It’s hard to see what could be even remotely controversial about commemorating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court case that struck down the legal argument for racial segregation. Cities and towns across the country are passing resolutions to mark the milestone. The resolutions are so routine that, back in 2004, a Republican-controlled US Senate unanimously supported the commemoration of the 50th anniversary.
The resolution put forth by Councilor Charles Yancey of Mattapan and at-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley was equally routine. It states that the Boston City Council “honors this historic achievement and recommits to upholding the philosophical goals” enshrined in Brown. It also says the council “pledges to uphold the same principles in making sure the City of Boston provides equal opportunities for all students to succeed in Boston Public Schools.”
Is there a politician in Boston who hasn’t uttered a similar phrase on the campaign trail? So it is odd, to say the least, that three councilors opted not to support the resolution. City Council President Bill Linehan of South Boston, at-large Councilor Stephen Murphy, and Councilor Salvatore LaMattina of East Boston all voted “present.”
Their explanations don’t hold up. Linehan said the resolution was filed late and he didn’t have a chance to go over its contents. But the document is only 319 words long. Couldn’t he have asked for a short break to read it? Murphy and LaMattina said they agreed with the Brown decision, but disagreed with how desegregation was implemented in Boston. “I didn’t want to get into a debate regarding forced busing in Boston,” LaMattina told a Boston Magazine reporter. “If you look at the past 40 years, they did it wrong.” That might sound reasonable, given the acrimony that busing created. But this resolution quite clearly marked the 60th anniversary of the end of legal segregation, not the 40th anniversary of the beginning of busing — which will coincidentally take place later this year.
This resolution made no mention of Morgan v. Hennigan, the court case that prompted Boston’s busing program. To conflate Brown with busing shows a lack of understanding of history. Busing was only one tactic used to address the problem of racial inequality in schools. Other tactics included making sure that the city pays the same cost per pupil to educate a black student as a white one, and hiring more teachers of color. While good people can disagree about the effectiveness of each tactic, no one holding political office in Boston today should take issue with the Brown decision itself. Linehan, Murphy, and LaMattina are way out of line.
Note: An earlier version of this editorial failed to note that a quotation by Sal LaMattina originally appeared in a Boston Magazine story.