During my ABC Network News stint (3 years), I covered major international stories. These included the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. While I was in Vietnam in 1967, I met LBJ who revealed he wouldn’t seek re-election because of the domestic fallout from the Vietnam war — confidential information revealed weeks before Johnson addressed the nation. I was also in Chicago during the Democratic convention and the police riot that accompanied it. And finally, just to give me a sense of where my career would go, my first day at ABC network was also the first day of the 6-day war in the Middle East.
Because these assignments preceded my Boston career (which began in 1970), I was no stranger to turmoil when I began covering court-ordered school desegregation in Boston. I was the only reporter of color at Channel 7 at that time. When I was introduced to the Channel 7 news director, I was told, “You’re gonna cover all our minority affairs news. You’re our minority reporter.”
Channel 4 had four reporters of color three in new and and one in sports. Channel 5 had just one non-white reporter. I don’t recall any anchors of color. I had brief stints at the anchor desk, including the premiere of Channel 7’s Morning News program. I was the co-anchor for a brief period. which was not my best fit. On the horizon, there would be minority affairs newscasts at all 3 network affiliates. These shows would be anchored by non-white reporters.
Boston stations were fulfilling FCC mandates rather than pursuing noble journalistic goals.
Covering “Forced Busing” (otherwise called court ordered school desegregation)
“Forced Busing” (otherwise known as court-ordered school desegregation) caused massive protests throughout Boston. There had been a lot of tension in Boston’s ethnic neighborhoods in the months and weeks before the federal order was implemented. The problem was generally perceived in major media outlets as a racial issue — a purely racial issue. Although some newspaper columns or editorials dealt with education as the fundamental problem, education never got serious attention in any television station’s coverage.
When busing began, Channel 7 assigned all-white news teams to cover the predominantly white neighborhoods of South Boston and Charlestown. I was assigned to cover predominantly Black neighborhoods in Roxbury and Dorchester. My crews usually included a Black cameraman who was a familiar and trusted figure in the minority neighborhoods. The late Therman Toon proved to be both an able colleague and a trusted peace broker for me when things became heated.
Early on, before I fully established myself, I often encountered derisive comments in minority neighborhoods as the race issue intensified. I was called “Uncle Tom” and “House Ni&&er” by some folks of color. There were minority community “voices” who felt I wasn’t “Black enough” in my coverage, that my reports were not sufficiently slanted in favor of minority students and families.
Originally I was not assigned to cover stories at South Boston and Charlestown High Schools, but eventually the assignment desk became aware that I had become friendly with community and political leaders in white communities. They decided to use that to their advantage. The news is, after all, about ratings. Ratings are about the price of air time sold to advertisers. If you want the story under the story, follow the money.
I got to know some of the white leaders in social venues. In other words, in neighborhood bars frequented by news media. Social, off-the-record chit-chat relaxed some preconceptions those folks had about me. I shared stories about my frequent visits to Ireland as an ice breaker. My Irish stories became quickly known in “Southie” and Charlestown.
Doors began to open and families asked for Garry Armstrong to lend his reporter credentials to “The White Side.” Channel 7 jumped on this and soon, my assignments included all neighborhoods. I was liked and disliked by everyone, sure proof that I was doing a good job. I received my share of racial epithets in white communities. The “N” word was often heard. I received a high volume of letters with racial epithets and death threats scrawled in red crayon. On some days, when I was in a good mood, I’d open my news desk drawer and pile up the mail. They usually ran 50-50.
They loved me. They hated me. I had to be doing something right.
I was able to cut through some of the bias directed at the media when it became clear that quality education was the thread that connected angry parents, students, and their families in white and minority communities. Parents and students were incensed by outdated textbooks and worthless classroom curriculums. I began to hammer at these issues in my reports instead of lending fuel to the racism theme. It became a constant for me and even more doors opened with a welcome from people who were clearly disenchanted with reporters in general. I became “the exception.”
Word spreads quickly in Boston. Neighborhoods are like networks. Your word quickly becomes household fodder. You cannot recant something you’ve said. Your journalistic views are known by everyone. My take on “forced busing” was that it was really about eradicating inferior education for all families. This viewpoint was accepted by many of the louder voices leading the protest rallies which had gained national and international attention.
Education as a real issue was lost by the network and international media who came to Boston for scenes of racial violence, the tumult that infamously branded Boston as “the Athens of the east brought to its knees.” I lost track of my efforts to correct the superstar news people who came to Boston armed with preconceived notions and stories mentally written before they had talked to a single person.
The ugliest scene from those “busing days” was commemorated on April 5th, 1976. Ted Landsmark, a Boston City Hall mayoral aide, was a young man of color. He was targeted by an angry crowd of white, vehemently anti-busing groups. Landsmark, in the blur of a horrible second, was speared by an American Flag swung by a member of the mob. The nightmarish scene was captured in a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Stanley Forman.
The picture became a reminder of how volatility had engulfed Boston. The city had almost been lost to political and community leaders who played the race card rather than deal with the harder (and more expensive) issue of upgrading the city’s schools. To this day, bad schools devastate many families, but for obvious reasons it has caused the most harm to families who can’t afford private schools. Poor families always take the brunt of these issues in all neighborhoods.
The Landsmark incident occurred just a few minutes away from the Channel 7 building on Boston City Hall Plaza. I was in that angry crowd, trying to make my way to the scene. It was chaos.
My own personal ugly moment from those days has a perverse, comic twist and although it sounds humorous, it’s true. Me and my crew were wrapping up a story in South Boston. It must have been the early 70’s because we were still using film. Using film meant I had a hard deadline. We had to get the film back to the lab to be “souped” (developed) and ready for editing. I needed at least 35 minutes clear before getting to my story. The clock was ticking in my brain as I noticed the angry crowd circling us. I heard the familiar racist taunts and dismissed them. My brain was focused on my hard deadline.
This time, though, I couldn’t dismiss the anger of this group. They began throwing rocks, bottles, and pieces of glass at the Channel 7 group. My crew looked at me anxiously. What to do? Somewhere, in my brain which was spinning like a top, I came up with a wacko solution. I surveyed the angry mob, put up my hands for them to calm down (which they briefly did) and yelled: “Hey, folks! Hold on. You got this wrong. I’m not a Ni&&er — I’m a Samoan! Yes, that’s right. SAMOAN.”
They believed me. They thought I was a Samoan, not a bloody Ni&&er. The crowd backed off. We got in our vehicle and raced back to Channel 7 where few people believed my story. But to this day — half a century later — among two generations there exists a firm belief that Garry Armstrong is a Samoan. It’s become an inside joke in Boston media.
Moreover, the Samoan incident led Channel 7 suits to believe I was a man for all seasons. Over the years, I was asked to infiltrate Jamaican, Japanese, and Korean gangs. As much as I protested these assignments, I couldn’t help but laugh at their belief that these various ethnic groups would accept me as one of their own. I confess I almost began to believe the legend.
Years later, My wife and I were attending a retirement party for one of my old colleagues. A very well-endowed young reporter approached us, thrust her chest at me and gushed, “You, you are a LEGEND.”
Marilyn stepped forward and pointed out, “Yes, and he’s also my husband.”
From those early years when I was the only non-white reporter in the newsroom, until today where there is far more diversity in news, I had a chance to make a difference. I share this with peers who worked in that era. You never think about “making a difference” while you are working. You are “in the moment,” trying to get it right no matter what pressures you may face.
My parents made it easy for me. Truth, ethics, compassion. I’ve never forgotten. Nor have I forgotten so many people who had my back during those wild and crazy years.
Epilogue: On our 1990 honeymoon in Ireland, Marilyn and I discovered I really do have Irish roots. What a hoot. Imagine if I had known that 30 years earlier.