Boston's Busing Crisis

The First Days of School: Prayers, Marches and Flying Rocks

Accompanied by motorcycle-mounted police, school buses carrying African American students arrive at formerly all-white South Boston High School on September 12th, 1974. Credit: Spencer Grant/Getty

The troops entered the city at dusk. A crisp sea breeze was blowing and the sky was a gentle pink. They entered from the north, in a long caravan of jeeps and trucks and ambulances that snaked its way past City Hall, past the site of the Boston Tea Party and over the wooden slats of the Fort Point Channel Bridge to South Boston.

The official welcoming party stood on the corner of D Street: about 50 locals, the usual types. The aggrieved mothers with children, the beer-drinking kids (wearing T-shirts with messages that ranged from "South Boston: The Irish Riviera" to "Niggers Suck"). There were also several old-timers, including a guy named Wacko, who usually brought his shillelagh to such events. And there was Ricky, carrying a huge, faded American flag with 48 stars and giving the National Guard the finger as they rumbled past. "I'm carrying this flag because I'm a loyal patriotic American," he explained.

One of Ricky's friends ambled by, offered him a swig of Schlitz and said, "We're gonna get those fuckers this year." School would be opening the next day and South Boston was psyching itself with little pep talks, as if for the big game. "Why don't you tell the reporter why your flag has 48 stars?"

Ricky looked puzzled for a moment. "Why does it?" he asked.

"Because Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky, are seceding from the Union because of the niggers," said the friend, proudly.

"Yeah, that's it," Ricky said. "Make sure you put that down about Louisville, Kentucky. They're behind us in this," he told me, then walked out to the middle of the street and stood next to a jeep that was parked there. "Fuck you, GI Joe," he said to the driver.

A police officer approached and informed Ricky that he would have to move back to the sidewalk. "Hey, they're gonna pinch him for carrying the flag! They're gonna pinch him for being patriotic!" the friend yelled. The crowd booed.

The police officer approached again. "Unless you move out of the intersection, I am going to have to place you under arrest."

Ricky moved toward the sidewalk. The crowd sang "God Bless America." Ricky stopped halfway, said, "Shit, I'll take the bust," and walked back to the jeep where he was promptly arrested and led to a paddy wagon. On the way, he handed the flag to his friend.

"Gimme that flag," said a chunky little woman. She grabbed several of her children and had them stand with her. They looked like the Iwo Jima monument out there in the middle of the street. "Go get my husband," she instructed one of the others. "Tell him I'm gonna be arrested and he should bring my cigarettes."

Noticing a reporter nearby, she issued an impromptu statement: "First they give the niggers our schools and then they start arresting people carrying the flag. But as long as one of us is alive, liberty will not die in South Boston," and then she waited for the inevitable.

But the cops had spotted a bunch of kids running toward the National Guard staging area halfway down the block and took out after them. The crowd followed and soon the woman was all alone on Summer Street. It was getting dark — cars whizzed by with their lights on. Eventually, she moved over to the traffic island in the middle of the street where it was safer. She stood under a streetlight, shoulders thrown back, carrying the flag proudly, an inexplicable patriot to the motorists passing by.

The TV news correspondent stood near the Bunker Hill Monument. Over his left shoulder you could see the rows of police and the yellow school buses pulling up to dingy Charlestown High. He was saying something about the crucial battle fought there in 1775. "And now, 200 years later ..."

After finishing his piece, he walked two blocks down Monument Street to the Bunker Hill housing project, which was where the day's riot would occur — if, indeed, the crazy project kids saw fit to battle the cops again. He walked into the grocery store on the corner, selected a donut and used the pay phone to call New York. Tommy stood watching him, glaring at him, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched.

The TV news correspondent had already described Tommy as part of a "roving band of youths" who "threw rocks and bottles at police near the Bunker Hill housing project in Charlestown." It was a degree of notoriety Tommy had never expected: from just another kid, to part of a "roving band of youths."

He wore a T-shirt, dungarees and sneakers. He sneered a lot. He was the kind of kid who, in the old movies, only the local priest would love. Three days after the opening of school, four out of the first 12 words he used in any given conversation were "nigger."

It was about 8:00 a.m., and if it weren't for all the cops he probably would have been up the street stoning the buses at the high school. Instead, he fondled the mop handles in the grocery store and evaluated his colleagues' performance thus far: "The best thing that happened this week is when they firebombed Kennedy's house. They should kill fuckin' Teddy. I'd like to take up a collection and hire another Lee Harvey Oswald. Probably take about a million bucks, huh?" He selected a mop handle and raised it like a rifle. "Blam. Blam."

He had longish hair, a scraggly beard, dark eyes. His tough mouth made him seem a lot larger than he actually was. "It's too bad they only moved the niggers into the high school. They should move the niggers into the project. Then we'd have some fun."

"Why do you hate them so much?" I asked.

"Because they smell bad."

"Oh."

"Fuckin' Kennedy. He's a murderer too, aside from being a nigger lover. He killed that girl ... I'll bet she was pregnant too. All the Kennedys are fuckin' crazy. Remember when they rolled that jeep down on the Cape and paralyzed that girl? I think it was a couple of summers ago. Anyway, my sister was in the same hospital as the girl — I think her name was Kelly. And I'd go up there to visit my sister and I'd see all the Kennedys hanging around the hospital — they all had shitty old clothes on and dirty hair. Like they never took a bath. A bunch of dirt bums."

His voice softened. "You know, if I had their money I wouldn't dress like that.... But I don't ever want that kind of money. You get that kind of money and you forget where you came from."

"You still in school?"

"Naw, got out two years ago."

"Do you work?"

"I did cleanup work for this construction crew. It wasn't bad, either — about $3.25 an hour. But they laid me off a couple of weeks ago. I just went over to the unemployment." He pulled some crumpled papers from his back pocket. They were various forms. "Do you know when the checks start coming?" he asked.

"No."

"Yeah, you wouldn't." He was getting angry again. "I go out looking for work. I go to the phone company. They say they only got jobs for black people. The niggers get ten points on the Civil Service test. Automatically, some nigger is ten points better than me. I don't understand this shit. We're just as poor as they are. Look around, look over at the project. We ain't got shit. Look at the high school — we ain't even got a gym over there ... They got a room they call the gym but it's about as big as this store. We gotta go over to the Boys' Club for gym," he said, as if he were still in high school. "I'll bet the niggers are pissed about havin' to come here and seein' what a shithole school we have. Over in Roxbury, they get free breakfast and free lunch and carpets on the floor ..."

He stopped abruptly, perhaps realizing that he was talking to a stranger. "I'm going outside and see if I can kill a cop or something."

Out on the street, the mothers were gathering in front of the housing project for their daily prayer march. The camera crews had swarmed down from the high school to record the proceedings — in three days it had become a ritual. The first day, the townies had been friendly. Then, seeing themselves on TV that night, they had turned belligerent, jostling the cameras and screaming, "Why don't you show the truth?" Half the people seemed to think the cameras made them look like animals; the other half were pissed because the reporters were saying that the opening of school had been pretty calm.

In fact, Charlestown really didn't have any idea of how to react to all the attention (as opposed to South Boston, which had proved quite adept at self-advertisement even before the buses came). No, the only times that cameras had made it to Charlestown in recent years were when Gabe Piemonte, a city councilor, tried to build a car wash and the townies protested; and when someone in the neighborhood committed an especially imaginative crime; and, of course, when the guys put on the old uniforms each year and reenacted the Battle of Bunker Hill. Aside from that, the outsiders stayed away from Charlestown. They usually don't even pass through on their way to someplace else.

Tommy leaned against a car with Duffy and Kevin. Now the cameramen were wearing helmets, just in case. They looked nervous and Tommy did what he could to make them more so. He tapped one of them on the shoulder and said, "Watch out, motherfucker." An old man came over and asked Duffy if he wanted to be a marshal for the mothers' march.

"Sure," said Duffy, and the old man handed him a white armband with "TOWN" written in blue magic marker. Duffy proudly pinned it on.

"What are you doing that for?" Tommy asked, perhaps a bit insulted that he hadn't been asked.

"I dunno," said Duffy, who was short and stocky. "I just want to help out some way, I guess."


On the opening day of school, Ernest Coffey went down to the corner of Morton Street and Blue Hill Avenue and got on the bus to South Boston. He was tense and quiet, thinking about the first ride last year — the glass spraying, the screams, the bodies all on top of one another in the aisle. Some of the kids had glass fragments caught in their Afros. A few were bleeding. For a terrifying moment the bus seemed trapped along Day Boulevard.

The only white kid who would talk to him last year was the guy sitting up front in typing class. "I saw you riding the bus on TV last night," the kid said. And Ernest replied, "I saw you too. You were in the antibusing march." It seemed like the start of a promising relationship.

But as the year progressed, things actually got worse. There was the day in the cafeteria when the plates of spaghetti went flying through the air and crashed noisily against the tile walls. There was always something or other happening in the girls' bathroom. And, of course, there was the day the white kid was stabbed.

Ernest had been walking down the hall about the time it happened. One of the honkies passed real close and spit on him and Ernest spit back. And then they were all over him — maybe five of them, although he couldn't really see. He wasn't even sure if it was a book or a fist that crushed his nose. All he remembered was the blood and the pain and the hospital.

If it hadn't been for the hospital, Ernest might have gone back to the school and killed someone. He kept thinking: Someone's gonna pay for this nose. But at the hospital — Children's Hospital, it was — he saw all these little white kids who were sick, some even dying. "I realized that white people were human too," he said later.

Still, Ernest vowed never to go back to South Boston. There was absolutely no point in it. But after Christmas, he got a lucky break: He was selected for a special program outside the high school. Each day he would get on a boat and go out to an island in Boston Harbor to do what they called "environmental studies." There were equal numbers of blacks and whites in the program — all volunteers — and everyone got along okay. Boating seemed far superior to busing. He was against busing and so was his mother. "The white people in South Boston yell and scream at us — as if we wanted to go there. We don't want to go either," he told a reporter later.

"Then why do all the black politicians favor it?"

"They don't have to get on the bus every day."

What was the point of it anyway? It certainly wasn't helping him to become a veterinarian. At the Jeremiah Burke, the all-black high school he'd attended freshman year, more kids had gone to college than from South Boston High.

At the Bayside Mall, the bus stopped to meet the other buses and pick up a police escort. As they pulled out again, Ernest wondered why fate had selected him to be such a persistent missionary to the honkies. After all, this year he was supposed to be going to Roxbury High and he had been looking forward to it. But there was some sort of screwup, some shuffling of districts ... and now he was running the gauntlet again. Only this time there were more cops and the white people couldn't get close. He could see their faces contorting, though. He could see them cursing and giving him the finger, but no rocks.

The school itself looked a bit nicer this year. As he passed through the metal detector, he could see that someone had given the place a new coat of paint. The first day passed uneventfully, even though the white kids still didn't seem very friendly.

On the second day, a group of white girls jumped his friend Linda and beat her up. "They recognized her from last year," he said.

On the third day, he stayed home.

On the third day the mothers marched prayerfully up Bunker Hill Street, alternating Our Fathers and Hail Marys. They marched to the church at the top of the hill and said a rosary. When they came to the "pray for us sinners" part of each Hail Mary, some would turn and point at Robert diGrazia, the Boston police commissioner, who was watching them. DiGrazia had opposed granting a permit for the march but was overruled by City Hall. Now he feared a citywide outbreak of prayer.

Duffy was watching the mothers too, with his arms folded across his chest and his eyes squinting in the bright sun. There were several advantages to his standing like that: First, of course, he looked tough. But also, when he stood with his arms folded across his chest, his hand was covered and no one could see that it was a mess: The thumb was fine but the other fingers were of varying lengths. Some had knuckles, others didn't. The hand had been caught in a machine at the sugar factory two years before, just after he left high school. The machine didn't have a safety guard and he was suing the company but the suit didn't seem to be going anywhere. Every so often he would call up his lawyer and ask about it. The lawyer would say, "It takes time."

Meanwhile, the state had taken Duffy off workmen's compensation because they said he was employable. So he would go around looking for jobs but no one seemed to want a kid with a bum hand. When asked what he did for money now, he would say, "I make a little on the sneak."

Later, Duffy hung around the project and watched as some kids set a car on fire. There was a wild rush of flames, a crowd gathered, the firemen came and then the police. "Let's move back," he said. "I don't want to get hit by a bottle."

"They won't throw at the firemen," said a woman standing next to him. "My Joe is a fireman and all the other guys are townies too. The other night when the news said they were throwing at firemen, they really weren't. They were throwing at the cops, the firemen just got in the way."

Duffy watched the kids. "This is diddly-shit stuff. I was over in Southie the other night when they were shooting the darts at the cops and they're organized over there. Charles-town ain't organized. In Southie, they were stringing wires across the street and clotheslining the motorcycle cops. They had the whole thing worked out. We need to get organized like that here. We need to get about 800 guys with football helmets and baseball bats and charge the cops. ... Yeah, but if we did that, they'd probably shoot us."

The firemen sprayed foam into the car and there was a huge plume of black smoke. The air smelled of burning rubber. "But even if they shoot us, so what?" Duffy said. "We can't go on livin' like this. I wake up in the morning and there are six cops outside my door. And the helicopters. The helicopters start in about five or six in the morning." He looked up in the sky at the State Police helicopter hovering overhead. He shook his fist at it. "Motherfucker. I wish there was some way I could get up there and pull that thing out of the sky."


On the fourth day of school, Olivia Coffey sat at the kitchen table in her Roxbury home with her son Ernest, who was playing with a pocket calculator. In a little while she would take him downtown to school department headquarters to see if she could get him transferred out of South Boston High.

"It's driver's ed," Ernest was saying. "They don't have driver's ed in South Boston, and even if they did there's no way I could go driving around out on the streets over there."

There was a driver's ed program at Roxbury but they did not have any cars, so the kids sat in a class and learned about driving from a book. They were hoping to get some donations to buy a couple of cars for the kids.

Olivia didn't feel very well that morning. She had a bad cold and there was Ernest's problem and there was Cynthia. Cynthia was her foster daughter — and Cynthia's real grandmother, in North Carolina, wanted her back. They were battling it out in court and it didn't look too good. The judge was worried that if Cynthia stayed in Boston, she would have to go to school in a "troubled area." Which, of course, was true: Cynthia was being bused to the Gavin Junior High in South Boston.

Olivia sent Ernest upstairs to change his clothes for the trip downtown. She shook her head: "You know, before they had the forced busing, I could have sent Ernest to the suburbs in that volunteer busing program. He would have gone to a real good school then but I didn't want him to. I was afraid something would happen and he'd be too far away for me to do anything about it." That had seemed a pretty simple decision at the time but now he was being bused anyway, and to an inferior school. And Cynthia might be sent back to North Carolina because one judge had ordered her to go to school in South Boston and another judge didn't want her going there because it was a "troubled area." She wished that all the judges would get together and decide what was good and what wasn't or just leave her alone.

"I want to obey the law," she said. "But if they don't let Ernest transfer, I may have to give him away."

"Give him away?"

"Yeah. I'll just say he's living with my mother. She lives in an area where he would go to Roxbury High. I'd keep him here but I'd tell them that he was living with her. What else can I do? He just won't go back to South Boston and I don't blame him. You know what I can't understand? I can't understand why they don't just have a school where black and white could mix together without being forced."

"Because no one would volunteer."

"Then no one would volunteer," she said.


On the fourth day of school, Bernie Donovan was out on Bunker Hill Street again, watching the mothers pass by with their Our Fathers and Hail Marys, and watching the police watching the mothers pass by. There was no rational reason for him to be there. He didn't live in Charlestown anymore. It wasn't his battle anymore. He had gotten out, was living in the suburbs.

He was in his late 30s. He wore a gray heavy-duty work-shirt and gray heavy-duty work-pants. He had a disconcerting habit of loosening his false teeth with his tongue and rolling them nervously around his mouth. "This is the end," he said, eyeing the police. "Look at them over there. I never thought I'd see the day when this would happen. Look at them. Fuckin' storm troopers. Look, there's two of them with a TV camera — now what do the cops want to take movies for? They're mercenaries. They get an order to line all the niggers up against the wall and shoot them, and they'd shoot them. Just following orders, like Nazi Germany."

Bernie was an electrician. He made good money. "I'll never forgive them for this," he said. "Forcing me out."

"Why?" I asked. "Most people who have the money want to live in the suburbs."

"You could never understand," he said. "I'm a townie. I lived all my life in Charlestown. You know, we got something special here. There's only one Bunker Hill in the whole country. I'm a member of the Charlestown Militia and we raised $11,000 for the community last year, selling stickers and all. This was a great place. Property values were going up every year, people were fixing their houses, new schools were being built. They built a new school right down the street from us and then the next thing that happens, my seven-year-old daughter gets an order to go to the Hale School in fuckin' Roxbury. So a month ago, I moved to Stoneham." He pronounced it Stone-Ham. Suburbanites pronounce it Stonum.

"They won't sit back and take this, not the townies," Bernie Donovan said. "There's going to be an explosion in this neighborhood. Maybe they'll wait until the cops go but it's gonna blow. You see, there's nothing more dangerous than a caged Irishman ... except maybe an Irishman who gets money and becomes a liberal. It's a bad trait our people have: They get some money and they turn on their own. You never see the spooks do that. Last night the cops beat up a kid in the project real bad, and do you know what? The cop who did it was a townie who moved to the suburbs. One of our own."

"But you moved."

"Don't remind me." he said, ashamed. He ran his hand through his wavy black hair. The man was actually ashamed of what most people would consider success. He had work to do, a family to support, a new house out in the suburbs. But each day he came back to watch his neighborhood destroy itself. He didn't consider himself a survivor; he was a deserter. Moving to Stoneham had been the functional equivalent of running away to Canada.

The mothers were marching back up Bunker Hill Street now, toward the project. Duffy passed by with the mothers, having been selected as a marshal for the third straight day. Bernie couldn't take his eyes off the row of cops across the street, with helmets and riot batons. "They'd kill their own mothers," he said. "If they touch my brother or sister, I'll get a machine gun. I'll get up on the roof of the project with a machine gun and mow the motherfuckers down."

The march was ending. The street was cleared. The sun reflected off the shattered glass in the street. There had been fewer cameras around than the day before, the national press had pulled out of town and Charlestown was being forgotten again. That evening on the news, Walter Cronkite would mention in passing that it had been another peaceful day in Boston.