School Desegregation: Lessons of the Boston Experience and General Results

NOTE: The following is a research paper I submitted for a class on Issues in American Education in 1999.  Despite the age of the document, I think most of the points and the conclusion have stood the test of time.  Also, I’ve been looking for an outlet to publish this work for many years; once I started this blog, it then took many months of looking for the paper before I could do that.  Without further ado:

School desegregation became the law of the land with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 1954.  However, it was only implemented through that series of mass struggles from below known as the Civil Rights movement.  Boston was a particular flash point in this struggle in the mid 1970s, when court-ordered busing of students to achieve racial integration began.  The importance and intensity of the Boston struggle stemmed from the finding of systematic racism on the part of the Boston School Committee by a federal judge, from intense resistance to the judge’s solution that was organized by racist politicians and community activists, and from the courage and determination of Boston’s Blacks not to be intimidated into continued acceptance of de facto segregation.

The problem is that despite the court rulings and the struggles to implement them, segregation persists.  Orfield and others have noted that while 63.6% of Black students were in schools that were less than 50% white in 1972, by 1994 that rate had increased to 67.1%.  “Overall, the level of Black segregation in U.S. schools is increasing slowly, continuing an historic reversal first apparent in the 1991 enrollment statistics” (1997, p. 7).  In addition, a number of school desegregation programs around the country have been dismantled or threatened, including Boston’s relatively successful program of Controlled Choice (Willie, 1998).  In the face of the erosion of the gains of the Civil Rights movement, we must ask: what has been the effect of the desegregation efforts of that era on schools and students?  With reference largely (though not exclusively) to Boston, I will review the history of school desegregation and busing in the courts and in the streets.  I will then examine the results of school desegregation: the impact of the struggle on student achievement and public opinion; the myth of white flight; and the status of integration since the mid 1970s.

History of School Desegregation: Court Rulings

The era of school desegregation started with the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, which overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing for “separate but equal” schools, restaurants, cities, etc.  The Court ruled that school facilities were never “separate but equal”, and that therefore, the schools should be actively desegregated.  However, as Fife (1996) observes: “It is important to note that the justices invalidated de jure segregation in their decision.  De facto segregation was not invalidated” (p. 48).  The Court ruled in the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education decision in 1971 that busing was a legal measure in the promotion of school desegregation.  This was a major step forward, since busing was and remains the most concrete and active means of enforcing desegregation.  However, the scope of Swann was limited with the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision.  The Court ruled against a plan in Detroit that would have established a metropolitan unitary school system encompassing three counties, thus integrating mostly Black city schools with mostly white suburban schools.  Fife (1996) says of this decision: “The justices have limited the scope of public school desegregation only to those districts that have demonstrated de jure segregation.  The focus, and indeed the public discourse concerning schools desegregation, still lies on single school districts.  Because of prevailing residential patterns over the past thirty years or so, this means that school desegregation has remained largely an urban phenomenon, and suburban America has been excluded to a considerable extent” (p. 51).  As Dentler (1997) notes, “President Nixon’s appointment of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court began to subvert the Brown decision… [T]he federal policy commitment to school desegregation [had] lasted for only a few years during the Johnson Administration” (p. 9).

History of School Desegregation: The Struggle in Boston

In 1965, Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Act, becoming the first state to enact a law banning segregated schools, even de facto—though it had no means of enforcement.  The Act finally became real on June 21, 1974, when Federal Judge Arthur Garrity ordered desegregation of the Boston schools through busing, a plan known as Phase I.  The plan was actually rather modest: “[A] large number of students in Boston were already being bused at the time desegregation was mandated by the Court… the school desegregation plan called for busing only 15,000 students—or half the number that were already being transported to school before the court-ordered desegregation” (Reed, 1982, pp. 198-199).  However, judicial rulings are one thing—their implementation is quite another.

The struggle in Boston began in earnest on September 9, 1974, the first day of school under Phase I.  A mob of anti-busing whites surrounded South Boston High School and pelted buses carrying 56 Black students with fruit, beer cans, and rocks (Hillson, 1977, pp. 23-36).  These demonstrations were accompanied by school boycotts of white students against the desegregation order, organized by the group Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR).  ROAR was joined at rallies by the Ku Klux Klan and other virulently racist groups, transforming the mood of the city into one of racist terror.  A football game between South Boston and East Boston, predominantly white neighborhoods, featured a half-time anti-busing rally complete with the burning effigy of a school bus.  Black students faced daily harassment in school classrooms and hallways, from white students and teachers (Hillson, 1977, pp. 187-198).  A pulled fire alarm at Hyde Park High School on April 29, 1976, saw Black students running a gauntlet, ambushed by stone-throwing white students (Hillson, 1977, pp. 248-249).  Even whites were subject to racist violence: for example, Tracy Amalfitano, a white pro-busing activist in South Boston who received phone threats and other harassment, whose family car was torched several times, whose windows at her house were repeatedly broken, and whose sister’s beauty parlor was wrecked (Hillson, 1977, pp. 106-107).  The violence only subsided with the Supreme Court’s rejection of an appeal by ROAR and others of Phase II, Judge Garrity’s plan for expanding desegregation in the 1975-76 school year.  However, the force behind the implementation of integration—and the real heroes of the whole story—were the Black students who had the courage to ride the buses and attend the white schools, who refused the back down even in the face of violence and abuse.

Anti-racist, pro-busing forces, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Student Coalition Against Racism, also mobilized support, calling rallies of 12,000 on December 14, 1974 and 15,000 on May 15,1975, the anniversary of the Brown decision.  Racists, led by ROAR, demonstrated in the same spot the day after both times, pulling out only 2,000-3,000 people each time.  Most Bostonians supported busing or were neutral on the issue; the resistance came from well-organized anti-busing groups, led by prominent local politicians who claimed to speak for all white folk in Boston.  ROAR, the most prominent of these, was organized by Louise Day Hicks, a Democrat who had served on the Boston School Committee and the City Council.  The rhetoric of these demagogues stressed opposition to “forced busing” and support for “neighborhood schools”—which, in a city as segregated as Boston, meant maintaining that segregation.  The anti-busing movement received moral support even from President Gerald Ford, who said, “I respectfully disagree with the judge’s order” (Hillson, 1977, pp. 35-36).  Ross and Berg (1981) noted: “It is not insignificant that during the first year of implementation in Boston, not one white city official expressed anything more than begrudging and equivocal support for the court order” (p. 680).  Stevens (1997) adds: “Public officials in general, locally and in Washington, have never been advocated of school desegregation” (p. 6).  This tacit support of segregation made a tremendous difference in the ease with which desegregations was implemented: “In communities where public officials and other social authorities gave support and direction to the desegregation effort, violence was negligible or nonexistent” (Willie, 1997, p. 15).

Results: Does Desegregation Improve Learning and Achievement?

The data on this issue reveal modest but significant gains in the achievement of Black students.  Buell (1982) notes that Black students’ test scores were consistently lower than those of white students from 1976-1980, but the book gives no data prior to busing with which to compare.  Also, dropout rates increased in the late 1970s in some but not all schools; yet “[c]omparison of all city high-school graduates… uncovered a 2 percent increase in the junior college proportion in 1976-1980” (p. 162).  Later on, Whitman and Friedman (1992) pointed out that “desegregation has no measurable effect on which academic achievement.  But for Black students, desegregated classrooms can lead to modest reading gains, particularly before third grade” (p. 65).  In a Hartford, CT survey by Robert Crain, “[Black] students in the integrated schools were less likely to drop out of school, get arrested or become teen parents, and they were more likely to graduate from college, hold good jobs and live in integrated neighborhoods” (Whitman and Friedman, 1992, p. 65).  The explanation for improved performance and quality of life after school likely resides in the fact that, whereas before desegregation school funding and resources were unfairly allocated in favor of whites, the process of desegregation forced school boards to fund schools more evenly, and even to institute remedial programs or building renovation in those schools that had previously been disadvantaged.  The harmful effects of the cessation of desegregation programs are also documented: in Norfolk, VA, “test scores dropped at the 10 target schools after the end of busing.  In 1991 Black third-graders in the target schools scored 5 percentage points lower than Black third-graders in the remaining integrated elementaries on a battery of tests.  Last year Black third-graders in the target schools tested 10 percentage points lower” (Kunen, 1996, p. 43).

Public Opinion

Despite the tone set by most media coverage of school desegregation, and certainly contrary to the rhetoric of both Democratic and Republican politicians, busing and even more so desegregation have wide support.  Stevens (1997) collected a wide array of statistics: a poll by Louis Harris in 1986 showed that in 1976, Americans opposed busing 78% to 15%, but by 1986, 53% opposed busing, versus 41% for it, a massive shift of 25% of the population.  Parent satisfaction with busing rose from 54% in 1981 to 71% in 1986, with the biggest gain among white parents.  In addition, Stevens quotes a 1991 Boston Globe survey which found that 76% of Blacks, 60% of Hispanics, and 41% of whites were in favor of busing.  And a 1994 USA Today poll showed that 84% of Blacks and 52% of whites thought more, not less, needed to be done to integrate schools.  While support for integration rose among all races, the often hidden class dimension of the struggle for desegregation and generally of racism in America reared its head: “The truth, however, is that poorly educated Americans and low-wage workers are far more likely than college graduates and the wealthy to support busing… And the most supportive parents turned out to be precisely those whose kids had been bused” (Whitman and Friedman, 1992, p. 65).  As noted above, desegregation plans affected mainly major city school systems and left suburban systems—which contained a much larger proportion of better-off middle-class students—untouched.  All of this casts doubt on the traditional image of the enlightened middle- or upper-class liberal.  In contrast, working-class whites are actually more supportive of desegregation.

The Myth of “White Flight”

A common claim of opponents of desegregation is that busing actually drove whites out of the public schools, and they point to decreasing white enrollments as proof of this assertion.  In Boston, after the desegregation order, white student enrollment declined by ten percent each years, twice the pre-busing average (Ross and Berg, 1981, p. 674).  However, Willie (1997) notes: “It is true that Boston lost 17% of its white students the year after the 1975 comprehensive student assignment plan was ordered.  But Boston also lost 5% of its Black students that year” (p. 16).  In fact, “Harvard Professor Gary Orfield found that which enrollment fell substantially after the 1970s, even in cities that had stopped busing or had no desegregation orders”  (Whitman and Friedman, 1992, p. 65).  Hillson (1977, p. 265) claims that “white flight” in Boston is largely disproved by the fact that prior to the court order, names of white students sometimes appeared several times on enrollment rosters so as to inflate enrollment figures and bring more federal aid into the school.  The desegregation process abolished this practice, thus eliminating a supposed number of white students who were never actually there in the first place.

Lauren McDonald (1997) provides the most devastating refutation of the theory of white flight.  She demonstrates that the end of the Baby Boom coincided eighteen years later with the declining white enrollments.  “Coincidentally, children born during the peak birth years for both Massachusetts and Boston, 1956, 1957, and 1958, were graduating from high school in 1974, 1975, and 1976, respectively.  As a result, Boston and its surrounding suburbs were losing their potentially largest twelfth grade classes during the mid-1970s.  At the same time, these districts had one of their smallest first grade classes entering in the past twenty years” (p. 23).  This combined with white emigration to the South and West and with a new influx of non-white immigrants to lower the overall proportion of white students in Boston public schools—and it was this demographic shift that gave any credibility to the “white flight” argument.  Many on the left or in liberal circles accepted white flight, and with it the notion that the white working class was largely racist and would take any opportunity to evade integration.  As noted in the above section on public opinion, this stereotypical notion is often incorrect and should therefore be rejected.  The theory of white flight, however, is most dangerous when wielded by opponents of integration, for it provides a respectable cover for an actual, underlying racist intention:

“White flight is not commonly viewed as a negative social phenomenon because whites left for racist or prejudicial reasons.  Instead, white flight is often viewed as a negative social condition because the absence of whites in the urban public school system means that the schools have little hope of being successful.  The underlying message is that predominantly minority school systems need white students in order to be considered good school systems.  This idea is not only racist and prejudicial at best, but can be detrimental to public policy decisions that affect urban education.  Focusing on the students who are currently enrolled, their needs, abilities, and willingness to learn will be a far more progressive approach to take in the future.”  (p. 29)

Has Integration Succeeded?

The answer to this question is not rosy, but neither is it simple.  The work of Orfield et al. (1997) cited at the beginning points toward increasing racial isolation.  Due to the prohibition on combining urban and suburban school districts—as a result of the Milliken decision—“Detroit’s public school system is not 94% minority.  By 1990, in the 18 largest Northern metropolitan areas, Blacks had become so isolated that 78% of them would have had to move in order to achieve an evenly distributed residential pattern” (Kunen, 1996, p. 41).  Furthermore, Willie (1990) notes that 80% of minority students in Connecticut are concentrated into 14 districts.  But Stevens (1997) points out that hundreds of school districts still have desegregation programs in place.  He says, “It is true that racial isolation in the schools is still a common pattern.  On the other hand, there are more desegregated schools that there were 20 years ago.  In 1968, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all Black pupils in the United States attended one-race Black schools that were 90% or more Black.  As of 1994, the percentage of Black pupils in such schools is one-third (34%)” (p. 6).  With reference to Boston, Buell (1982) remarks: “the simple claim that Judge Garrity only made racial imbalance worse than ever before is wrong.  Despite the increase in 50 percent or more Black schools documented above, his edicts virtually eliminated the less-than-1 percent and 75 percent or more Black enrollments so common before busing” (p. 157).

Contrary to those on the right who decry progressive reforms in the schools as a vehicle for social change, Peterman (1986) cited a number of studies that demonstrated that school desegregation had the objective, unintended effect of desegregating the community.  Kunen (1996) adds: “School desegregation also leads to housing desegregation, not only by promoting tolerance but also, to put it bluntly, by making it impossible to avoid an integrated school by choosing where you live.”  He gives the example of Louisville, KY, where, “by 1990, though only 17% of the area’s residents were Black, a mere one-quarter of 1% of the population lived in a census tract without Black neighbors” (p. 44).  Effective school desegregation programs have the effect of combating racially discriminatory practices in other areas of society.  We should not be surprised, then, to find that the cause of school desegregation has suffered not only from direct attacks, but from the more general societal trend throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s by which the right wing has rolled back affirmative action and other gains of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  It is this overall social fluctuation, perpetuated by politicians and big businesses who stand to gain from increased prison and military spending at the expense of social spending, that effectively explains why racial isolation and separation persist, rather than any fundamental flaw with the drive toward integration.


Willie (1990) states: “It is fair to classify most of the court-ordered school desegregation plans as patchwork, pragmatic efforts… In several communities throughout the United States this kind of piecemeal action has generated confusion and controversy” (p. 74).  While this is no  doubt true, it does not in itself explain the deflection of school desegregation.  What is more important is this: despite evidence of positive effects of desegregation and busing, despite public opinion in favor of it, politicians and right-wingers have been able to roll back desegregation, to put a negative spin on it veiled racist code words, etc.  It would be interesting and useful to have more research on the few successful desegregation programs in the country, and even more so to have more research on the effects of the dismantling of integration plans, as this latter condition has prevailed throughout the past decade.  However, the question “what still needs to be done?” is not about research or academic nit-picking.  It’s about the actual struggle to end racism and make racial integration and equality a permanent fact in our society.  As for outlets for dissemination of this message, all possible avenues must be explored and exploited, particularly teachers’ unions and parents’ organizations.  However, if we wish to go beyond mere dissemination of information and actually change public policy, this will require the direct action of teachers, students, and parents in support of integration and for more funding and resources for public schools.  The original struggle for desegregation may have had a judicial mandate, but implementation of that mandate only occurred because thousands of people took to the streets to enforce it.  As Fife (1996) notes, recent court decisions have shifted oversight of desegregation away from the courts toward local officials, and this will mean a vastly decreased role for the judiciary in future efforts toward desegregation.  This puts a premium on the actions and struggles of ordinary people to end segregation and racism.


Buell, E. H. (1982). School Desegregation and Defended Neighborhoods: The Boston Controversy.  Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co.

Dentler, R.A. (1997).  Past, present, and future in school desegregation: A review.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 30 (3), 8-12.

Fife, B. L. (1996).  The Supreme Court and school desegregation since 1896.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 29 (2), 46-55.

Hillson, J. (1977).  The Battle of Boston.  New York: Pathfinder Press.

Kunen, J. S.  (1996, April 29).  The end of integration.  Time, pp. 39-45.

McDonald, L. E.  (1997).  Boston public school white enrollment decline: White flight or demographic factors?  Equity and Excellence in Education, 30 (3), 21-30.

Orfield, G., Bachmeier, M. D., James, D. R., and Eitle, T. (1997).  Deepening segregation in American public schools: A special report from the Harvard Project on School Desegregation.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 30 (2), 5-24.

Peterman, W. A. (1986).  Integration, resegregation, and integration maintenance.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 22 (4-6), 90-99.

Reed, R. J. (1982). School boards, the community, and school desegregation.  Journal of Black Studies, 13 (2), 189-206.

Ross, J. M. and Berg, W. M. (1981). “I Respectfully Disagree with the Judge’s Order”. Washington, D.C.: The University Press of America.

Stevens, L. B. (1997). Conventional wisdom and school desegregation.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 30 (3), 5-7.

Whitman, D., and Friedman, D. (1992, April 13).  Busing’s unheralded legacy. U.S. News and World Report, pp. 63-65.

Willie, C. V. (1990).  Diversity, school improvement, and choice: Research agenda items for the 1990s.  Education and Urban Society, 23 (1), 73-79.

Willie, C. V. (1997).  What we learned about urban education planning and governance from the Boston school desegregation experience.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 30 (3), 13-20.

Willie, C. V. (1998).  Memorandum to the Boston, Massachusetts, School Committee.  Equity and Excellence in Education, 31 (3), 13-17.


About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to School Desegregation: Lessons of the Boston Experience and General Results

  1. Pingback: Racism and Corporate Reform | Rhode Island Red Teacher

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