Fifty years ago today, federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled that Boston’s school committee had intentionally created and maintained a segregated public-school system. When the school committee failed to produce a plan to remedy the situation, the court implemented a plan to desegregate Boston’s public schools via busing. That approach, which lasted through the late 1980s, elicited intense opposition — some of it violent and virulently racist — in certain parts of the city, including Charlestown and South Boston, particularly during its early years.

Despite the passage of half a century, the meaning and legacy of Garrity’s ruling and the busing that followed it remains contested and ambiguous, even among those who lived through those years and have considered them at length. The following recollections and analyses, drawn from several individuals participating in the Boston Desegregation and Busing Initiative, highlight that uncertainty and some of the specific questions that still fail to elicit a consensus answer — including whether, at its core, the experience of what’s frequently referred to simply as “busing” was good or bad for Boston.

Jim Vrabel, activist, historian, and author of “A People’s History of the New Boston”: Garrity’s ruling was a great decision, and one of the best things that ever happened to Boston. “Busing” is the plan that was put in place by Judge Garrity, and to me that is one of the worst things that happened in Boston. 

Michael Patrick MacDonald, activist, author of “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie” and leader of trauma and storytelling workshops, including one focused on busing: The desegregation order was the right thing to do. The busing remedy, which in Phase 1 paired Roxbury and Southie High, was disastrous, and nobody can deny that. 

South Boston at the time had the highest concentration of white poverty in America. Roxbury was the poorest neighborhood [in Boston], and it was Black. What I always say: South Boston High, the school that had the most students on welfare citywide in 1974, was probably not the best place to achieve equity.

Ira Jackson, former educational administrator and banking executive and chief of staff to then-Mayor Kevin White, who was in office when Garrity’s ruling came down: I think Boston wouldn’t have achieved the dramatic turnaround that it has experienced over the last fifty years unless busing had lanced the boil of racism. 

That doesn’t mean that Boston doesn’t experience racism now, or hasn’t had experiences with racism in the recent past. But think about where we were back in 1974. Boston had lost about 250,000 in population since the end of the second World War. Boston was a city that had less than admirable race relations. Crime was high. The economy was in the dumper. City Hall had been considered, previous to Kevin White, a backwater and corrupt. And look at us now: we’re inclusive, we’re hip, we’re growing. We’re a world class city, undeniably.

Lew Finfer, longtime activist and co-chair of the BDBI: There’s always Boston’s reputation. I remember when the Democratic National Convention was here when John Kerry ran [for president] — there was a reception for delegates in Southie, and some New York Black delegates said 'we’re not going to be safe in Southie,' and then there was this big reaction from [then-Mayor Tom] Menino and others that you can be safe here. Even at the recent NAACP conference, a theme was: Boston’s a good city for Black people, it’s different than it was. It’s a stain on the reputation that comes up in different ways. 

Suzanne Lee, longtime community leader, BPS teacher in Chinatown during busing’s early years and a BPS principal: I was teaching at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown. The second year, when the busing plan involved elementary school children, I was bused to Charlestown with the kids.

My focus was all on the safety of the students, so I did not pay much attention to my own feelings. But at the same time, when I got inside the building since I was a new teacher inside that school and one of the first nonwhite teachers to enter that building that was a different story. There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of nervousness. You just didn’t know what was going to happen.

Hubie Jones, longtime community leader and former dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work: If the Garrity decision hadn’t happened, I do not think we would’ve gotten these Irish Catholic politicians who then controlled the government, and used it and exploited it for their own good and their own interest, out of power. [Former Congresswoman and then-city councilor] Louise Day Hicks and her crowd had promised their white constituents: You keep voting for us and you won’t have to worry about your kids going to school with Black kids. So when Garrity ruled, that promise was broken. 

Barbara Fields, former BPS student, BPS teacher during desegregation, administrator in the BPS Office of Equity, and executive board member of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts: The negative aspect of it was more publicized. It was in the newspapers; it was on the nightly news. You didn’t see anything on the news about the positive aspects of [desegregation]. It was around the violence, and that’s what people knew, and that’s what they remember. You don’t hear anything about the positive ramifications of students being integrated in schools.

Kim Janey, educational advocate and former acting mayor of Boston who was bused to Charlestown after Garrity’s order: People still want to talk about busing and are missing, I think, the deeper point. The issue is deeper, it is bigger, and it’s never been about yellow buses. It has always been about the fight for quality education for Black and brown children Black children in particular, because this fight dates back centuries.

Fields: Garrity put in place 400 different orders that brought extremely positive things that people still are subject to in the district, but they don’t associate it with Garrity. He ordered that at least 25 percent Black teachers and 10 percent other teachers of color be hired within the school department. The same for administrators the numbers were different. There’s still an outstanding order, believe it or not. He ordered that because he saw the value of having a diverse faculty, and in particular having Black teachers and administrators for Black students. And now the research has in fact validated what he said back then.

Janey: Prior to 1974, folks were organizing. The Black mothers, the Black parents, the community leaders who were on the frontlines, often with allies in the Jewish community and elsewhere, pushing for quality education for Black children. My first educational experience outside of my parent’s home was at a Black community school, one of the Black private schools that were born out of this movement. And we saw several schools come online in the late '60s and early '70s because of this fight. Paige Academy is still here. And we could look at other things: METCO, founded in 1966 again, borne out of the organizing efforts of Black parents. [METCO, which still exists, is a voluntary program that sends inner-city students to suburban schools.]

MacDonald: When we have these conversations, some of the stuff that the white participants are finding out that they never knew is that the Black community was organizing over decades to achieve access to good education. This didn’t just come out of the blue. And what the Black participants in our group are finding out that they didn’t know is that Southie had the poverty rate that it had. Something had to be done, but it could have been done in a different way.

Lee: I spent a lot of time confronting other teachers. I was bused with a lot of the first-year immigrant students, so they would chat amongst themselves in Chinese. The adults would tell them, 'Speak English!’ I’d say, 'They’re not talking about you.’ If you tell them speak English, that means you’re telling them to shut up all day long, they can’t open their mouth. I had to constantly confront people when they’d do things like that.

Fields: Some people are still traumatized, especially the students, from the experience they had, and some feel that education was robbed from them at that time, depending on what school they were assigned to. 

Finfer: I was a community organizer in Dorchester in that period, and we had our meetings at the Grover Cleveland School in Fields Corner. Every other site, some of our Black members or white members would say, I don’t know if I feel safe going to that place — including places that were like three blocks from there. 

Jones: In ’78 or ’79 I would say, 'Well, this thing is beginning to move the city in a more moderate, progressive direction.’ And people would say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you crazy?’ Nobody would have predicted the aftermath, because at times it felt like the city was falling apart at the seams. It was horrific.

Lee: [Students from Chinatown] got to go to a brand-new building in Charlestown with air conditioning. Did they benefit? Yeah, some of them the facility’s better. But they’re not together with other kids that they know. They don’t have that level of comfort. And for little kids, that feeling of security is very important for their learning. 

When the buses rode toward Charlestown and we had to stop by the bridge before the entrance to Charlestown, we had to wait there for all the buses together. Then we’d go into Charlestown with police escorts. That transition was also pretty high anxiety you were thinking, Why would we need all these police escorts? That lasted quite a long time. Even for an adult, it was not a pleasant experience. 

MacDonald: What I find is that a whole lot of people who experienced those first years, Phase 1 and Phase 2 their education was destroyed, and their lives and a lot of their family members’ lives went downhill. 

Nobody from poor Southie was fleeing to a suburban school. White flight in the lower end of Southie wasn’t to better circumstances it meant dropping out. In the ’90s, the dropout rate for Southie public school students was 40 percent.

Vrabel: Today, because of the busing plan, the Boston Public Schools are more segregated now than they probably would be otherwise. Long-term working class families left the city who’d been here for generations, never to return, and they have been replaced by upper-middle-class families who are less likely to use the Boston Public Schools. And so there are far fewer students in the system. I think the latest figure is 45,000, down from 95,000. 

Janey: Why haven’t we dealt with these long-term persistent challenges around equity and access to quality education in our district? These are long-time, persistent challenges. And no matter how many times the district or the school committee or a superintendent or a mayor makes a declaration around these things of what is important, they still can’t seem to meet that. Parents are making decisions with their choices and their feet, and they’re choosing other options. 

Vrabel: We are still busing students, even though race was dropped as a factor in student assignment in 1999. We are still busing tens of thousands of students at a cost of over $90 million. We don’t have a solid neighborhood school system like we did before, which is part of the reason a lot of families today who have other choices refuse to use the system. 

The other thing that’s done is destabilize the neighborhoods, especially majority-minority neighborhoods. Neighborhood schools are a great institution, often more important than churches, as something neighborhoods rely on, come together around.  

Ira Jackson: Compare Boston in 2024 to where we were in 1974, and I don’t think you can find a community or a city anywhere in the world that’s changed as much as Boston has, and mostly on balance for the better except, ironically perhaps, in terms of the quality of public education.