Growing up in Massachusetts, I learned in school that Boston led the fight for American independence, for abolition of slavery, and women’s rights. It was a place for progress and justice, a champion for equality. But during a recent discussion of the 1987 Blackside Production Eyes on the Prize, a series documenting America’s Civil Rights Movement that World Channel is rebroadcasting this month, I saw footage that showed me a different Boston: a city in turmoil over desegregation in the 1970s and caught up in violent outrage over an imposed busing policy.
Massachusetts students need to know about that side of Boston, a city divided by racism. During the discussion at WGBH, Melissa Nobles, Dean of Humanities at MIT, offered an explanation for the kind of hostility shown on the screen and why it still persists.
On December 28, 1988, an article in the New York Times referred to the ordered desegregation of Boston’s public schools in 1974 as a decision that made the city “a national symbol of racial intolerance.” Students who attended South Boston High School when the city began busing black students from Roxbury to the predominantly white neighborhood spoke of “ten or fifteen” daily fights between their peers. The stabbing of Michael Faith, a white student, on December 11, 1974, sparked riots among the white community that forced black students to evacuate the school in secret while volunteers distracted the angry crowd. A poignant interview with a little black girl, no older than seven, who was attending school in a white neighborhood, was even more shocking.
“When we go up there we’re gonna be stoned,” she tells the reporter behind the camera. “It’s not fair to me, because why isn’t it the other way around when they come up here? They come up here. We won’t mess with them… I don’t think it’s fair. It’s not fair to me.”
More on Forum Network: » Watch the entire discussion at WGBH of Eyes on the Prize: Then and Now
My history classes tiptoed around the hate this little girl and her peers had to face. I learned that racism and segregation were a problem in the South. I learned about the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Riders, the lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Summer and the abuse that those activists suffered. Only briefly, and not until my junior year of high school, did I learn anything about the Boston busing crisis. I did not learn that Boston’s race-segregated neighborhoods perpetuated segregation in schools for years after the 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education made it illegal. The Boston where desegregation policies gave rise to violence against schoolchildren was a city of intense racism. If today’s Massachusetts residents are to work towards a safe and tolerant society for all people, they should be aware of the prejudice and cruel history of their home state.