Don’t blame Judge Garrity for the failure of school busing in Boston

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.

via W. A. Garrity; Judge Desegregated Boston Schools – Los Angeles Times.

garrity1I 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.”

school-busBut 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).

10 thoughts on “Don’t blame Judge Garrity for the failure of school busing in Boston

  1. The ideal solution, imho, would’ve been to create integrated neighborhoods in the city of Boston through the banks and real estate agents in the area. Had B-BURG (Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group) not been administered so maliciously (i. e. singling out the Jewish neighborhoods of Roxbury, North Dorchester, and Mattapan.), but created integrated housing throughout the city, things would’ve been very different. Neighborhoods, as well as the schools, would’ve been racially, ethnically and socioeconomically integrated, as would the schools. Parents and students would’ve had much more of a choice as to where kids could be sent to school, and the Boston Public School System at large, would’ve been a better school system for white and non-white Boston Public School students alike, today.


  2. For a great read on this topic check out the Pulitzer-winning book Common Ground, by Lukas.

    My own opinion: Garrity was well-intentioned but made two critical errors.
    One-this called for too much, too soon. Schools had virtually no time (about two months if I remember correctly) to prepare and plan for these mass overhauls. A more measured approach may have gone over better.
    Two-the reforms did not go far enough. They did nothing to remedy the inbalance between the city and suburban schools. Garrity’s kids and others like them were asked to sacrifice nothing. The white schools in Southie and Charlestown were poor, and were also failing, though not as bad as those in Dorchester and Roxbury. Essentially, the black students in Dorchester were bused, forcibly, to hostile white communities where the schools were only slightly less screwed up. Following flight, they worsened. Plus, now the parents can’t attend PTA because their kids go to school on the other side of town. Why weren’t they bused to the good schools in the suburbs, you think? THAT would have brought real changes. Instead, Garrity and others settled for a game of musical chairs, busing the children of Boston around and around until their colors matched up just right. Right enough, at least, to assuage the white guilt felt in the suburbs while maintaining their insulation and the status quo.
    Sure, you can’t put the responsibility on Garrity alone. Mayor White, anti-busing parent groups, and countless others all shaped this. However, in my opinion, Garrity was not courageous or correct.


  3. Garrity was the poster child for what we call activist judges who legislate from the bench. We don’t blame him for the failure of busing; we blame him for imposing his misguided ideas on a city.


  4. I see it differently. Garrity may have had some reason to act against the school board, but if integration was to be the order of the day, why was it only applied to children? Why has there not been a requirement that neighborhoods be of mixed race, so that anyone who wants to sell an estate in Chestnut Hill must give absolute preference to minorities until a quota is met?

    Garrity made children the scapegoats for the sins of the adults and this has not contributed adequately to a society more integrated than it would have been anyway. It simply damaged the cities for decades.

    The Court should not have implemented a remedy; that is for the political process.


  5. Wow, Imani. That is a great story of how change and conflict can be managed in positive ways. It sounds like it was certainly no “mistake” that you were identified as a leader. 🙂


  6. Chip,

    Thank you for your thoughtful treatment of the Boston desegration madness and it’s aftermath.

    Much of my life, as you can imagine, has been shaped by court rulings…the Boston ruling included. Did I live in Boston? No. But those who were following the racist antics of unenlightened citizens know there were copycat goings on around the country.

    It just so happens that this ruling was entered and implemented at the open of my first year in high school (did 9th grade in junior high). Within weeks of my high school (probably the most racially integrated in the city of Milwaukee) opening, the violent and harassing behavior of some White students and neighbors caused the closing of my school.

    Determined not to be controlled by people with limited access to their brain, our school leadership invited the Milwaukee Commission on Community Relations to come in and hold a series of listening and problem identification and solving sessions open to the public. They were very well attended by adults and students across race and class, as well as the media.

    Unaware they were operating with some method to their madness, they methodically identified participants in small and large group discussion who struck them as uniquely articulate and engaged around the issues of race and reconciliation. Out of hundreds of participants, at age 14 I was somehow mistaken as one of 16 people who should be targeted and nurtured for leadership in the reconciliation process to occur in the school and community…hence my first training in human relations theory and practice. Here I am 35 years later still trying to get it right 🙂


  7. Pingback: What do Boston & Cambridge have to say to Champaign Unit 4? « Chip’s journey

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