constant trying to solve problems, it just overwhelmed us.”
Even now, the memory of leaving the South End — “Common Ground” closes with Colin building a fence around their new house in Newton, “sealing off the Divers’ perimeter, rearing its ivory spine against the world” — is painful for the Divers.
“It was totally heartbreaking,” Joan said. “We felt, and we still feel, those years in the South End were the best, the most alive. There was a sense of community. But our emotions couldn’t handle it. That was our problem, not the South End’s problem.”
When Garrity handed down his order, 61 percent of Boston public school students were white, a blend of the middle class, working class, and the poor. The kids sitting in classrooms today are overwhelmingly poor, and mostly black and brown. Only 13 percent of the 57,000 Boston public school students are white. Forty percent are Hispanic, and 35 percent are black. Fully 78 percent of them come from low-income families.
It looks a lot like resegregation. And a portrait of busing’s failure.
We are still wringing our hands over how to find a way to give poor kids an education equal to their suburban counterparts. And while there is none of the outright institutional discrimination Garrity exposed, what we have now is something, in its own way, as insidious. We have a school system mainly for those who have nowhere else to turn, a system that serves some well and fails many others. Boston, like most other cities, is more divided economically than it has been in almost a century.
Though they never completely lost their connection to Boston, the Divers have “a bit of a Rip Van Winkle feeling” since returning two years ago, Colin said. Sure, the infrastructure is still ancient, neighborhood loyalties still define the city, politics are still largely the preserve of Irish and Italian men. But the city is also transformed — built up, more crowded, more international, more alive, and way, way more expensive. Their old house on West Newton Street is worth $3 million, they say, and swish enough to be featured in the Sunday Globe magazine. They are flabbergasted by the gentrification that has swept some neighborhoods.“We went to the beach in South Boston a couple of weeks ago,” Joan said. “We went to a tavern that was selling kale salad and squid!”
They are amazed at the conspicuous wealth, in a city whose residents once took great pains not to flaunt it. “I thought Copley Place would fail, because Bostonians don’t show their wealth,” Joan said. “Boy, was I ever wrong.”
It pains them to see the gap between rich and poor yawn so much wider than before, to see the neighborhoods closest to downtown walled off by skyrocketing property prices, to know that boys in poor neighborhoods face not just struggle now, but the rampant threat of gun violence. They wonder how the city would be today, if things had been done differently in 1974.
Still, they sense more optimism, and a greater willingness to tackle big problems, among their fellow activists in today’s Boston. Perhaps that is one of the legacies of those years: For all of its destructiveness, busing forced the city to acknowledge its divisions, and to confront them. Lukas’s book, for all of the pain it exposed, remains a potent impetus for self-reflection. The Divers and the other families at its center resist caricature, demand that we grapple with the weaknesses beyond the stereotypes.
“ ‘Common Ground’ just follows us around; what are you gonna do?” Joan said. “I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t want to be exposed. I was in a lot of pain when Tony approached us. We did it because we wanted to promote understanding. To have this book around all those years later, it was the right thing to do.”