The Road to Perdition

The old man rose slowly from his seat in the back of the room. He was a big man, and the wooden floor creaked beneath his weight. He had listened for an hour as the four guest speakers argued about the effects of Morgan v. Hennigan , the lawsuit that led to Judge Arthur Garrity's famous decree 30 years ago that black and white students be bused across town to achieve the racial integration that Boston schools had resisted for so long. Busing, as everyone knows, ignited Boston's most tumultuous, violent, and shameful period of the 20th century. White adults hurled rocks that shattered the windows of school buses carrying terrified black children — and the illusions of a city that for centuries held itself up as a beacon of tolerance and justice.

That was all three decades ago, of course, but what is 30 years in Massachusetts, anyway? Our public works projects take almost that long. Our senators stay in office longer. It's nothing.

By the time the old man got to his feet, the anger, frustration, and mistrust of the past had returned to fill the Old State House, site of a symposium held to mark the anniversary of Garrity's ruling. The speakers channeled that decades-old hostility, arguing and trading insults.

When the old man finally spoke, he looked tired and a little sad. His deep voice expressed not rage, but regret, for he knew something that very few other people in the room did, something that has been mostly forgotten over the years. He knew that it all could have turned out differently but for a single switched vote at a Boston School Committee meeting 33 years ago. That vote sent the city down a path from which there was no turning back, a path that led directly to all the violence and humiliation. It exposed the cowardice of Boston's leadership at the time and underscored how different things might have been had the politicians not wilted in the glare of hatred and hysteria. The old man had never forgotten this because his name was James Hennigan. He had fought to get the School Committee, which he chaired, to follow the law and begin integrating, but when the city resisted, it was his name that was attached to the resulting lawsuit.

“To do what we had to, we had to vote,” Hennigan, 77, solemnly told the audience. “Unfortunately, it went from 3 to 2, and it shifted. If that vote hadn't shifted, we may not be here talking about Morgan v. Hennigan .”

What everyone remembers is busing's turmoil. What few recall is how close the city came to avoiding it. And there is something else, something most people never even knew. If a single U.S. Supreme Court justice had changed his mind, Judge Garrity probably would have taken the same busing plan that so roiled Boston and ordered it right into the affluent white suburbs.

The Fire Department was worried that hot and humid night in September 1971. Hundreds of angry parents had shown up for a Boston School Committee meeting at the O'Hearn School in Dorchester. The parents had jammed the building past capacity. The mood was ugly.

Just weeks earlier, the School Committee had voted 3-2 to live up to the terms of an agreement it had made with the state. The state would pay 65 percent of the cost of three new elementary schools. In exchange, the School Committee promised to redraw district lines so that the new schools wouldn't be segregated. No more than half of the students in them would be nonwhite.

Honoring this deal should have been a mere formality, but any politician who supported integrated schools back then risked the wrath of white voters. Some saw opportunity in this. “Their message to their white constituents was, 'We're going to protect you from having black kids in your schools,'” says Hubie Jones, dean emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work and a longtime community activist. “'Stick with us, we'll fight for you.' And it worked.”

Indeed it did. Six years after the state required the city to integrate its schools, things in Boston had actually grown worse. The number of schools that didn't meet the racial desegregation requirement was almost 50 percent higher.

So it had taken some arm-twisting by James Hennigan to get fellow School Committee member John Craven to join him and then-chairman Paul Tierney in voting to make sure that, when they opened, the new elementary schools would be racially balanced.

But Hennigan's victory was short-lived, as he discovered seconds after the meeting at the O'Hearn School began. Craven launched into a speech that was interrupted four times by applause from the huge crowd. He claimed the School Committee had been given bad information, and he wanted to change his vote. “It is clear to me now that my previous action, based on false information, was a mistake,” said Craven.

Neither Hennigan nor Tierney believed the information had been wrong. But that didn't really matter. Hennigan shook his head, aware that, just minutes into the public hearing, the fight was already lost. He knew then that Craven, who was running for city council, would switch his vote, that the School Committee would walk away from the agreement, that it would all go to court, and that the city would lose.

“I feel cheated,” Hennigan told the crowd. “Did we negotiate? Did we compromise? Yes, we did. But this evening we threw it all aside. I'm sorry. I think it's a mistake.” The audience booed.

The School Committee overturned its prior vote, and one by one, the politicians and even a priest spoke against change. The new Lee School opened with a predominantly black student body. Morgan v. Hennigan was filed the next year.

“It was a bellwether decision,” says David Finnegan, School Committee member from 1976 to 1980. “It made it very clear that nobody was going to do this voluntarily.” Had the vote gone the other way, he says, “we might have had some flexibility in the courts.”

And if those new schools had integrated peacefully, Hennigan says, the rest might have come easier. Maybe there never would have been all the violence. “That vote that night . . . it did more damage to this city than anything else,” Hennigan says. “Nobody knew that 3-2 was going to have such an impact. There never would have been Morgan v. Hennigan .”

Gary Orfield stands looking out over a room filled with some of Boston's most distinguished lawyers. They have been laughing and embracing, recalling the old days, when many of them fought the good fight for Morgan v. Hennigan . Orfield, codirector of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, is the keynote speaker at this reception commemorating the anniversary of the case. The gathering has been organized by Foley Hoag, the firm that took the case pro bono and stuck with it for years. The lawyers who worked the case have already been honored, and now Orfield begins his talk.

Thirty years after Garrity's ruling, he reports, Boston's schools have essentially re-segregated. He knows this because the Civil Rights Project has completed a study paid for by the Foley Hoag Foundation. Eighty-five percent of Boston public school students are now nonwhite. Whites have either fled the city or put their kids in private schools. Boston's suburbs are the nation's third whitest. The problem is now metropolitan.

By the time Orfield finishes, the banter and bonhomie have given way to head shaking. The problems are huge.

The Civil Rights Project study makes clear why: The dangers of segregation remain exactly the same as they were 30 years ago. Minority students in segregated schools have more uncertified teachers, do worse on standardized tests, and are less likely to graduate. While 70 percent of white students in greater Boston go to schools in the outer suburbs — which are about 90 percent white — more than three quarters of blacks and Hispanics go to school in Boston or in cities such as Brockton, Lawrence, and Lowell. Nearly one in five attend a school where at least 90 percent of the students are minority and where more than half are so poor that they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Plenty of people, including Judge Garrity, realized that this pattern would emerge. In the South, where school districts generally cover entire counties, integration orders have proven more successful because they transcend town lines. In the North, however, the sovereignty of towns, each with its own school district, is a source of fierce pride. Garrity could order busing in Boston's schools, but was powerless to do anything in the suburbs, where everyone knew the city's whites would flee to escape integrated classrooms. Boston had violated the Constitution, but those suburbs, with their independent school districts, had done nothing illegal to make their schools mostly white. Intentionally or not, the system creates segregation.

A case with the potential to change all that had reached the U.S. Supreme Court at the same time Garrity was hearing the Morgan suit. Milliken v. Bradley argued that the state of Michigan, as the parent body over all of its school districts, was complicit in segregation, and that the courts should order desegregation measures throughout metropolitan Detroit, not just in the city itself. An appellate court agreed that desegregation remedies could extend into the suburbs.

The Supreme Court decided to hear the case in 1974. If it sided with the appellate court, desegregation could spread into white suburbs across the country.

Some in Boston got the point. “It was in the newspapers and letters to the editor and being proposed that Garrity should consider [desegregating] more than just Boston,” recalls Eric E. Van Loon, who was then a staff attorney with Harvard's Center for Law and Education, which took the lead in arguing the Morgan v. Hennigan case. In the end, the Supreme Court overruled the appellate judge by 5-4. Integration orders would continue to be limited to school districts in which segregated schools were the proven result of unconstitutional design.

Nathaniel R. Jones, who argued the case before the Supreme Court as general counsel for the NAACP, calls Milliken a watershed, “a case that really turned the clock back.” Had just one vote gone the other way, says Jones, who was later appointed a federal appellate judge, “the landscape of public education today would be totally different.”

It didn't happen that way, and Garrity was forced to restrict busing to Boston. Within a few years, most of the white students had left the public schools.

“It's tragic,” says Nancy McArdle, a research associate with the Civil Rights Project. “While [busing in Boston] may have had some positive benefits, the broader question of the concentration of resources and concentration of poverty and races, it's not really improved that.”

With history comes a vague sense of the inevitable. Things happen for a reason, don't they? Thirty years later, the memory of busing's violence and bigotry and trauma remains painfully vivid. To some it will always have been a mistake, to others a broken promise or a failure of leadership. What's for certain is that political courage — one switched vote on a school committee — could have changed everything, could have been the first step toward a less violent integration. And a single changed mind in the Supreme Court could have altered life in, and the complexion of, the suburbs.