Workers Vanguard No. 921

26 September 2008


Boston: 1970s Fight for School Integration

As Racist Mobs Rampaged, Liberals and Reformists Knifed Busing

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below, edited for publication, a class on Boston busing given by comrade Irene Gardner to youth comrades doing work in our center over the summer. Today, 30 years after busing was defeated in Boston, the school system is more segregated than before the civil rights movement, and impoverished inner-city schools serve as holding pens for mostly black and Latino youth, barely providing even the pretense of education. This makes all the more clear the need to mobilize the social power of the multiracial working class to fight for free, quality, integrated education for all, as part of the struggle for socialist revolution to end the system of wage slavery as a whole. Our fight in the 1970s for labor/black defense of bused schoolchildren, of busing and of integration pointed the way forward for this struggle. For more on the fight for black freedom, see Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised), “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism” (September 1978).

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One of the readings for this class was the article “Reactionaries Oppose Boston School Busing” from Young Spartacus in May-June of 1974, before the Boston busing plan was implemented. At that time we didn’t anticipate the virulent racist frenzy and violence that was going to take place that fall, but we did take a clear stand in defense of busing from the beginning. We supported busing as a minimal application of the basic democratic right of black people to equality in education, a minimal step toward integration, although busing alone could not solve either the problem of quality education or of racial integration. We sought to mobilize the working class to defend desegregation through school busing as a means of breaking down sharp racial divisions and strengthening the basis for united class struggle.

In 1954 in the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation that had been the formal law of the land since the 1890s. However, the later Brown decision of 1955 called for desegregation with “all deliberate speed,” which meant at a snail’s pace. It took nearly ten years for a desegregation plan to be enacted in Boston after the 1965 Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Act was passed, because the issue was tossed like a hot potato from the State Department of Education to the federal courts to the racist Boston School Committee. Every conceivable legal and political obstacle was thrown in its path.

Boston was a quintessential Democratic Party stronghold. Busing was killed in Boston, foreshadowing its defeat nationwide, by an alliance of racist mobs in the streets of Boston along with liberals in Congress who made sure that nobody was bused out to the relatively privileged schools of suburban Boston. There was a landmark case in Detroit where the court ruled specifically not to allow busing to the suburbs, and that was used as a precedent. Busing of black students was purposefully limited to neighborhoods like South Boston, known as Southie, one of the poorest white areas outside of Appalachia, with the aim of pitting poor and working-class whites against blacks. Demagogic politicians inflamed racist sentiments in these white ethnic enclaves under the watchwords of “neighborhood schools” and “stop forced busing.”

Just a couple examples of Boston Democrats: you know the Kennedys. The racist Boston City Council president Louise Day Hicks, who made herself famous by throwing herself in front of the buses carrying black students, ended up with a seat in Congress. State Representative Ray Flynn was a co-founder of ROAR—that stood for “Restore Our Alienated Rights.” This was the reactionary umbrella group that organized racist mobs throughout the city. He became the “liberal” mayor of Boston and, later, Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican.

When the Boston busing plan began to be implemented in the fall of 1974, the desegregation order was immediately met with a white boycott of South Boston High School. This rapidly escalated into citywide racist mobilizations and lynch mob terror. It exploded the minute the buses started to roll. You had racial slurs and rocks being hurled at the buses carrying black schoolchildren. You had frenzied mobs roaming the streets intimidating and assaulting blacks. The NAACP office was firebombed. A predominantly black housing project called Columbia Point was assaulted by night-riding vigilantes. And then you had this group called the South Boston Marshals, which was basically a racist paramilitary grouping that patrolled the area against “outside agitation.” This meant blacks as well as the anti-racist militants throughout the city.

The book Common Ground by J.Anthony Lukas gives a good flavor of what happened in that period. At the time, a lot of our comrades were living in Dorchester, which is in the southern section of Boston. There’s a whole chapter in Common Ground about the neighborhood and even the street I lived on. Black families were getting firebombed. A number of us had to move very quickly out of Dorchester because the local grocery store turned into an anti-busing recruiting center. Very quickly, the city had polarized. We had a number of black comrades visiting the city to help with our intervention, and they couldn’t come to some of our homes. This was the kind of polarization that was going on—the pitched battles over school integration.

The Fight to Implement Busing

This raged on from 1974 to 1976. We fought to defend school busing and called on the integrated labor movement—including the teachers, the bus drivers, the meatpackers unions—to organize labor/black defense of the bused black schoolchildren. By the way, the black members of the meatpackers union had a union hall on the edge of South Boston. When they were coming out of union meetings their car windows were getting smashed. But the meatpackers union leadership did nothing to help in organizing labor/black defense. In a lot of cases, the trade-union leaderships didn’t want their membership to have anything to do with labor/black defense. They played a very craven role. In some cases they even came out against busing.

Against the narrow limits set by the federal judges, we called to extend busing to the suburbs so poor kids, black and white, could have a shot at a better education. We advocated transitional demands: jobs for all; low-rent, integrated, quality public housing; and quality education for all. In this racist society, it will take a socialist revolution to secure quality education, housing and jobs for all black, Latino and working-class youth, just as only after the revolutionary Civil War smashed the slave system was the way opened for public education in this country. We called Boston a “referendum on racism.” The attempt to stop busing, whether by constitutional amendment, court action or mob attacks on school buses, was the opening salvo in a dangerous, right-wing campaign to strip black people of modest gains made through the civil rights movement’s previous two decades of struggle for democratic rights.

We issued a united-front call for a broad mobilization around the slogan, “Stop the Racist Attacks Against Black School Children.” This call is printed in the Spartacus Youth League pamphlet The Fight to Implement Busing. We called on labor, black and socialist organizations to use their influence and resources to build a massive rally against racist anti-busing terror. Despite a huge amount of work—we got out thousands of leaflets all over the city, we went to labor groups and other organizations—we did not have the social weight to effect a principled united front with the black liberal establishment or the left groups or unions at the time. The integrated union movement in Boston was very weak, and the black liberals, backed up by the Workers World Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), soon jumped in to call for reliance on the state and bringing in federal troops who supposedly would defend black schoolchildren.

I want to talk a bit about why the labor movement in Boston was so weak—it has to do with the history of Boston. Before and during the Civil War, Boston was the heart of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement. Following the huge influx of Irish and Italian immigrants around the turn of the century, Boston’s blue-blooded Brahmins placed ethnic white ward heelers, people like “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald—that was John F. Kennedy’s grandfather—in charge of the city administration. There was a lot of patronage. The city’s ruling class retarded industrial development and suppressed attempts to organize trade unions in Boston. The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists was an organization formed to counteract the role of communists in the unions. It was organized in the 1930s, and it was very prominent in Boston and New York.

By the time of the CIO organizing drives in the 1930s, there was predominantly only light industry in Boston. In the 1800s the rich Boston merchants had refused to allow heavy industry into Boston proper. They wanted to maintain the “serenity” of the city. After the decline of textiles and shoemaking, major industry was restricted to outlying areas: General Electric in Lynn, General Motors in Framingham, General Dynamics in Quincy. (We had supporters working in auto in Framingham for a while.) The city basically was not touched by the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s.

The CIO industrial unions were being built around the country, in mining and especially in large industries like steel and auto. Many of the organizers were members of the Communist Party or Trotskyists. The industrial unionism pushed by the Reds meant organizing both skilled and unskilled workers in the same union. That’s how a lot of blacks got organized into the unions—they were locked out of the skilled trades traditionally organized by the AFL. It was very significant that this did not happen in Boston. Unlike Detroit and the Midwest generally, there also was no mass migration of black people from the South into Boston.

The black liberal petty bourgeoisie had a long history in Boston. In 1850 Boston had significant numbers of black artisans, attracted by the abolitionist sentiment and religious liberalism of the “Boston Brahmins.” A lot of blacks settled there to open up small businesses. Over the decades, the black petty bourgeoisie grew with the conscious help of the white liberal establishment. In the ’70s, black businesses were bankrolled by the banking/insurance giants. White, liberal bourgeois establishments helped to create black liberal political coalitions that were dependent on City Hall handouts, Ford Foundation grants, etc. There was relative quiescence in places like Roxbury, in the black community in Boston. In fact, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Louis Farrakhan all lived in Boston at various times, but they weren’t prominent when they lived there. Over time the black nationalists were unable to make any serious inroads in Boston, although there were some small black nationalist groups like De Mau Mau.

Not Federal Troops, but Labor/Black Defense!

When we fought for labor/black defense of busing in Boston, we pointed to an example that occurred in Chicago at that time. Members of the United Auto Workers Local 6 in Chicago organized a Civil Rights Defense Committee of the union to protect the house of a black union member, C.B. Dennis (see “Black Family Firebombed in Chicago—UAW Local Sets Up Labor/Black Defense Guard,” WV No. 67, 25 April 1975). Dennis had recently moved into a white neighborhood and his house was being attacked by racists. As a result of a motion put forward in the union by the Labor Struggle Caucus, a caucus we supported based on a class-struggle program, the union voted to have a union defense guard around-the-clock to protect his house and his family from the racists. When they heard about the UAW-organized labor defense, the racists didn’t mess with him anymore. Other groups, reformists like the SWP, called labor/black defense pie in the sky. Well, we showed them a picture of the C.B. Dennis defense guard.

The SWP initially opposed busing. They put forward the slogan of “community control.” This was in keeping with their tailing of black nationalist politicos since the mid 1960s—the call for “black control of the black community” had often been raised by the nationalists. Opportunistically, the SWP dropped this call when they saw that it wasn’t the way things were going, in order to tail the black liberals, preachers and the NAACP who begged the racist rulers to enforce school integration. Instead, they adopted the liberals’ call for “federal troops to Boston.”

Looking desperately for a new angle to mount yet another of their class-collaborationist “mass movements,” the SWP poured scores of activists into Boston. They built a coalition, the National Student Coalition Against Racism, patterned after the National Peace Action Coalition (see “The Vietnam Antiwar Movement and the National Peace Action Coalition,” WV No. 920, 12 September). They would have coalition meetings on the campuses and bring in a lot of the bourgeois politicians and the NAACP. We intervened heavily into these conferences, counterposing our class-struggle politics and helping to polarize these meetings.

The SWP’s call for federal troops to Boston meant relying on the forces of the capitalist state to defend black rights, calling on the same repressive apparatus that gunned down Black Panthers. In fact, after weeks of racist terror at the Columbia Point housing project, in response to demands for police “protection,” the cops occupied (and vandalized) the housing project, beating and arresting blacks. The arch-racist Louise Day Hicks actually demonstrated a better understanding of the role of the capitalist state than the supposed “socialists” of the SWP, because she called for federal troops to put down black Roxbury, which is what federal troops do.

In Boston the labor movement was weak, but there was a labor movement and there was a possibility of mobilizing labor/black defense. By pushing forward the call for federal troops to Boston, the SWP shared responsibility for making sure that labor/black defense didn’t happen. They shared responsibility for the fact that busing was defeated. Who killed busing? It was the liberals in Congress who played the major role, but the left shared responsibility.

Jim Crow “Socialists”

Perhaps the most grotesque position on the left was taken by the Maoist Revolutionary Union (RU), soon to become the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), who we aptly called “Jim Crow ‘Socialists’.” They openly sided with the racists who were fighting street battles against the oppressed black masses. It was pretty incredible when they came out with their October 1974 newspaper with the huge, front-page headline, “People Must Unite to Smash Boston Busing Plan.” I heard a story at the time that one of the main New Left bookstores in Cambridge, which catered to all sorts of Maoists, actually refused to carry that issue because of the headline. The RU’s position was the most despicable capitulation to white racism.

That article tried at length to explain the motivations of the anti-busing school boycotters. It denounced as “liberal” all talk of “backward, racist whites.” It denounced as “reactionary” the “absurd line that the ‘only issue’ in the white boycott in South Boston is racism.” It even denounced raising the question of racism as “defeatist and divisive.” They opposed busing as an “issue which heightens the contradictions of people of different nationalities,” in favor of “community control” of the schools. But the perfect example of “community control” is what the racists like Louise Day Hicks were fighting for: it was the “right” of whites to keep blacks out of their schools and neighborhoods.

Just as incredibly, a year later the RU/RCP described the Klan-led anti-busing riots in Kentucky: “When school opened in Louisville under a new court-imposed busing plan, the spontaneous fight back was tremendous” (Revolution, October 1975). The RCP refused to defend basic democratic rights such as busing for black children or the Equal Rights Amendment for women, which simply called for equality for women under the law. They blocked with the reactionary demagogue Anita Bryant in Florida to oust gays from teaching school. They tailed the most reactionary sectors of the petty bourgeoisie and backward workers. This is the same RCP, a leader-cult around Bob Avakian, that today initiates groups including the World Can’t Wait to tail the liberals.

At the time that the busing plan was implemented in Boston, the RU’s youth group, the Revolutionary Student Brigade (RSB), was quite active at Boston University, where I was a student. They would try their hardest to keep us out of meetings, and to shut us up when we tried to intervene. But they couldn’t escape the issue of busing. I was in a class of Howard Zinn’s with something like 300 students in one of these really large auditoriums. Howard Zinn was someone who had been involved in the civil rights movement. He challenged anybody in the room who opposed busing to explain their position. So these two RSBers had to get up in front of the room. And the Spartacus Youth League and the RSB had a debate on busing and our program in front of two or three hundred students. There was a lot of debate going on constantly in Boston about busing.

In June 1979, the RCP ran an article with so-called “self-criticism” on their position on busing (“Busing and the Fight Against National Oppression and for Revolution,” Revolution). It’s a lot of Mao-speak. They say they “committed serious errors” around Boston busing in 1974. But really, they did not change their line on busing. They wrote: “The plan itself was neither the outgrowth of mass struggle nor of any particular benefit to the Black masses. Ordered by the federal government with the excuse of a lawsuit by the NAACP, the busing plan aimed to accomplish exactly what it did accomplish—the intensification of national divisions among the people.”

They do waffle a little bit in that article, recognizing that they were too often siding with the racists against the fight for black equality. They explain that they set out to find “a middle ground,” and claim that busing in Boston wasn’t really the issue. But busing in Boston was not something there was a middle ground on—the racists in Boston were mobilized around the question of busing. And the RCP says very firmly in that article that busing cannot be supported! There was only one busing plan that they would support—in Chicago, Marquette Park. That’s where busing was “limited and voluntary”! Now we all know what voluntary busing means—voluntary busing doesn’t happen. It’s an open invitation for organized harassment and racial violence against the children whose families volunteer. “Voluntary busing” is what a lot of the racists were calling for.

The RCP describes in the article how they tried to go to anti-busing meetings and convince them about the divisions in the working class! I mean, these are the ROAR people. You know how the RCP always says the people united will never be defeated? The racists in the anti-busing movement actually came out with the slogan, ROAR united will never be defeated.

Reformists and Renegades

The International Socialists, the predecessor to the International Socialist Organization, also capitulated to the racist anti-busing backlash, though not as flagrantly as the RCP. They sought to carve out a non-existent “third camp” with the line that “socialists oppose both the ‘pro’-busing and the ‘anti’-busing forces, both of whom use racism to further their own ends” (Workers’ Power, 10 November 1972). This grotesque argument amnestied the lynch mobs who were daily attacking black people on the streets! The League for the Revolutionary Party, then the Revolutionary Socialist League, was not really active in Boston. But we know from our work here in New York and other places that they’re still pushing this anti-busing line. They’re a splinter from the family tree of the International Socialists. They scurrilously stated that busing was a “vicious ruling class attack on blacks and cannot be supported” (Socialist Voice, Spring 1977).

Progressive Labor (PL) resorted to a lot of moralistic, “put your body on the line” bravado to give a militant cover to a reformist program. They did an ultra-adventurist May Day march through South Boston where they called for “death to the racists.” They followed up with a “Freedom Summer” campaign confined to a reformist petition campaign. That zigzag between mindless militancy and tepid liberalism is pretty typical of PL.

Any time there’s a major event going on in the world, it puts a lot of pressure on a small Leninist vanguard. So I want to go over some of the political internal struggle going on in the party at the time. In 1974 Bob Pearlman was the party organizer; I was the new youth organizer. We had thrown our forces in Boston into pushing a united-front call to defend busing. Counterposed to the do-nothing liberals, we advocated labor/black defense and extending busing to the wealthy suburbs, and opposed the call for federal troops to Boston. We stood out as the group that was pushing the way forward in the face of the racist assault. But the liberals and the bourgeois politicians and their lackeys in the Workers World Party and the SWP were working overtime to try to channel all the frustration into these calls for federal troops and for state intervention.

There was a black Democrat, Bill Owens, in Boston who was pushing for a December 14 “National March and Rally Against Racism.” The organizational initiative and impetus came from Workers World and the SWP. Early on, the populist demagogue Owens eyed the planned anti-racism demonstration, coming at a time when the busing crisis continued to be in the spotlight of national attention, as a vehicle for emerging as a self-styled militant black bourgeois politician. Workers World was enthralled with Owens’ militant image, cheap rhetoric and willingness to “unite” with them, i.e., use them. The SWP was obviously in the market for such a bourgeois politician to head up their sought-after new, liberal “civil rights movement.”

What Owens wanted with this demonstration was to organize his own committee where he would control everything: he would control the propaganda, he would control the march route, he wouldn’t allow any speakers other than the speakers he hand-picked. We could not endorse this demonstration, since Owens and his hangers-on had ensured that the only relationship any left organization could have with Owens’ committee was one of political liquidation. Owens had made it clear that the demo would be firmly tied to Democratic Party politics, not a rallying point for action by black people and their allies in the labor movement to turn back the racist offensive. Bob Pearlman wanted to endorse the demonstration, but Pearlman’s position was defeated in the local. We did not endorse the demo, instead we intervened with an impressive contingent, raising our class-struggle demands.

Part and parcel of Pearlman’s accommodation to Owens’ “Emergency Committee” was his attempt to do phony “mass work” all over the city. Pearlman wanted us to cut back on all the interventions we were doing in conferences on the campuses and at demonstrations, in order to do more mass leafleting “in the community.” Our small propaganda group could not substitute for the fact that the Boston trade-union movement was weak and highly craft-oriented, and that the trade-union bureaucratic leadership either opposed busing or did nothing in response to our call.

We had a very clarifying political fight before Pearlman’s resignation. But, leaving the party, he used the SWP—or the SWP used him, rather—to put out a scurrilous article about SL “abstention” in Boston, etc. We responded in a two-part article, “Alibis of a Social Democrat” (WV No. 168, 29 July 1977 and No. 170, 26 August 1977). Pearlman didn’t last long in the SWP.

The party perspective at the time was to intervene as a propaganda group with our Trotskyist program and win people over in counterposition to our reformist opponents. Our goal was to become the nucleus of a vanguard party that could intervene as a communist pole in major arenas of political struggle: the trade unions, the campuses, the black and women’s movements and internationally. The struggle over busing opened people up to our revolutionary politics, and our position for black liberation, the touchstone of the American revolution, was key to recruiting. We were debating people from the black student milieu at Harvard around the February First Movement, the fallout from the Pan-Africanists.

We had an East Coast Educational Conference in December 1974. Part of the conference was a forum titled, “The Leninist Party in Motion: Program and Conjuncture” by Central Committee member James Robertson. As reported in Young Spartacus:

“Turning to the SL/SYL’s campaign in Boston for a labor-black defense, the speaker noted the exacerbation of racial tensions in the U.S. arising from the deterioration of the living conditions of the working class and oppressed and the intensification of job competition. The core of the SL/SYL’s perspective in Boston and other cities like Detroit where the possibility of race riots is very real is to seek to deflect race riots into sharp manifestations of struggle against the capitalist class. The SL/SYL has an objective importance today, comrade Robertson noted, and we are under pressure to dissipate ourselves in our struggle to provide leadership in situations where our tasks are enormous.”

—“East Coast Educational a Success,” Young Spartacus No. 28, January 1975

Although we could not turn the tide in Boston, our intervention there was a crucial test for our party, and important in winning many new recruits.