Black Students Arrive at South Boston High School in 1974

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Black Students Arrive at South Boston High School in 1974


By: Anonymous

Date: September 12, 1974

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

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In 1954, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia either allowed or legally required racially segregated schools. That year, the Supreme Court changed the face of public education with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in which the court struck down a law allowing racially segregated schools in towns with 15,000 or more residents. Prior to that ruling, school systems had acted under the 1896 ruling Plessy v. Ferguson which stipulated that public accommodations including rail cars, water fountains, and public schools could be racially segregated, provided that separate facilities offered equal services and benefits to each racial group. The 1954 ruling bluntly asserted that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and in one broad stroke removed all legal justification for segregated schools.

In the years shortly after the ruling, about half the states with segregated schools voluntarily changed their systems. In some cases, the changes were little more than token adjustments, but they represented initial steps toward racial equality in education. Several states, however, refused to comply with the new ruling at all. When the Little Rock, Arkansas school board made plans to integrate the city's high school, the state's governor mobilized the National Guard to turn black students away. Three weeks later, escorted by federal troops, nine African American students entered the school to begin classes.

In 1958, the state of Virginia elected to close several schools rather than desegregate them; the courts promptly ordered the schools reopened. In 1962, James Meredith, a black student, had to be protected by several hundred U.S. Marshals when he attempted to register for classes at the University of Mississippi. Violence erupted, and two people were killed. The following day, the town was occupied by federal troops, and Meredith began attending classes. In 1963, Alabama governor George Wallace stood in the entrance to the University of Alabama, blocking two black students' entry. After making a prepared speech, Wallace returned to the capital and the students entered the building to register.

A decade later, desegregating the Boston Public Schools proved particularly difficult. A June 1974 court ruling found a consistent pattern of discrimination in city school decisions, and the court ordered mandatory school desegregation by the beginning of school that fall. To comply with the ruling, the Boston Schools developed a court-approved plan to begin mandatory busing of white children to black schools and black children to white schools.

The 1974–1975 school year got off to a rocky start in Boston. Numerous white parents refused to send their children to black schools across town, and the majority of parents at all white South Boston High School kept their children home from school. Police provided protection as black students arrived for their first day of classes, however, protestors threw rocks through the bus windows and several children were injured.



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The violence in Boston schools continued throughout the school year. Following the stabbing of a white student at Hyde Park High School, the National Guard was dispatched to restore order. A second stabbing several weeks later led to a white mob surrounding another high school, trapping black students inside for several hours. Parents organized marches and continued to protest the forced busing of their children.

In the years following the implementation of busing in Boston, hundreds of white families moved to the suburbs or placed their children in private schools. As a result, by 1980, the Boston Public School system served a majority black student population, while schools in the Boston suburbs were populated primarily with white students.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, court-ordered busing was a common measure for integrating racially segregated schools. Proponents hoped that busing would not only address concerns of facility and resource equality, but would also encourage communities to become more racially integrated. Critics cited the enormous cost of the program (San Francisco, for example, spent more than $200 million on the effort) as well as criticizing the underlying rationale upon which it rested.

By the 1990s, school busing was largely considered a failure. Not only had most of the busing programs failed to integrate neighborhoods or show even modest educational improvements, many had destroyed neighborhood schools and exacerbated a phenomenon known as white flight, in which city dwellers move to the suburbs to escape busing. As a result, many inner city school districts today are more segregated than they were prior to busing. Leaders of both white and black communities have almost unanimously condemned busing as a massive social experiment gone awry. By the year 2000, Boston, along with most other large school systems, was actively dismantling its forced school integration plan, even as new discrimination cases were being filed.



Beals, Melba Patillo. Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High School. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995.

Formisano, Ronald P. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Charlotte, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Rossell, Christine H. The Carrot or the Stick for School Desegregation Policy: Magnet Schools or Forced Busing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.


Borja, Rhea R. "Legal Group Fights Race-Based Policies in Los Angeles District." Education Week. 25 (2005):4.

Trotter, Andrew. "Court Upholds Wisconsin District on Refusal to Bus Charter Students." Education Week. 25 (2005): 18.

Wren, Celia. "Stars and Strife." Smithsonian. 37 (2006): 21–22.

Web sites

Center for Urban and Regional Policy. "Little Here we go Boston, here we go." <> (accessed July 7, 2006).

Harvard University; The Civil Rights Project. "Looking to the Future: Voluntary K–12 School Integration." <> (accessed June 7, 2006).

National Public Radio. "The Legacy of School Busing." 2006 < storyId=1853532> (accessed June 7, 2006).