thumbnail of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Segregation Legislation for Boston Schools
Hide -
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Four years ago today a federal judge in Boston said that the city`s school system was deliberately segregated, and ordered forced busing to correct it. The city exploded. For months television viewers across the nation saw scenes of violence and hatred as white parents in some districts fought the order. Not since Little Rock, Arkansas, two decades ago, had resistance to desegregation appeared so strong and violent. Southerners looked on with a sense of irony, as this bastion of Northern liberalism was gripped by the same passions for which the South had been so criticized. Since the media are often accused of paying attention only when there is trouble, we want tonight to look at Boston again, as it ends its fourth school year of court-ordered busing: is it working? Are there lessons for other cities? We begin with a report from Boston by Pamela Bullard of Public Television Station WGBH.
(September 9, 1974.)
Mayor KEVIN WHITE: We have not come 300 years in this city without having faced great change. Boston has never failed to meet that change with courage, compassion and dignity. And she will not fail now, with your help, with your strength, and with our sense of decency for each other.
(September 12, 1974. Film clip showing demonstrators against forced busing.)
RUTH BATSON, Community Leader: It is a racist, violent city. I think that the school desegregation violence has spilled over into the streets, it`s spilled over into housing projects, it`s spilled over into neighborhoods.
(September 1975. Film clip showing troops in streets.)
PAMELA BULLARD, Reporting: This was the face that Boston showed the world in the fall of 1974-1975. Although most sections of the city were calm, when violence did erupt it was vicious, inspired by racial hatred. More than once President Gerald Ford put the 82nd Airborne on alert for possible duty on the streets of this historic American city. Three years later, even the toughest neighborhoods are quiet. For the most part, black and white children attend school together, without incident. But that is only a sliver of Boston`s story.
The effect of desegregation here will not be known for years. Some vague readings are beginning to emerge, but they are just as controversial and complex as the desegregation experience itself. One thing is certain: desegregation is no longer a story of resistance; it is finally the story of something more. The most obvious yardstick for measuring desegregation in this city is South Boston, for it is here that court ordered integration in the North met its fiercest resistance.
And although four years later the anger lives on, Southie has taken some grudging steps away from its reputation. The buses still arrive with a police escort, but now only four officers, not 400, greet them. The screaming crowds are gone, and students step off the buses casually, without the terror of students before them. Some remnants of the past do remain; for example, these metal detectors were installed after the near- fatal stabbling of a student almost three years ago. The open hatred and fear, so long the hallmark of South Boston High, have finally dissipated, giving way to a lingering uneasiness.
What strikes the visitor to Southie first is the small number of students in the classes. Although this visit was in June, a low attendance month, and after the seniors graduated, teachers said that even on the best of days there are only four to eight students per class.
JOANNE LEONARD, Teacher: We`re told that we have as many as 600 students in the building. That`s hard to ascertain, from my viewpoint, be cause some of the students are at other locations. 600 seems like a very, very high number to me. If I were to estimate, it would be more like two or three hundred students, but I`ve been told I`m wrong.
BULLARD: Desegregation was going so badly here in 1975 the federal court put the school under receivership. Headmaster Jerome Winegar, brought in by the court order, has extraordinary powers in the school. With considerable federal funding, Winegar and his staff changed Southie from a traditional school to one filled with alternative programs.
JEROME WINEGAR, Headmaster: Frankly, one of the reasons that we`re having so few problems with kids is that there`s more satisfaction in the classes. And even at a time when there were ninety police officers and 135 staff and whatever -- normally 400 -- kids in school, we still couldn`t keep them from beating each other to death.
LEONARD: The erratic attendance here is the worst problem that we have. I try to decide what my goals are going to be for the day, what my goals are going to be for the week or the month. But I would be lying. if I said that I could stick to that when I have three students on Monday, and a different three on Tuesday and a combination of the group on Wednesday .I find myself teaching the same lesson over and over.
WINEGAR:I always figured we had the worst attendance record in town. I was in federal court two weeks ago and found out that out of eighteen schools we are eleventh, which means there are seven schools in town who have a worse attendance rate, frankly; than we have. And that has to do with the nature of the way students are dealt with, which at some points is very, very important and maybe just as important to them, frankly, as whether or not they do well in their algebra class.
LEONARD: If I were sixteen I think I`d be interested in going horseback riding or sailing and all those things, but I wouldn`t be learning a lot of English.
BULLARD: These division in philosophy, traditional learning versus loosely structured alternative programs, are not unique to Southie; they confront urban school systems every where and are exacerbated here by forced integration. Still, those on the front lines judge today by yesterday`s experiences.
FIRST STUDENT: It`s a lot better than it was before. Like he said, everybody, you know, they`re concentrating on their class work, they are going to classes, they`re not that much walking around the halls and hanging around outside like it used to be, and stuff like that. And it`s nice this year. Everybody`s getting along...
SECOND STUDENT: There`s a lot more people attending than there used to be. Because everybody, like, is starting to realize that if you come to school you can learn, instead of just staying home, hanging on the corner.
THIRD STUDENT: We`re getting along better now.
LEONARD: The atmosphere here this year, being so much nicer and easier -- laid back, as the kids say -- has come as a tremendous relief to the students and the teachers. Compared to what we`ve been through over the last three years, it`s a relief.
BULLARD: Is South Boston High slowly integrating because of innovative programming, because the troublemakers are gone, because student numbers are low, because the community finally grew tired oœ fighting? There are no easy answers here, but Southie seems indicative of the school system itself; it has come a long way in four years, but has so very far to go.
DAVID FINNEGAN, President, Boston School Cmte.: I think we`ve come miles up the road. We`re now in a relearning process, we`ve got to re-educate the people to the fact that there are an awful lot of good things going on in public education, that desegregation did not carry with it the end to effective and solid education, in many instances it meant the beginning of it; and that the overall environment in the Boston public schools is a good one -- in need of some help, yes, but a good one. And I think there is that recognition in the city now.
BULLARD: Even the sharpest critics of desegregation agree that the so- called magnet programs ordered by the court, which require university and business involvement in selected schools, have meant new life for this aging political school system. Not only are there opportunities in art and drama, but there are student internships at hospitals, businesses. There are no blatant racial problems at the magnets, and the magnets are oversubscribed each year. But whatever progress has been made, it has been made at a heavy price, in human and financial terms. Not including many of the elaborate programs, the first-year tab for desegregation was $20 million. Second year, $30 million. Half of that each year for police overtime. The last two years the price has stabilized at about $12 million, due largely to a drop in the excessive police costs.
Although over half of .all this is reimbursable through state and federal funds, Boston taxpayers, already carrying the highest property taxes in the country, still struggle under the burden. The school budget remains high, $175 million, despite the fact Boston has lost 28,000 white students since 1972. According to sociologist David Ohmer, who is completing a study of that loss, the departure of 16,000 students is directly attributable to desegregation --those children transferred to parochial schools, special academies set up after the court order, and suburban schools. But many high school students just dropped out. For the Lonergan family in South Boston, desegregation meant financial, emotional and educational hardship. The first decision came easily: the children would not be bused. Michelle stayed out of school for a year, while Mrs. Lonergan searched for a way to send them to a private academy.
Mrs. PATRICIA LONERGAN, South Boston Mother: I went out and got a job.
BULLARD: Doing what?
LONERGAN: Making beds -- fifty-two beds at a nursing home. The pay was thirty-eight dollars a week, but I managed to put the children in school for two years, which was $2,000 a year, on thirty-eight dollars a week. And I was proud of myself.
BULLARD: But in another neighborhood of Boston, West Roxbury, there is a different story. Christina Termine attends a district school, the Lee. She travels from one of the city`s wealthier neighborhoods to one of. its poorest.
Mrs. BERTHA TERMINE: The` location really doesn`t have too much to do with the school. Once you get inside that school there is everything humanly possible for a child in that school. Christina is in the absolute ideal situation, because I couldn`t wish anything -- I wish the Lee went through high school, that she could graduate from twelfth grade from the Lee.
BULLARD: Many of Christina`s fellow students walk from nearby Franklin Field housing project.
STUDENT: Bon apres-midi, les enf ants .
TEACHER: Tres bien. Ca c`est bien fait, oui?
MARGIE GREENFIELD, Teacher: Children are wonderful. They can communicate in any place. They play the same games, they sing the same songs, whether they sing them in the project or whether they sing them in their back yard in West Roxbury; and they really do get along beautifully. I think that once they come here they are equal; they all have the same tote tray, they all have the same chair, they all have the same desk, it doesn`t matter what their bedroom looks like at home. And they don`t really worry or wonder what each other`s bedrooms look like at home, or what kind of TV they have. They`re all equipped with the same things when they come to school.
BULLARD: The success of this school cannot erase one glaring problem: the Lee is underutilized. With a capacity of 1,000, only 600 seats are filled. Despite the caliber of the school, white students who could attend the Lee have opted instead to leave the system. But the spirit within this school is not easily dampened; there is no uneasiness here, and the only confrontation is between a lion and a scarecrow.
(Scene from students` performance of "The Wizard of Oz.")
CHRISTINA TERMINE: They have so much more stuff here. They have a giant gym room, two art rooms, a swimming pool and music rooms, and so much. I really like it because it gets you together with other people and you get to make a lot of new friends.
GREENFIELD: This school is terrific. And it does have a great reputation. But I`ve taught in, seven other schools in the city and I still would defend the system.
ROBERT PETERKIN, Assoc. Supt., Boston City Schools: The initial image obviously was, boy, look what`s happening to Boston, I wouldn`t want to be there; isn`t it horrible. I think now that as more cities desegregate and experience the same problems, the guilty finger no longer points at Boston quite as heavily as it did before. But the confusing part of our image is the new thrust of the school system, the magnet programs, the success of the magnet programs; the overall stability that`s come to the system at this time is confusing to those outside who thought that Boston would never recover.
(Another scene from "The Wizard of Oz.")
BULLARD: If all things are relative, the Boston school system is especially so. Its progress since court-ordered desegregation is made impressive in large part by what the schools were before: deliberately segregated, stubbornly old-fashioned, rife with political patronage. The system is changing now, slowly, thanks to significant parental involvement and a shift in the city`s political leaders away from busing rhetoric to quality in the schools. And the city -- at its heart a poor city -- has been forced to confront its own anger.
BATSON: I think the city is better off, because now everything is out in the open. No longer can people say, "Everything is fine here. We have no problems; everybody gets along fine, you know. I went to school with black people" -- or "colored people," as I hear some people say -- "and we never had any problems." That`s gone; that cover is off.` And we can no longer hide behind that kind of cover.
BULLARD: Four years later, the federal court still rules over Boston`s schools. It`s effect, long-range, remains inconclusive.
BATSON: I saw a child this morning, and I asked her how she was doing; she just graduated from school -- I said, "Was it worth it?" and she said, "Yeah, it`s worth it." So for some it is, and for some it might not be.
(Another scene from "The Wizard of Oz.")
MacNEIL: The reporter-producer for that report was Pamela Bullard of Boston Public Television Station VGBH. Now, what`s the meaning of the new calm in the Boston school system? To answer that we have two gentlemen deeply familiar with the situation. Gregory Anrig is the Massachusetts State Commissioner of Education. He`s a former teacher, principal, and official in the U. S. Office of Education section for desegregation assistance. Ronald Edmonds is a lecturer and research associate at Harvard`s Graduate School of Education. He`s also a member of the Freedom House Coalition, a group of black academic, community and business leaders in Boston.
Mr. Anrig, has desegregation in Boston been a success, and how do you define success?
GREGORY ANRIG: I think the desegregation report card could not be rated as highly as success yet. I think what we have had is substantial improvement in the Boston public schools, not only for black youngsters but for bilingual youngsters, handicapped youngsters and white youngsters. We`ve seen good progress, but whether we can yet claim that that`s full success, I think we shouldn`t reach that conclusion yet. We need a little more time to find that one out.
MacNEIL: Would you agree with that, Mr. Edmonds?
RONALD EDMONDS:I think that if you want to understand the quality of desegregation in Boston you have to put it in its proper context, and that is to understand that desegregation in Boston is not nearly so momentous as it seems if you understand that black people in Boston have been struggling for a decent public education for almost as many years as there has been public schooling in the United States; that if you go back to the very origins of public schooling in the United States and read black Boston`s citizen petitions for access to separate schools, then access to desegregated schools -- and I`m talking now about the nineteenth century -- then read black citizen petitions for improvement in the quality first of separate schools, then improvement in the quality of desegregated schools in the nineteenth century, and then come to the twentieth century and in a sense recreate a series of episodes like that, that means, you see, then. for me what is going on now is but one in a long series of efforts by black people in Boston, just as elsewhere, to get their just desserts, both as people and citizens; and in that context my summary response to desegregation in Boston is, without desegregation in Boston there wouldn`t be any chance for progress at all, and now that it`s come there may be some progress and it remains yet to be seen what that may mean.
MacNEIL: What are the failures of desegregation so far?
ANRIG: Well, certainly one of the failures is the extreme period of turmoil that we went through in some schools. And I think it`s very important to stress that there are 169 schools in the City of Boston; the ones that hit the headlines were two or three or four schools at different periods of time, primarily South Boston High School -- that that was not typical of the schools in general. But there was turmoil, and in `74 and into `75 there was really extraordinary I; and oy trauma that youngsters experienced -- parents did, as well as school personnel. That was one of the sad parts of desegregation. The fact that many students and their parents have chosen to abandon the school system is another area of failure. The fact that we have not improved as much as we ought to in the City of Boston is another failure. But that has to bee seen in the context that Ron Edmonds just spoke of: it`s been a long battle, and we have over the last four years made significant progress that is important and shouldn`t be underrated.
MacNEIL: What about the quality of education? Are they attracting those students they are -- and they`re relatively few; at least, in that school we looked at -- are they attracting them by the kind of loosely structured curriculum against which so many other school systems in the country are reacting now?
EDMONDS: Well, first I think you have to go back to something that Greg said, and that is, it is fair to say that the Boston schools are improving in pupil acquisition of at least basic school skills, which may only mean that the Boston public schools are not now nearly so bad as they were a few years ago, but we`re not yet ready to say that they`re good.
MacNEIL: Well, does that mean that the desegregation effort, forced as it was by the courts, is resulting in a general improvement of the quality of the schools?
EDMONDS: Unquestionably; and unquestionably, without desegregation the changes for the better that have been permitted to occur in Boston would not have had a remote prospect.
MacNEIL: Where has the anger gone? Have the white parents who were objecting to desegregation simply forgotten about it, or have they accepted it, or what?
ANRIG: No, I think that any parent that was against busing in 1974, if you go and speak to that parent today they`re probably still against it. What you have, though, I think, is an acceptance that the court is not going to go away, the Constitution is not going to go away, desegregation is not going to go away; and that indeed desegregation is a fact and it`s a fact that has to be faced up to. I have a great deal of sympathy for what parents, black and white alike, went through in those first years of desegregation. But what you have at this point is people saying, "All right, if it has to be, I`m going to stick with the schools, I`m going to invest myself in them and try to do the best that I can for the schools." That`s why the attention, encouragingly, in Boston now is turning to issues of quality of education rather than the color of the bus that goes down the road.
MacNEIL: Well, what about all the ones who just disappeared --some 16,000, according to that report, attributable to desegregation? Where have they gone?
EDMONDS: Well, first I think that to focus on that is to misunderstand the dynamic of public education in Boston. I have no doubt that perhaps Ohmer and a good many other researchers may publish things that have to` `do with that, just as in the past Coleman and some of his colleagues have made public utterances about what`s characterized in Boston as white flight. But I think that first the quality of that social science leaves more than enough to be desired so that I would take that with an extreme grain of salt.
MacNEIL: Well, whether the figures are right or not, you`re not worried about them.
EDMONDS: Whether or not the figures are right, no, I`m not worried about it, for this reason: going back to what Greg said about the anger of some white parents, which points are very well taken, let us not forget how angry black parents must have been in order to subject themselves to the dislocation and the traumas associated with desegregation in Boston; and believe me, however traumatic some white parents in Boston may think busing has been, I assure you it has been dramatically more traumatic for black parents, first because don`t forget that black parents were the abused class to begin with, and second, don`t forget that to the extent that there has been acting out and aggression and the like, it has been far more white-directed to black than the other way around. But finally, in that regard, I wanted to say a word about this: let us not forget in this discussion of this dramatic phenomenon that this is 1978, that almost four years ago the federal court ordered the Boston schools to desegregate their teacher corps. The Boston teaching staff is no more integrated now -- or not much more integrated now; perhaps a fraction of a percentage point more integrated now -- than it was when that court order was given. That is only meant to say, as we said when we began, that desegregation is only an opportunity. It isn`t even much of an educational accomplishment. And therefore we oughtn`t to talk about this as though it`s anything other than a long, laborious and evolutionary process.
MacNEIL: What lessons are there in Boston for other American cities?
ANRIG:I think one of the major lessons -- certainly that rests heavily in my memory -- is that you cannot allow a few political figures to make capital of the issue of desegregation at the expense of the chil dren of a city, black and white alike.
MacNEIL: It isn`t the first city where that`s happened.
ANRIG: It isn`t, but it was perhaps no where is worse than in the City of Boston. I think the second thing that you can learn is that you can`t go through urban desegregation without very, very comprehensive and careful planning. In 1974, because the School Committee of Boston didn`t want to jeopardize the position of opposition it was taking in court, it did not allow planning to go on. Desegregation took place, by and large, with two months of planning in a school system as large as the City of Boston; that led to many of the problems that we ultimately faced in the schools. So certainly the containment, if you will, of demagogic political figures, and secondly the importance of very clear community planning, and broad-based community planning, I think are two of the lessons that we can learn from Boston.
MacNEIL: Would you add to that?
EDMONDS:I would add two. First I would say that you mustn`t perceive of the desegregation itself as an educational act, that it is only an opportunity for educational acts, and that therefore it has to be focused on as sort of getting ready to do what you might. The second thing I`d focus on is really directed to the aggrieved minorities that make the legal complaint in the first place, and that is, it is essential to understand that when desegregation is actually in progress, unless the desegregation is accompanied by very active minority politics then some of the greatest opportunities are not going to be realized, that a large part of the modest progress we can begin to see in Boston now has to do with the fact that in some respects minorities are more politically active now than they were four or five years ago.
MacNEIL: So there`s been a reverberation outside the education system.
EDMONDS: Yes; quite so.
MacNEIL: We have just over a minute left. Could I ask you briefly, is the current calm in Boston a vindication of forced busing?
ANRIG: No, I don`t think I would interpret it that way at all, Mr. MacNeil. What it is is in many ways a credit to all the citizens of the City of Boston on both sides of the busing issue. They finally said the issue is no longer going to be the yellow school bus; the issue is, how can we improve education for all our kids, black and white alike? I think the fact that the school board of the City of Boston now is speaking the way it does, the fact that they`re going through a superintendent search right now in which they have opened it up to the community, the fact that literally hundreds of parents are involved in the school councils now that was never true before -- these are indications that we`re turning to the issues that are really important and we`re getting away from the means, which happens to be a bus to get a youngster to a decent school program.
MacNEIL: In a few words -- the courts are in effect still running the schools in Boston -- what would happen if the court removed itself now?
EDMONDS: We have no way of knowing. I do think that whether or not great gain occurs when the court withdraws -- and I of course look forward to the time when it does -- is going to depend partly on the politics of citizen behavior in Boston...
MacNEIL: We have to leave it there, I`m sorry. Thank you both. That`s all for tonight, We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Segregation Legislation for Boston Schools
Producing Organization
NewsHour Productions
Contributing Organization
National Records and Archives Administration (Washington, District of Columbia)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/507-n29p26qw2x).
This episode features a update on Segregation Legislation for Boston Schools. The guests are Gregory Anrig, Ronald Edmonds, Carol Buckland. Byline: Robert MacNeil
Social Issues
Film and Television
Race and Ethnicity
War and Conflict
Politics and Government
Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
AAPB Contributor Holdings
National Records and Archives Administration
Identifier: 96653 (NARA catalog identifier)
Format: 2 inch videotape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Segregation Legislation for Boston Schools,” 1978-06-21, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 30, 2020,
MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Segregation Legislation for Boston Schools.” 1978-06-21. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 30, 2020. <>.
APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Segregation Legislation for Boston Schools. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from