I was in the middle of what I honestly call the Boston busing fiasco. On center stage, it played as a racial divide between Boston’s white and minority communities. It played well in the media – especially national and international media where they didn’t understand the local sentiments. The local news stations did a little better — when they tried.
Boston was sarcastically labeled as “The Athens Of America” in this period.
The key which I discovered by listening to students and parents – white and minority — was lack of quality education. Busing poor, low-income kids -Black and White – didn’t solve the problem of inferior education. Old, outdated textbooks. Antiquated curriculums. Teachers disenchanted by the lack of respect in pay and regard. Oversized classrooms where teaching was a mission impossible.
Time and again, I heard the same complaints from communities that reportedly were “racially divided” by Federally-mandated busing.
Students were transported from substandard schools in one community to substandard schools in another community. Few bothered to mention this. Most said it was a racial divide which was a cheap way to deflect the ball dropped by courts, legislators and local politicians who saw this as a way to build their constituencies by playing the race card instead of dealing with the fundamental issue: the lack of quality education in Boston’s low-income communities.
After I heard the anger over lack of quality education which was repeated over and over by white and Black families, I went with that as the core of my reports.
Truth be told though, I usually led stories with the standard visual images of angry crowds shouting racial epithets, school buses being stoned, and students threatened. Those images were overemphasized and inaccurately interpreted by national and international journalists and commentators.
I often tried to explain things to the network reporters, but they blew me off, labeling me as a local unable to see the big picture. It was exactly the opposite. They didn’t see the picture and they weren’t looking for it, either.
Many local politicians and community leaders – who really knew better — preyed on their constituents for votes instead of trying to calm the firestorm which often turned violent. We in the local media played the violence up, too because it brought in big ratings and that’s what our bosses wanted. If you wanted your job, there was no escaping the error. Real efforts to explain the education issues were left to minority affairs shows which aired while most people slept.
Although I was proud of my body of work and earned an Emmy for coverage of that era, it was a bittersweet honor. Had I been able to cover it honestly, it would have been a different story.
There’s certainly no excuse – more than 50 years later – for politicians to use busing as a political tool. They are (again) ignoring the real issue of that volatile period in the name of getting votes from people who weren’t there when it happened and don’t understand it.
Shame on all of them!