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Brown v. Board, busing, and Boston

This undated photo, location unknown, shows Linda Brown Smith. Smith was a third grader when her father started a class-action suit in Kansas in 1951, which led to the US Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision against school segregation.Associated press

Linda Brown, a third-grader in Topeka, Kan., used to play with the white girls who lived on her street. But on school days, Guinevere and Wanda walked seven blocks to the white school, while Linda took a bus to the school for blacks.

Few argue today over the essential justice of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that struck down legalized segregation.

Yet, here in Boston, it’s a sad irony that a decision that let a black girl attend her neighborhood school is remembered quite differently — as the case that allowed a federal judge to pull white students out of their neighborhood schools and bus them across town.

Resentment over busing still runs deep here, as we saw last week when three city councilors declined to support a resolution commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision.


Perhaps they didn’t want to offend the ghosts of their political forebears who rose to prominence in anti-busing campaigns. Salvatore LaMattina of East Boston, one of the three who voted “present” instead of “yes,” got involved in politics because of Pixie Palladino, a feisty housewife and school committee member who told a stadium of people: “Eastie will never be bused.”

At-large Councilor Stephen Murphy of Hyde Park was a longtime friend of and former driver for Dapper O’Neil, a prominent Hyde Park politician who had a reputation for making xenophobic remarks and asserting that “busing wrecked this city.”

And City Council President Bill Linehan of South Boston occupies a seat held for 23 years by James Kelly, who once claimed that he didn’t “smile or laugh for three consecutive years” because he was so obsessed with fighting the “injustice” and “stupidity” of busing.

To be sure, racism lay at the heart of a good deal of the opposition to court-ordered busing. But you didn’t have to be racist to feel aggrieved.

“You take these kids who are looking forward to prom and playing football in front of their neighbors at South Boston High, and all of a sudden, they were sent to Roxbury High, which was in shambles,” recalled Ron Formisano, author of “Boston Against Busing.” South Boston High didn’t look that much better to the black kids who braved stones and insults to get in. “They looked around and said, ‘We went through hell for this?’”


It didn’t help that some of the loudest advocates of busing lived in suburbs that were immune. Busing poor black kids to poor white schools, and vice versa, felt to some like a social experiment conducted by the wealthy from afar. Two years after busing began, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. shuffled kids around yet again. Pretty soon, even open-minded parents began to think of the remedy for racism as worse than the disease.

Today, many Bostonians agree that the busing was botched. But the City Council vote raises a question: Was Brown really to blame? Or the politicians who dragged their feet on better options?

What would have happened if all those who fought forced busing in the 1970s had supported voluntary busing in the 1960s? If Boston’s school committee had cheered, instead of undermined, “Operation Exodus” (now Metco), which spent private money to bring black kids to white schools that volunteered to host them?

Common sense says there’s a middle ground between keeping the races apart by law and pushing the races together by court order. Sixty years after Linda Brown finally got to walk to school, we’re still trying to accomplish the crucial task of preparing kids to succeed in a multiracial society. A tragedy of the busing era is the excuse it gives us to stop trying.


Farah Stockman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.