Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation

Moving Beyond "Common Ground"

As I have talked with people over the past six years about my research, the book that comes up most frequently is J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985). Lukas’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning story, more than any other work, has shaped popular views of the history of “busing.” Lukas’s book examined Boston’s “busing crisis” by tracing the experiences of three local Boston families—the working-class black Twymons, the working-class Irish McGoffs, and the middle-class Yankee Divers—from 1968 to 1978. These family stories are woven together with profiles of five white public figures—politicians Louise Day Hicks and Kevin White, Judge Arthur Garrity, Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship, and archbishop of Boston Humberto Cardinal Medeiros.  Despite their demographic differences, each of the families in his story shared a dislike of “busing,” a “common ground” shared, the book suggests, by millions of other Americans. David Halberstam described Common Ground as “a bittersweet book on the end of an American dream.” In his New York Times review, sociologist Kai Erickson praised the book as a “huge and marvelous work. . . . Every family in the book has its genealogy, every community its history, every event its context—and Mr. Lukas seems to trace all of them back as far as his data will permit.” 

Black Bostonians did not share this enthusiasm.  Civil rights activists in Boston greeted Common Ground with anger and frustration akin to Mississippi civil rights activists’ criticisms of Mississippi Burning (1988) (a film that ignored the role of black activists while glorifying the FBI’s role in the civil rights movement in Mississippi). Black Bostonians disputed Lukas’s favorable presentation of white resistance to school desegregation, his emphasis on black family dysfunction, and his selection of a black family with no ties to the decades-long campaign to secure educational equality for black children (he found the black family he profiled through a social worker). Longtime Boston civil rights activist Ruth Batson described Common Ground as "one of the most devastating and distorted views" of Boston's school history.  "It seems to matter little that the contributions of black activists were minimized, omitted or reported negatively in Mr. Lukas' book," Batson continued.  "When the book was first published, many of us who had labored long and hard in the battle for educational equity felt as if we had been cut off at our knees."  Describing Lukas as a “faulty historian,” longtime Boston civil rights activist Ruth Batson lamented the seduction of Lukas’s narrative and the difficulty of dislodging it. It’s “like swimming against a strong tide,” Batson wrote, “like being in a large crowd, trying to reach a destination, advancing twenty steps and being pushed back forty steps.” Batson and other black Boston community members organized a conference in 1994 at Northeastern University to document the history of community struggle for racial equality and educational justice. Batson researched, solicited questionnaires and primary documents from conference participants, and subsequently published a nine-hundred-page memoir/chronology of the black educational movement in Boston from 1638 to 1975, to ensure that black activism would be part of the historical record. Batson, like other civil rights advocates, understood that how we remember the history of “busing” for school desegregation matters.

Boston civil rights leader and politician Thomas Atkins shared Batson's concerns.  "Inexplicably missing from Lukas' collection of 'notables' are all of the many Blacks, whose roles in Boston's desegregation saga dwarf that of White, Hicks, Winship or Mederios," Atkins wrote.  "The absence of a credible Black leader permits, or forces, Lukas' narrative to ignore the broad unity that characterized the Black community's search for a way out of the substandard system of educational apartheid fashioned by Boston school officials.  Missing from Common Ground is the Black community effort that included establishing Operation Exodus (sending Black students to other Boston public schools through open enrollment), METCO (sending Black students to other public schools in suburban communities), The Bridge (sending Black students to private schools), Catholic Bridge (sending Black students to parochial schools), and a variety of private or experimental schools started by the Black community and their white allies."

Sociologist Robert Dentler, a court-appointed expert who worked on desegregation plans for Boston and over a dozen other cities, was also critical of Common Ground. “Dramatically engaging as the story of each family may be, no evidence from them explains at all adequately the story of school desegregation,” Dentler argued. “The thousands of filings in Morgan v. Hennigan go unexamined. . . . There is no review, and there are no quotations from the public records of the litigation except for a sentence or two from the federal court’s liability opinion. . . . Lukas serves as the chronicling outsider who collects, sifts, and weaves a more complete fabric of exculpation out of the stuff of . . . local legends.” 

Lukas' starting point for Common Ground helps to explain why he did not pay attention to the long history of civil rights activism and Black community organizing in Boston.  Lukas became interested in Boston’s “busing crisis” in September 1974 after viewing on television an “antibusing” protest where white demonstrators booed Senator Edward Kennedy off a stage in downtown Boston. On CBS, which estimated the crowd at 8,000 to 10,000, reporter Jackie Castleberry described how “as Senator Kennedy retreated to his office, the crowd began to push, hurling eggs and insults. Just as the Senator reached shelter inside, the crowd rushed, pounding and then shattering a glass window.” Watching the protest unfold on his television, Lukas recalled thinking, “What in the world is going on when Ted Kennedy is driven to shelter by his own people? ‘What in the world’ is a pretty good starting place for a story.” The emotions Lukas saw in this protest were real, but they were the wrong place to begin to understand school desegregation in Boston. Boston school officials purposely built a segregated school system that developed over decades.  When Black civil rights activists like Ruth Batson started fighting for school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, they encountered school officials like Louise Day Hicks who rose to power on the promise they would never let this happen. Many white Bostonians were upset that Judge Garrity found Boston's segregated school system unconstitutional, and Common Ground made white people's anger and confusion over "busing" its central concern.  

Lukas’ Common Ground is still praised and widely taught in colleges and high schools, in Boston and across the country, as the definitive history of school desegregation in the North. Everyone would recognize that a history of Little Rock's school integration crisis that did not talk about Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine was flawed beyond repair.  Why is it so difficult to recognize the same thing about Common Ground's story of Boston's "busing crisis"?

Common Ground remains appealing and comforting to a lot of people because Lukas' presents Boston's "busing crisis" as a story of failure.  The problem is that “busing” is so routinely described as having failed that we have lost sight of what this equation—“busing failed”—asks us to believe about the history of civil rights. Agreeing “busing failed” makes it possible to dismiss the educational goals that were a pillar of the civil rights movement and the constitutional promise of equality endorsed by, but was never fully realized after, Brown. The “busing failed” narrative is comforting because it authorizes people to accept the continuing racial and socioeconomic segregation of schools in Boston and elsewhere as inevitable and unchangeable. It is time for us to move beyond Common Ground and deal more honestly with the history of civil rights in Boston and nationally.

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