Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Unity League

“It’s Not the Bus”: Busing and the Democratic Struggle in Boston, 1974-1975

2. Background

The chronology presented by the journal Radical America (Nov.-Dec. 1974), “Racism and Busing in Boston,” provides a fair starting point for analysis of the history and background to the Phase I busing plan last fall. We disagree with some features of the analysis presented there, but since it is the only attempt we have seen to place the busing situation within a framework of historical fact, we take it as a point of departure.

The main question that the authors of the article set themselves is, “What peculiar and general features of the history and economy of Boston account for the intensity and duration of the anti-busing movement in this city among the many cities that have undergone court-ordered desegregation?” The article answers this question in several ways.

First, they argue that the economy of Boston is increasingly an economy of scarcity, of competition among the working people over scarce jobs, scarce housing, and scarce social services. The unique aspect of this dying economy is the huge private institutional sector – universities, hospitals, and the industries that serve or develop upon the basis of these large institutions. This has had two consequences: on the one hand, the patronage machine in Boston has had more economic importance than the machine in other, more industrialized, cities, and a close association has formed between the machine and civil service and craft unions; on the other hand, liberal professionals have played a major role in developing the new institutional and electronics sectors which have demanded unskilled or semi-skilled labor.

Between the bourgeois politicians of the machine and the bourgeois politicians elected by the liberal community, there has grown up a contradictory situation of collusion and contention: contention, for example, over the rate at which capital enterprises in the city will be taxed; collusion, for example, over the continuation and strengthening of the white-skin privileges in jobs, unemployment, and housing.

The machine politicians and their allies in the craft and civil service unions have practiced until quite recently a policy of excluding oppressed nationalities from all jobs under their control. This is in stark contrast to many other cities, Chicago, for example, where the machine has penetrated into the Black community, and offers a certain quota of certain jobs within the civil-service apparatus to Blacks. A recent Federal study showed that proportionate to their percentage in the city population, Black people in Boston were more under-represented in Federal jobs than in any other large city. The “whiteness” of the machine and of the craft and civil-service unions has placed these organizations at the center of the anti-busing movement, a role which they could not play in a city where they were more integrated.

It is important to note – as the RA article does not – that the white-skin privilege of segregated patronage and segregated unions is contradictory: these jobs are only available to a small percentage of the total work-force. The fact that these limited job openings are almost exclusively for white people should not be confused with the idea that all white people can or will obtain jobs through patronage; this idea is false.

An additional feature of the work situation in Boston is that workers of oppressed nationalities frequently find jobs in the tax-free institutions and in the electronics and research factories spawned by these institutions. Recent immigrations of various Latin American and Caribbean nationalities, as well as various European Mediterranean nationalities, have corresponded to the boom these industries underwent during the Vietnam War years. There is a sharp contrast between the “liberal” image of many of the owners and managers of these enterprises and the high rate of profit in these low-wage, non-unionized branches of production.


In their analysis of housing, the authors of the RA article point to the many practices – “redlining,” “block-busting,” discrimination in the assignment of public housing, confinement of “urban renewal” (which its opponents call “Negro removal”) to the communities of the oppressed nationalities, etc. – whereby the “real estate interests” of the city have discriminated against the oppressed nationalities in housing and have attempted to confine this housing to “red-lined” areas. The only point which the article glosses over is the fact that the pattern over the past twenty years has been toward an increase in segregation in housing. It is necessary to stress this idea in order to combat the “old ethnic neighborhoods” thesis by which many apologists conceal from themselves the white-supremacist essence of the anti-busing movement. In fact these neighborhoods are neither “old” nor “ethnic”: South Boston, for instance, is only about 57% Irish; it has become all-white, but this is the result of the housing policy of the Boston “real-estate” interests rather than the cause of these policies. In fact, not so long ago, a fair number of Black families lived in South Boston. The deliberate policy of reducing public services – sanitation, fire, police, insurance – in the communities that have become ghettos of the various oppressed nationalities has encouraged many white petit-bourgeois and working-class people to acquiesce in or fight for this increasing segregation.

Again, the most important white-skin privileges in the area of housing are not available to the masses of white workers in Boston, i.e., the privilege of becoming a homeowner in one of the “nice” neighborhoods of Boston (the “streetcar suburbs”) or of leaving the city altogether for the working-class suburbs.

False Views of RA

The RA article briefly reviews other facets of the Boston economy, and then goes on to make the case that the intensified competition for resources accounts for the strength of the white-supremacist movement in Boston. While we would agree in general that the special competition between white labor and labor of the oppressed nationalities forms a material base for white chauvinist sentiments on the part of white working people, the extension of this argument to the idea that white workers are white chauvinist because they fear competition with labor of oppressed nationalities seems to us superficial and “psychologist.” This is not the time to review the arguments about this difference in detail (this is done in another pamphlet of ours), but it does raise other questions about the line taken by the editors of the RA in their article.

For example, will liberal reforms by themselves lead to equality between the Black people and white people, or between the Black and white sections of the working class? The editors of Radical America seem to feel they will:

Although the old patronage machine has lost much of its power since Curley’s time, it still represents the last line of defense against Black encroachments into the white world of Boston, into its segregated schools, jobs, and housing facilities. The Yankee capitalist class has seriously undercut the economic power of the old machine over the years, and the liberal Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party has deprived it of considerable power in the city, state, and federal government...

As long as these racist politicians control the School Committee, they will be able to maintain considerable working-class support by dispensing patronage jobs and by favoring predominantly white school, but the very existence of the School Committee is being threatened by various black groups who have the support of liberal political leaders in the City Hall and the State House...

The blow busing strikes at Boston’s dual system of education also raises the possibility of the ultimate defeat of the old patronage machine and its overtly racist leadership...[The promise made by racist politicians to stop busing] alone has accounted for much of their political appeal in recent years. And their political fortunes will probably suffer in the long run because of their failure to keep this promise. In fact, Hicks Kerrigan, and other political leaders of the old machine have recently suffered defeat in their campaigns for higher office... [RA article, pp. 30-32]

The defeat of these figures in the elections at the hands of more liberal Democrats is, first of all, a repetition of similar defeats before the Phase I turmoil. But, more generally, the RA analysis seems to argue that in the antagonism between the machine politicians and the local big bourgeoisie (what RA calls the “Yankee capitalist class”), the latter has somehow become the ally of the struggle for democratic rights. The RA editors miss the point: that the liberals will act against Hicks and Kerrigan does not mean that they are committed anti-white-supremacists. For them, white supremacy more “naturally” takes the form of “social control” and measured concessions to the liberal Democratic political forces among the oppressed nationalities, in order to “contain” the struggle for democratic rights. Either the editors of RA feel that such political forces as White, Garrett Byrne (the incumbent Suffolk County District Attorney, who defeated Kerrigan), and Dukakis will bring equality between the Anglo-American people and the peoples of oppressed nationalities, or else they believe that once a particular national privilege falls, the bourgeoisie of this country does not erect a new one in its place! In either case, this is a muddled formulation for Marxists, and one that neglects ten years in the history of Black struggles for better education in Boston.

National Liberation, Democracy, and Assimilationism in the Black Struggle

This history, which the RA article also summarizes, is rich in experience with the white supremacy of the liberal bourgeoisie in the struggle of the Black community for democratic rights in education. When the efforts of civil rights activists in the early ’60’s led to a planned boycott of Boston schools and a hearing on de facto segregation in the schools, the liberals persuaded the activists to call off the boycott in exchange for ensuring that the School Committee would be responsive at the hearing! The boycott, on June 19, 1963, followed on the unwillingness of the School Committee to admit that there was de facto segregation in Boston. A similar boycott – in 1964 – led the liberals to form a blue-ribbon committee whose recommendations resulted in the 1965 Racial Imbalance Law which prohibited forced busing out of the school district. The pattern of liberal response to the just demands of the Black community became obvious: move the struggle away from the popular realm as much as possible, onto legal or bourgeois-political terrain, and then to do as little about it as possible.

The intransigence and increasing overt white supremacy of the School Committee/patronage machine forces, and the “concerned” white supremacy of the liberals conditioned the development of two poles within the Black struggle: on the one hand, a strictly assimilationist pole, which saw the goal of the struggle as the integration of Black students in the schools; on the other hand, a democratic pole which favored an end to discrimination, the achievement of democratic rights in education. Besides an openness to community control as a solution to the inferiority of education for the oppressed nationalities, the democratic pole opposed relying on the liberal bourgeoisie and relying instead on political development and mobilization of the masses of the oppressed nationalities.

It would be tempting to assume that these two poles took the form of two organizations during the course of the struggle, but this has not been the case. The various bourgeois and petit-bourgeois organizations within the Black community–NAACP, Freedom House, Black Caucus, poverty agencies, and so forth–combined assimilationist and democratic aspects in various contradictory ways. Although the democratic aspect seems to be weaker in the Boston NAACP, the calling of the Carson’s Beach demonstration and their (admittedly) sporadic labor work are examples of a more democratic current, which cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, communist groups have made this ’left’ error with disastrous results, as we shall see.

In Boston, as in other cities during the civil rights upsurge of the ’60’s, the dilemma faced by both assimilationist and democratic lines was that they sought an end to national oppression in an imperialist state, where such an end can only be achieved if the power of the capitalist class is overthrown. After the passage of the Racial Imbalance Law in 1965, the NAACP continued to press for enforcement of the law, and finally sought satisfaction through the bourgeois courts. This ultimately led to the Garrity desegregation decision in June of last year. These efforts were largely in isolation from the popular upsurges which were occurring in the Black community during these same years; ’isolation’ in the sense that the NAACP was opposed to leading the popular struggles. Partly, of course, this was caused by the lack of leadership within the NAACP chapter; but partly it reflected the fact that, although the NAACP set itself the task of “educating” the Black community on the facts of segregation, it did not and still does not set itself the task of furnishing concrete goals to the popular movements in the community.

On the other hand, more purely democratic force were caught in a related dilemma. While they were critical of the dependence of the NAACP strategy on the “goodwill” of white liberal bourgeois, and of its focus on desegregation, the various alternative arrangements–the New School, Operation Exodus, METCO – were either transitory, or served only a fraction of the community, or came to depend upon liberal goodwill in the form of federal or foundation money. Nor were the succession of school boycotts culminating in the Black Student Union strike in the spring of 1971 more successful in pointing the way to Black quality education. We do not intend to belittle the results that were achieved or to minimize the many objective difficulties in the way of such attempts, but simply point out that these popular struggles–which embraced a clearer democratic line – were vulnerable to charges from the NAACP and other more “established” forces of being Utopian, or else of being only partial change in a situation where ’total change’ (desegregation, in the view of the NAACP) was necessary. The more democratic forces never accomplished the aim of winning over, educating and revolutionizing the popular masses within the Black community. In many cases, they never even set themselves this aim.

The Building of the Anti-Busing Movement

At the same time, what became the anti-busing movement was being constructed in the white communities of Boston. Since the character and motor force of this movement have received so much attention, it would be wise to review a little of its history.

The main point about the anti-busing movement a term we use to include the bourgeois politicians who root their platforms in open white supremacy, the various incorporated and non-incorporated Information Centers,[1] ROAR itself, the various fascist forces such as the American Party, John Birch Society, KICK, and the masses of people who follow the lead of these organizations – is its multi-class nature, a point misunderstood and downplayed in a number of liberal and radical accounts, including the position of some communist and other revolutionary groups. It is a strength of the RA article that it stresses, and to some extent, documents this point.

One difference between the politicians at the head of the ABM and the politicians such as White, Dukakis, Kennedy, and so forth who are usually described as “liberal” is the difference between the policy of mass struggle by white people–working-class and petit-bourgeois – to actively defend the system of white-skin privileges, and the policy of passive acquiescence of the white masses in this system, leaving the defence in the hands of the politicians. The successes in organizing the ABM represents the success of the thesis that at certain times and places segments of the white masses will actively join the camp of reaction. This idea is not at all self-evident, as we shall see from an analysis of the tactics used by the ABM in an attempt to keep masses of white people aligned with reactionary positions.

We believe that the ABM is an outgrowth of the traditional white-skin privilege patronage apparatus in Boston, although it probably assumes other forms in other cities. We believe that it represents an attempt–fairly successful so far–to enlist the support of the white masses in Boston for the defence of these privileges. We believe that the ABM is not as a whole a fascist movement, but rather a movement in which fascists try to win over white people who have more moderate positions.

What is the evidence for this view? First, the mass organizations within or in support of the ABM are the very same organizations we have discussed in connection with the patronage system: the civil service craft unions (actually, these are unions like the Fire Fighters’ Association and the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association rather than the more heterogeneous civil service unions like the AFSCME[2] and SEIU), the construction trades and other craft unions which work for the government or depend on government projects for a large fraction of their employment, all-white unions like the ILA, and the Home and School Associations (to the extent that these are mass organizations) through which School Committee patronage is distributed. These unions are also, of course, unions of the labor aristocracy. But the number of workers even within these unions who have benefitted from the patronage system and its politics are smaller than the number who actively support the ABM.

Second, there is an intimate connection between the leaders of the ABM and the patronage system, either because they control certain segments of the patronage system (Hicks, Kerrigan) or because they benefit from the availability of patronage jobs (Pallidino, whose husband is on the CETA payroll [a Federal job program administered by the city]; Johnnene, who is a Summerthing coordinator [a city cultural program]). This is an embarrassment to the ABM, which finds it important to represent itself as “above politics,” and has been an important tool in discrediting the movement in the eyes of the white masses (unfortunately, from the right as well as from the left). This reflects the fact that many proletarian supporters of the ABM do not see its multi-class nature, and that the leaders of the ABM are reluctant to have them see it.

Third, the ABM made direct use of city facilities and funds to organize the ABM, and its strength is greatest in traditional “machine” neighborhoods. One reason for the weakness of anti-busing forces in Allston-Brighton is this importance of patronage traditions, which are weak in that neighborhood.

Fourth, the relationship between the struggle over the schools and the desegregation of Civil Service jobs which has been taking place in Massachusetts in the last year-and-a-half. Many white supporters of the ABM point to changes in Civil Service examinations and so forth as evidence that ”’they’ are getting everything.”

Failing to grasp these two points about the ABM–its multi-class nature and its relation to the patronage apparatus – has led many communists into right and ’left’ errors in the tactics of combating this movement. At certain turns the failure to make this analysis has made the various left groups lose valuable opportunities to expose the many contradictions that arise from these considerations.

To sum up the background material: the history of the struggle in education in Boston has produced two contradictory political forces, the democratic movement and the anti-busing movement, which have waged extremely varied struggle–legal and illegal, parliamentary and popular, warfare of position and warfare of decision–over the questions of white supremacy in Boston. While the fundamental contradiction in the busing situation is a class contradiction, the principal contradiction is between these two movements. In addition to the principal contradiction, there are secondary contradictions: the contradiction between each movement and the liberal bourgeoisie in Boston; the contradictions within each movement; the contradictions between various organizations within each movement; and so forth. How these contradictions developed during the course of the last year and how the various communist groups attempted to solve them, will be the subject of the next sections.


[1] The Information Centers are storefronts in the various white communities which serve as rallying points for the organization of the ABM. They provide information, serve as meeting places, hold funds for the ABM and so forth. They are generally run by the more hardline and reactionary leaders of the ABM.

[2] AFSCME, it is true, gave money to the campaign of Louise Day Hicks, a fact exposed by activists during the winter. But unlike the BPPA and FFA, this fundraising was done behind the scenes by the district leadership, who evidently feared open solicitation of these monies among the rank and file. The extent to which this type of covert support for the ABM exists is an extremely interesting question, but the activists concerned chose to abandon this exposure in favor of issues of the “crisis in general,” thus letting slide the opportunity to tie the bankruptcy of many trade union leaders to this white supremacy.