BOSTON BUSING AS I REMEMBER

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.”

My blunt response was, “I’m here as a general assignment reporter. Check my resume!”  That was the beginning of my often tense relationship with “the corner office” over more than three decades.

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.

Stanley Forman’s photo titled “The Soiling of Old Glory,” shows an attack on a young black lawyer, Ted Landsmark, in downtown Boston during a 1976 anti-busing demonstration.

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.

 



Categories: Boston, Education, Garry Armstrong, journalism, Media, News, reporting, Television

Tags: , , , , ,

30 replies

  1. Hi Garry. I enjoy your articles, however, this reply is not about busing though I did bus my daughter from Los Angeles to Santa Clarita because I visited Dorsey High and a teacher was sitting at his desk with his feet up. My daughter wound up graduating in the early 80s but she hated busing. She hated John Kennedy high school (yes, unlike Dorsey it was mostly White), she even ditched for a whole week! Horrible. But does she still have pics of her favorite White teachers? You betcha! Anyhow, can you tell me how you have inserted multiple pages into your Serendipity Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth site? I want to include a new writer to my site. Thanks for you help and thanks still if you cannot help. 🙂

    Like

    • Go to USERS. Click. Click “Add New” and follow the prompts. It’s not complicated and I don’t remember if each user needs to add his/her password, but they each need a username and ID (email address, usually, and actual name under which they want their writing to appear). I just sort of followed the prompts. It’s not complicated. I haven’t done it in a while, but it only took me a couple of minutes each time. By the way, Garry doesn’t know anything about computers. He just writes. I do everything else.

      Like

      • Cool, Thank you so much. His was the first post I came to on my Reader page, and your site is the only site I know about that is set up the way your is. I tried it by myself first, but kept getting blocked. So, once more into the etc, etc.

        Like

  2. Does it sometimes feel like we haven’t advanced very much in 50 or so years? Of course we didn’t have forced busing in Australia but if you talked to people in indigenous communities they could probably tell you similar stories of bad schools and not enough funding. Also we had “the stolen generation”, a national disgrace.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tas, I am watching reaction to the conviction of Police Officer Chauvin in the George Floyd case as I write.
      The sound and fury around this case and other recent Police shootings–Minority victims — they, yes, make it feel we haven’t come that far in 50 years. But — the fact that the officer was convicted is proof we have made some progress. However, the bottom line is that these incidents continue to occur — almost on a daily basis. So your question remains valid — how much progress have we made? Yes, a national/international disgrace.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I recall the forced desegregation era, and as an educator ( I am certified grades 6 through 12 in Illinois) I had strong opinions on it. As you mentioned, the main element of quality of education was rarely mentioned. The race card was played for rating purposes. In many ways, this contributed to the fears on both sides of town.
    It became apparent that families of white students did not want their children going to predominately black schools because they knew the schools were inferior. Think of all the money that was being spent busing children for hours away from their neighborhoods each day, while many schools did not have the supplies they needed.
    No one was playing the long game. Ultimately the quality of education at all the buildings was not being addressed. Further, integration would begin to solve itself with housing equality and equal opportunity employment. Of course, the sticking point is that you need quality education for a quality job. We drove buses to our problems rather than facing them head-on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We still haven’t really dealt with education. The whole “no child left behind” thing was and still is a horror show that leaves no time to help kids really learn. All they do is memorize. The teachers hate it, the kids hate it, the parents hate it. It hasn’t improved education and the textbooks are still old and wrong.

      What was really horrendous about busing was that it didn’t accomplish anything. You took two usually bad schools and bused kids back and forth. It didn’t improve their education and anyone who had a few extra bucks sent their kids to religious or private schools. They STILL aren’t dealing with it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It is the same here. The money spent on busing turned out to be largely wasted. There is still some busing here, but far less than from the peak era. Religious education was inexpensive when I went to school, so we went to Catholic grade school, high school and college. We would have been in the public schools if growing up today.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Rich, you are right on target with EDUCATION as the key issue

      I confess I didn’t get it early on because it was played strictly as a racial issue. Only after LISTENING to parents and students from ALL neighborhoods did I begin to separate the sound and fury. No easy task, I assure you. If you are pursuing a story fueled by race, just let the folks rant and rave — then inject a few hot-headed “talking heads” and, VOILA — you have an easy peasy TV news “package”. Not much thinking involved. The volatile emotions make for great “teaser” pieces that can be used throughout the day to promote upcoming newscasts. News and Advertising suits are happy with the promised revenue from hyped viewers and ratings.

      Those of us who sought the less melodramatic but more important details often encountered subtle feedback about ‘keeping our eyes on the action’. It was difficult navigating those waters just to do your job – the RIGHT way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Can you trace your Irish roots? Mine come from the Maher family. What fun if we’re related!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Garry’s are from the Warren family in county Sligo. We found their graves when we were over there. That was how Garry discovered his roots. Yeats is buried in the same graveyard and I took pictures of Yeats’ tomb and the Warren family was right behind it. Garry’s father said: “Those are OUR people.”

      Garry said “WHAT?”

      His father said that his mother was from Ireland (Garry remembered she had long, red hair which should have been a clue), and apparently those “very light” grandparents were Irish. From Ireland. During the potato famine, a lot of hungry people moved to the West Indies and married into the local population, hence the large number of dark people with Irish last names.

      Garry wanted to know why no one had told him and his father said he had been waiting for Garry to be old enough. Garry was 48 that year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess 48 was a good time to find out about my Irish roots. I thought it was a sort of explainer for my appreciation of “spirits”.

        Like

  5. oh indeed…. what a story! I wish I had known you already then – you sure opened up space for other non Arian folks! And more and more I believe that EVERYBODY in the US has some Irish roots! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Garry’s Irish roots started in Sligo. Family moved to the West Indies during the potato famine and married into the native population. But yes, a vast number of Americans are fully or partly Irish. I’m not, but Jews until recently pretty much married other Jews, usually because we didn’t have any choice — and because not being Christian changes a lot of things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The McCarthey part of my family came from Sligo. Candace and I went there once, just feeling drawnt there before we knew of the family connection. Also went to Yeats’ grave. Ireland in the 70s was stil mostly just little towns here and there and sweeping green in all shades over all. The people were friendly and loved to discuss Irish poetry and literature.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kiki. The stories are crazy but TRUE.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. i grew up in the detroit suburbs and remember this well

    Liked by 1 person

    • The bottom line irony is that busing didn’t accomplish anything except to make a lot of people angry. It didn’t improve education. They didn’t invest in better textbooks or raise teacher salaries or build bigger school and hire more teachers — or revise the curriculum. Busing was cheap compared to really doing something about public education. Then, along came “no child left behind” which actually made everything MUCH worse.

      Why do we have so many stupid people? Well, giving kids a better education might improve that!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I remember, the students from the 70’s coming up to me 20-25 years later. Many, with their own kids in tow, would apologize to me for their rueful behavior and reveal they were dealing with the SAME problems with THEIR children. So very sad.

        Like

      • i agree with every word

        Liked by 1 person

      • One of the problems with the fate of education is that decisions were made by administrators rather than classroom teachers. Many times, the administrators had not taught or only for a year or two and knew little about the actual process. They should consult with professional, experienced classroom teachers to make appropriate changes and improvements. Common sense isn’t very common.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Beth, it was/is a national malady.

      Liked by 1 person

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