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Bussing in Boston – setting the record straight

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Tom Deignan’s recent piece on Irish Central, “The real fighting Irish – Boston Irish fight each other,” deals with the 1970s, a terrible chapter in Boston’s history. By judicial fiat, public school students were forbidden from attending their local neighborhood schools and compelled to board school buses that took them to schools in far-flung corners of the city.

An Irish-American federal judge, Wendell Arthur Garrity, imposed this order to remedy the segregation of white and black students in the Boston school system that he found existed in fact, albeit not by law. Forced bussing was not a solution; it was an unmitigated disaster. It brought our city to its knees and accelerated the flight of ethnic Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, from the city to the suburbs.

Mr. Deignan’s piece is provocative, but oversimplifies the infinite complexity of events and of the actors who shaped the events. One of the key actors, long-time Boston Mayor Kevin White, passed away last month and his death seems to have prompted Mr. Deignan to write.
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The other politician Mr. Deignan focuses on is Kevin White’s chief rival during the 1970s, former State Senator Joe Timilty, who, in a strange coincidence, suffered his own tragic loss just after the former mayor died. His daughter, Kelly Timilty, an elected member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, passed away at age 49. Kelly Timilty’s death prompted me to write.

In the interest of due disclosure, the Donnelly and Timilty families go back a long time. They were neighbors in St. Gregory’s Parish in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. My Uncle Brian helped lead Joe Timilty’s campaign in Dorchester when he ran against Kevin White in 1975. I went to high school and college with Greg Timilty, Joe’s son and Kelly’s brother.

Now for setting the record straight. Mr. Deignan, as he’s not a Bostonian, has to rely on a Boston Globe journalist for the details of the fights between Kevin White and Joe Timilty for the mayor’s office. Mr. Deignan thus writes that Kevin White and Joe Timilty came from the “opposite sides of the tracks.” That is patently not true.

Kevin White came from a political family. So did Joe Timilty. Kevin White came from West Roxbury, a lace curtain Irish neighborhood. Joe Timilty came from just off Morton Street in Dorchester Lower Mills, then a lace curtain, even well-to-do, Irish area. Any difference between the two was one of bearing and style, not of social class. Moreover, both opposed forced bussing. The distinction is that Mayor White was committed to following the court order, while Joe Timilty took a harder line.

Yet it is Mr. Deignan’s characterization of 1970s Boston as an era in which the Irish fought each other, including “Irish-on-Irish violence,” that would most raise the hackles of the Boston Irish who endured forced bussing and all of its devastating consequences. Far from dividing Irish-Americans who lived in the city, it united them.

Judge Garrity’s decision was rooted in his determination that Boston’s public schools were racially segregated. But Judge Garrity, like most outsiders, did not understand Boston’s evolution as a city of ethnic neighborhoods. If the city was segregated racially, it was also segregated ethnically. Neighbourhoods like Dorchester, South Boston and Charlestown always prided themselves on their Irish heritage; neighbourhoods like East Boston and the North End revelled in their Italian roots. To a lesser extent, they still celebrate these ethnic identities today.

The neighbourhoods acquired their ethnic character as immigrants settled and wanted to retain a piece of the old world in a new city. Boston’s historically small black population centred in the old West End and the South End. Newcomers, mainly southern blacks fleeing hostile territory, gradually settled in Roxbury and North Dorchester.

When Judge Garrity ordered the bussing of students, it tore the fabric of Boston’s neighbourhoods. It is difficult for most people to imagine a situation in which, all of a sudden one September, their children could no longer attend the school they could walk to. Instead, through absolutely no fault of their own whatsoever and on the whim of an unelected, unaccountable judge living in a tony suburb, their children would have to get on a bus and travel to a school in another part of the city. This is exactly what happened in Boston in the 1970s.

Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, thousands of families who could afford to leave the city did. Many moved to the suburbs as soon as it became clear that this nightmare was about to become reality. And who stayed? A lot of those who stayed couldn’t afford to leave.
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And therein lies the truth about Boston and bussing. Bussing was not ultimately about race; it was far more about social class, money and power. Did some Irish-American Bostonians harbour racist attitudes toward blacks? Yes. Did some Irish-American – and Italian-American – politicians play to those attitudes? Yes. But the emotions that animated most Irish-American Bostonians in the 1970s were fear and desperation, not hatred. They feared for their children’s suddenly uncertain future and they were desperate because they could see no way out.

These emotions united them and they fought bussing with everything they had. They fought the system and the outsiders who controlled the system. Those outsiders included Judge Garrity, the Boston Globe and, indeed, Senator Edward Kennedy. It was a fight they couldn’t win, yet they fought until the end anyway.

Mr. Deignan is right that our city is lucky to have moved well past those horrendous days. Perhaps the most vexing thing about forced bussing is that it didn’t help anyone – it destroyed the educational experiences of white and black public school students alike in Boston in the 1970s. They were unwitting pawns in a social experiment that was a colossal failure. If the money that was spent on bussing students had been spent on badly needed improvements to schools in Roxbury, North Dorchester and elsewhere, things could have turned out much differently.

Mr. Deignan is wrong, however, to say that the Boston Irish fought one another. They fought the system together. And in waging that losing battle, South Boston’s William Bulger, the former president of the Massachusetts States Senate and of the University of Massachusetts, said it best.

They were courageous. They were steadfast. And they were right.

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