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Radical History Review 81 (2001) 61-93

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"We Saved the City":
Black Struggles for Educational Equality in Boston, 1960-1976

Jeanne F. Theoharis

They seem to think we're animals or something. They just don't want us to be able to get the kind of education they've already got.

--Margie, a black student who desegregated South Boston High School, September 12, 1974

I'd rather go to school in the South.

--Cynthia, a black student who desegregated South Boston High School and had a brick thrown at her head

Unequal schooling became the focus of organizing within Boston's black community in the 1960s and 1970s. 1 Long a site of racial inequity within the city of Boston, the school system isolated black students in poorly funded, underequipped, overcrowded schools. Attacking the ways these schools perpetuated second-class citizenship on their children, community activists fought to equalize education in the city. Following a decade and a half of sustained black activism within the city to secure these resources, the black community, through the NAACP, filed a federal desegregation suit against the school system. In June 1974, federal judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered Boston Public Schools (BPS) to begin desegregation. In light of this decision, Boston was then the site of one of the latest, most publicized, and most violent battles for school desegregation of the civil rights movement. As the school district [End Page 61] unwillingly began a plan for school desegregation, many whites took to the streets and kept their children home. Television publicized white fear, hatred, and violent resistance to the nation, shattering Boston's reputation as the "cradle of democracy" and confirming what many in Boston already knew: that Boston was an intensely parochial and prejudiced city. This media attention exposed in gory detail northern racism, revealing the similarities between white mobs in eastern cities and southern towns. At the same time, it demonstrated the power blacks and their white allies had gained to pressure the city to give black students the same access and resources it had long reserved for white students and to hire black teachers in every school in the city.

Boston's school desegregation has not garnered the kind of scholarly attention that many events of the civil rights movement have. In part, this stems from the fact that Boston challenges many prevailing popular assumptions about postwar black freedom struggles: namely that it did not take place in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Such views too often focus on segregation as a southern problem and the civil rights movement as a southern movement. While scholars have sought to complicate the historiography of the movement in recent years, the dominant civil rights narrative remains that of a nonviolent movement born in the South during the 1950s that emerged triumphant in the early 1960s but then was derailed by the twin forces of Black Power and white backlash when it sought to move north after 1965. African American protest movements in the urban North appear as ancillary and subsequent to the "real" movement in the South.

Accounts that do take up northern movements usually do so to trace how the movement spread from the South to the North, to show how tactics that worked in the South were less successful in the North, and to argue that blacks in the North had rejected integration in favor of nationalist strategies by the mid-1960s. As this reasoning goes, as black communities radicalized in the 1960s, they came to see desegregation as irrelevant and too compromising. Contrary to these views, Boston's struggle was a northern movement for educational equality and school desegregation that succeeded through black organizing efforts to eliminate acute school segregation in the city. 2 Black Boston's struggle for educational justice culminated in a federal desegregation suit; while not all blacks in the city supported desegregation, by and large, the community saw it as a last resort to secure equal resources for the majority of black children in the city. Despite sustained organizing throughout...


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pp. 61-93
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Archived 2004
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