Boston is an epicenter of important American history, but not all of it is tied to the Revolutionary War or reflects gloriously on the city. Only 40 years ago, a federal judge ordered Boston’s schools to be desegregated by busing students to other neighborhoods. It prompted an ugly crisis.
Busing stands as a defining moment in the city’s history and America’s civil rights movement. But until now it has never officially been taught in the city’s public schools. The announcement that school desegregation will be taught as part of the standard history curriculum marks an important milestone in providing perspective and lessons to students about the city’s relatively recent and troubled past.
The busing controversy tore at the fundamental fabric of the city, exposing a racially segregated landscape and deep-seated hostility to change. Federal judge Arthur Garrity, who handed down the busing order after the city’s School Committee refused to achieve racial balance on its own, emerged as a remarkable figure, both vilified and sanctified for his decision to impose the will of the federal court on the city. Some protesters threw bricks as black students were bused into white communities. The crisis put Boston on the map in a profoundly negative way — as a city that lacked racial tolerance.
But students in the Boston public schools have not traditionally been taught about this crucial period in Boston. The curriculum had previously included a lesson on the civil rights movement but, following the Massachusetts state frameworks for history and social studies, school desegregation was taught using the events in Little Rock, Ark., and not what happened a few years after in the students’ own backyard.
Boston’s decision to embrace its own history — however painful — also stands in stark contrast to attempts in other parts of the country to censor history courses. Oklahoma’s lawmakers, for example, recently passed a bill that would require advanced placement US history courses to eliminate supposedly unpatriotic and negative topics and hew to a more “pro-American” curriculum.
Boston is a very different city than it was in 1975, although racial inequities remain — especially the need for better education among minority populations. Busing didn’t work on its own terms — Boston’s schools today are not racially balanced — but it has left a profound imprint on the city and the nation. By looking back and studying this difficult period, students can have a better understanding of why Boston is the way it is today.