W. Arthur Garrity Jr., the federal judge whose order to desegregate Boston’s public schools triggered mob violence and an image of bigotry in the city that prided itself on being the cradle of American liberty, died Thursday of cancer.
Garrity’s death at 79 came two months after the Boston school board voted to end busing for integration, 25 years after Garrity’s order launched a tumultuous period in the city’s history.
I moved to the Boston area on the first of June, 1974. On June 21, Judge Garrity filed a 152-page opinion, in which he ruled that the School Committee of the city of Boston had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers and school facilities.” The ruling was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals. It ordered the School Committee to desegregate Boston schools by instituting student assignment, teacher employment, and facility improvement procedures, as well as the use of busing on a citywide basis. When the Committee failed to present an adequate plan the court assumed an active role in in the desegregation, a role that continued for fifteen years, my entire time of living in the Boston area.
The Community Action Committee of Paperback Booksmith, a bookstore in the area, published the decision in 1974 as The Boston School Decision. Publishing a lengthy court opinion may seem like a foolish business decision, but it was in fact a courageous and consequential act to inform the public debate. I still have my well-read copy.
Following the decision, there was resistance, violence, and white flight. When regular drivers refused to drive buses for schoolchildren out of racism or fear for their own safety, brave people, such as my friend Henry Kingsbury, volunteered to take their place. Given all that and the fact that 30 years later, the Boston schools had become even more segregated than before, one might consider Judge Garrity’s decision to be a failure. A persistent myth arose that this was an example of social engineering gone awry. For example, Bruce G. Kauffmann, in “Judge took Beantown for bumpy ride in 1974” describes it as “a liberal judge’s infatuation with experimental social engineering programs.”
But Garrity was both courageous and correct. The problem was not his, nor anyone else’s, attempt to engineer social relations. For twenty years after the Supreme Court had ruled that the legal maintenance of segregated schools violated the US Constitution, and even more, the fundamental values of the United States for simple justice, the Boston School Committee and other political leaders steadfastly resisted every attempt at incremental reforms. Ideas about placement of schools, magnet programs, voluntary busing, and so on, which might have led to gradual and peaceful integration, were subverted or outright blocked.
The decision demonstrates conclusively that the School Committee had consistently and deliberately acted to thwart Constitutional guarantees of equal rights, not only maintaining the “separate” aspect of Jim Crow, but failing also at any semblance of the “equal.” Schools designated for Black children were not just segregated, but denied resources in terms of teacher preparation, class size, curriculum, materials, physical plants, and other necessary tools for learning.
Given the entrenched racism, and the clear history of subversion of basic civil rights, Garrity had no choice. Unfortunately, the failure of leadership in Boston, both Black and White, pro-and anti-desegregation, led to undermining Garrity’s decision and the earlier Brown V. Board of Education decision.
Garrity, W. Arthur, Jr. (1974). The Boston School Decision: The text of Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s decision of June 21, 1974 in its entirety. Boston: The Community Action Committee of Paperback Booksmith.
Weinbaum, Elliot (2004, Fall). Looking for leadership: Battles over busing in Boston. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 3(1).