The story of the “Boston busing crisis” of the 1970s dominates popular and academic accounts of Boston’s civil rights movement. This widely accepted narrative of protests by white “anti-busers” against court-ordered integration portrays school integration as a failure and an aberration in the liberal “city on a hill.” In the rare instance that African Americans make an appearance, they are portrayed as apathetic bystanders or victims. While the fight for integration in the South is depicted as a morally just battle led by African American freedom fighters, most accounts of the quest for school desegregation in the North portray these efforts as disruptive and misguided. The “Boston busing” story plays a central role in reinforcing a powerful myth of southern exceptionalism that portray northern segregation as more racially benign and less institutionalized than its Southern counterpart.1 It distorts our understanding of the civil rights movement by obscuring the foundational role of racial inequality in our nation’s history.
The history of Black civil rights activism in Boston shows that the South did not have a monopoly on either white supremacy or Black activism. From the mid-1940s through the 1970s Black Bostonians waged a fierce battle for racial justice in a deeply segregated and racially hostile city. They pushed for improvements in the quality of education, to end segregation, and for power for the people in school governance. Activists employed every strategy imaginable. They staged sit-ins and demonstrations, successfully lobbied for the passage of legislation, created freedom schools, and ran their own desegregation programs. After decades of activism, Black Bostonians turned to the courts as a last resort, filing suit in the case of Morgan v. Hennigan. In 1974 the courts ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, ordering the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools.
Black youth played a critical, and often overlooked, role in the Black freedom movement in Boston and nationally. During the 1960s and 70s, Black youth in Boston fought for educational racial justice through walkouts and sit-ins, the formation of Black student unions, and boycotts. They brought attention to the issues faced by Black youth, claimed space in the political process, and dismantled powerful stereotypes of Black urban youth as apathetic, dangerous, and deviant that have justified attacks on their bodies and rights.
Black youth in Boston were not alone in these battles. They found guidance in the activism of students like Barbara Johns who led a walkout in protest of segregated schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and youth activists of SNCC and SCLC who fought for voting rights and educational justice. They were part of a wave of Black student movements in the late 1960s in cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. Describing these ties Boston student movement leader Leon Rock said, “We were doing essentially the same thing that happened at the Woolworth’s counters in Greensboro. We were just doing it our style in Boston.”2
The apex of the Boston student movement came in the spring of 1971 when more than fifty percent of Black students staged a citywide strike of the Boston Public Schools in protest of endemic racism, system-wide segregation, and poor education. The boycott began on January 22, 1971 when administrators at English High School, located in the city’s Fenway neighborhood, suspended five Black students on charges of damaging school property. Within hours 200 Black students occupied the auditorium and walked out. Protests escalated at English in the following days, forcing administrators to cancel classes for five days. The protests spread quickly across the city. Dorchester High students sat in after a physical scuffle between a white teacher and Black student. Days later 550 students walked out of Brighton High. On February 4 the Black Student Federation, the citywide Black student union, called for a system-wide boycott of the Boston Public Schools.
Students called for greater power for students and the Black community in school governance, improvements to facilities, and a “culturally relevant” education that celebrated Black culture. “Instead of making black people relevant to the school system, “ Omeka Agu said, “We want to make the school system relevant to black people.”3This vision of cultural relevance was reflected in their demands for the hiring of more Black staff, Black studies courses, official recognition of Black student unions, and the right to wear dashikis and Afros. Pushing back against the growing criminalization of school spaces they called for the removal of police from schools and the prohibition of corporal punishment.
Black students’ committed activism and educational vision challenged powerful stereotypes of Black youth as disengaged, “culturally deprived” delinquents. These negative characterizations, rooted in slavery and Jim Crow, found new grounding in the Cold War era rhetoric of containment in theories of a “culture of poverty” and juvenile delinquency authored by Daniel Moynihan and Oscar Lewis among others. School officials and politicians in Boston joined their counterparts nationwide in embracing these theories in an effort to hide the reality of systematic institutionalized racism and to justify the criminalization and marginalization of non-white youth. In 1964, Boston School Committee Chairman William O’Connor gave voice to this sentiment when he said, “We have no inferior education in our schools. What we have been getting is an inferior type of pupil.”4 Black youth in Boston rejected O’Connor’s claims of Black intellectual and cultural inferiority through their demands for Black history courses and celebration of African style dress and hairstyles. They challenged school officials’ efforts to put the blame on Black youth by shining a light on the racist actions taken by the Boston School Committee, elected officials, and banking and real estate interests that resulted in a racially segregated city and school system.
The 1971 boycott and broader student movement provide key insights into the challenges and opportunities of collaboration between youth and adult activists. Students followed in the footsteps of their elders, but also saw themselves as different in important ways. They embraced more radical rhetoric, were less willing to accept piecemeal change, and emphasized student governing power and cultural relevancy. Boycotting students found valuable support from organizations like the Black United Front and New Urban League. But they also sometimes had strained relations with the Boston NAACP and Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) who hesitated to publicly pledge support for striking students and urged them to adopt a more conciliatory tone. In response, students pushed back for the NAACP and BEAM to take up student demands and recognize them as serious political actors. “We were not just kids that wanted to get high on pot and do nothing with our lives, “ said Cheryl Borden. “We wanted to be a part of politics. We wanted to make an impact.”5
Although the boycott and the broader student movement did not achieve all of its goals, it showed that Black youth were major political players with important ideas to contribute to the movement. They successfully negotiated the temporary removal of police from campuses, amnesty for striking students, and the creation of Black studies courses. Many schools eliminated dress codes and became more supportive of black student groups. Their demands for a culturally relevant education and youth power rejected dangerous stereotypes of Black urban youth as deviant, dangerous, and apathetic that have for centuries functioned to justify the criminalization and marginalization of Black Americans and an ongoing epidemic of extralegal violence.