Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Unity League

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

4. Class Forces During the First Stage of Struggle: Sept.-Dec. 1974

During the fall, the essential struggle was between the ABM and democratic movement, spearheaded by the Black masses. The liberal bourgeoisie was largely paralyzed by the disciplined and forceful struggle of the democratic masses to keep the schools open and desegregated. The contradictions within the ABM began to produce splits in the leading organization, ROAR. By all measures, the fall was a substantial advance for the democratic movement. The dimensions of this victory forced the liberal bourgeoisie to act against the democratic movement, in an effort to curtail its gains. How did this come about?

ABM: Contradictions in Reactionary Tactics

The tactics of the ABM were, as we have seen, a compromise reflecting the contradictions within the ABM: essentially tactics of orderly mass protest (demonstrations, school boycott) coupled to attempts to provoke the oppressed nationalities by means of violent attacks. If the masses of the oppressed nationalities responded to these provocations by means of counter-violence, then sections of the white masses would be driven to the right (safety being the “center” issue in the short run, while quality education was so in the long run), and the liberal bourgeoisie would respond, it was hoped, by calling off the desegregation plan.

The problem with these tactics was that if the oppressed nationalities did not permit themselves to be provoked, or, better still, if they responded to provocation not with unorganized violence but with extremely well-targeted counterattacks against the provocateurs, then the forces would move in almost the opposite direction. Participation of the white masses in the demonstrations would fall off, the boycott would succumb to a “back-to-school” movement, and the differences between the moderates and fascists in the leadership of the ABM would develop into squabbles and splits. In addition, there was the faint possibility that the liberal bourgeoisie would act against the ABM.

The moderates initially believed that these tactics would stop the busing plan, and frequently acted to “cool out” the more violent sections of the white masses, as in the much-publicized incident involving Mrs. Hicks calming a crowd in front of South Boston High School last fall. The fascists, on the other hand, recognized that: more would be required than boycotts and attempted lynchings; they were interested in the construction of a fascist party, and saw participation in the anti-busing movement as a means to that end.

These tactics of the ABM received intense media support, which helped the ABM in its efforts to organize in several Boston neighborhoods, and also created, to some extent, the plans of ROAR to become a national organization. Thus even newspapers like the Globe, which was boycotted and at a couple of points beseiged by ABM supporters, assisted the growth of the ABM (in a similar way, this summer, media, to some extent, created PLP and the Committee Against Racism as the voice of the communists). The media portrayed the ABM as an “elemental,” unstoppable force, the product of “white tensions,” or “fierce neighborhood pride,” and so forth. The ABM, naturally, accused the media of not doing enough to build the white terror–not reporting enough incidents, not keeping parents informed–and started the first of a series of Information Centers in South Boston. These were funded mostly by small contributions.[1]

The instability of these tactics became evident by the middle of October. It was evident from school attendance that certain sections of the white masses would only observe the boycott out of fear for the safety of schoolchildren. There was a hard core of boycotters who could move, register children in other schools, or enter them in private schools, but for the working masses the contradictions of the boycott – white education meant no education – made defections from the ABM a strong possibility. It is easy to overestimate this trend, but if there had been agitation in the white communities about the dead-end nature of the boycott, this disaffection of the masses might have been increased. There was almost no such agitation.[2]

On the other hand, masses of white people were not involved in the disruption and terror after the first two weeks of school. There was a hard core of unemployed and lumpen elements, the same sectors who had lynched Blacks in Boston in the past,[3] a larger section of uninvolved sympathetic onlookers, and a still larger mass who deplored the violence but blamed it on the busing plan. The increased police presence also had an effect of channeling the terror into “mobile warfare” against the buses and the police, and also bringing the terror into the schools.

In addition, ROAR was having difficulty in establishing new chapters. In Dorchester, for example, many ROAR members, fearing violence, were reluctant to set up an Information Center, and when it finally did open, in December, it was toward the back of an unmarked storefront. In Allston-Brighton, the ROAR chapter remained extremely small, and ROAR cars had their tires slashed in the course of a motorcade. These factors combined to exacerbate differences among the leaders of the ABM, who began to show public differences. The more moderate wing (with Ray Flynn at its extreme ’left’) began to favor some form of compromise with the liberal bourgeoisie, compromise which would involve integration with no forced busing of whites. The “Declaration of Clarification” issued by Hicks, Bulger, and Flaherty, despite many racist slurs, on the Black community, raised the point that busing of Black children into white neighborhoods was not the problem, but only the busing of white children into the “crime-infested” communities of the oppressed nationalities, a point Hicks returned to time and again. The School Committee vacillated for a month arid a half before voting not to submit a Phase II plan, during which time they were fishing for a suitable compromise with the liberals. The moderates, in objecting to the police presence in South Boston, made vague promises about South Boston policing “it’s own”, steps toward a compromise that never emerged. Hicks called for a sugar boycott, hoping to broaden the ABM to a more diffuse “protest” movement.

The hardliners within ROAR pressed for continued militant resistance to busing, even if it involved violence. They wanted ROAR to become a more conspiratorial cadre-like organization, and, far from shying away from the accusation that ROAR was a racist movement, the hardline elements welcomed the opportunity to push more explicitly white-supremacist ideology within the ABM. They favored the connections that grew up between the ABM and the underworld (connections that were alleged by the liberals and the democratic movement during the fall), and favored the defence of “white rights” all down the line–in housing, jobs, and public safety as well as in education–by any means necessary. They had no strong objections to the police presence in the white community, partly because they felt that the police would “fascicize” the white masses, and partly because many of the hardliners had strong connections with the police.

The general failure of the tactics of the ABM in the fall played against the moderates, and the hardliners were able to gain a much more definite hegemony. They accused the moderates of being too close to the liberals (all moderates in the ABM had to deal with the rancor of the masses against politicians), of vacillating about the goal of resistance to forced busing, of being “nigger-lovers,” and so forth. The moderates did not have much ammunition to use in return, especially since no public debate took place on the tactics favored by the hardliners. Accordingly, the fascists began to implement new tactics: intimidation of white people who would not go along with the white boycott; organization of provocations within the schools (both of these have been important tactics this fall as well); finally, the organized provocations in South Boston High that led to the Faith stabbing in December; the KKK attacks on Columbia Point Housing Project. These tactics finally succeeded in provoking retaliatory violence by the Black people, and the struggle shifted to a new stage.

Democratic Masses Win Victory

The democratic movement had been aware of the shift in tactics by the ABM, but they made no particular organized preparations to counter these moves. In fact, the vacuum of leadership within the democratic movement continued, and it was only the spontaneous discipline and courage of the democratic masses, mostly the Black masses, that brought advances in the fall.

Despite an initial flirtation by Atkins with the idea of a Black safety boycott, the stands of the NAACP were confined to demanding that the liberals provide more and better police protection to the Black schoolchildren. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this demand: the Black masses initiated the demand, up to and including the use of federal troops, and we strongly disagree with Left groups, including some Marxist-Leninists, who claim that this demand represents “reliance on the forces of the state.” What was wrong was that this was the only safety demand enacted by the NAACP during the fall, although the situation cried out for organization of the Black masses for self-defence. The Struggle! newspaper called for a boycott, but the collective’s influence in the Black community was too limited to achieve an effective mobilization.

Just how the democratic movement could insure the safety of children of the oppressed nationalities bused into the white communities was a question that was not posed, let alone answered, last fall.

Despite the lack of preparation to actually insure the safety of schoolchildren of the oppressed nationalities, the masses of Black people showed themselves to be well-prepared in other matters. There was much uncertainty in the Black community, the Hispanic community, and the Asian community about busing. Yet as the aims of the ABM became clear, the masses in all of these communities rallied and unified around the right of the oppressed nationalities to continue attending schools in the white communities. This was shown, for example, by the pattern of boycotts by the oppressed nationalities during the fall (and this fall as well, although this fall boycotts have had the purpose of protesting lack of safety and other undesirable features of the Phase II plan). After an incident in the white schools, attendance of the oppressed nationalities would fall off, but after a few days, it would rise again, indicating a determination among the democratic masses to prevent the ABM from closing the white schools to them.

In addition, the Black masses resisted the provocations of the ABM for at least two months during the fall. When cars full of KKK members fired shots into the Black and Latin Columbia Point housing project, tenants in the project responded by arming themselves and patrolling the project to keep out whites (the police, true to the service of the bourgeois state, responded by disarming the patrols and occupying the project). And until the lynching attempt on Jean Louis Yvon, there was no massive retaliation by Blacks against all whites in the Black community. When a wave of stonings did break out in the days following the Yvon beating, these were mostly carried out by gangs of youth, and in many cases adults – unlike the adults in the white communities – urged the youth to stop these spontaneous outbursts.

None of this was the result of “natural” pacifism among the Black people. The line grasped by the masses was one of foregoing the satisfaction of momentary retaliation against the ABM in order to achieve the main thing: keeping the schools open. It was the discipline of the masses, not inertness, that prevented any major incidents from occurring in the Black schools all fall, a fact that was ignored by the press and the liberal bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately, the democratic masses were disciplined and unified around an incorrect line on what to do about white provocations. To turn the other cheek endlessly was not possible, but no organized force within the democratic movement was able to put forward and win the masses to a different line. So when this discipline finally broke down (after the Yvon lynching attempt; the self-defense at Columbia Point was a different matter), it meant a surrender of initiative into the hands of the liberals, who were eager to step in as “brokers” (bourgeois language is so expressive!) of a “compromise,” one that would set the democratic movement back.

In practice, the NAACP opposed raising the political level of the Black masses during the course of the fall. Their attitude was not to organize the popular struggle so much as to control it. Two symptoms of this: since the bourgeois media publicized the activities of the ABM and had a virtual blackout on information about the democratic movement, it was necessary to build independent forms of communication with the masses attracted to the democratic movement. This was done, for example, in the Hispanic community, and to a certain extent in the Black community through the Freedom House briefings. The latter, however, were largely aimed at the media and professional educators. Whether that will change this year or not is still an open question. Second, the NAACP had no mass line, as the situation developed, other than to “stay calm.”

For the Left, there was agreement, at least on paper, about some tactical measures for the democratic movement in the fall. The right of the oppressed nationalities to self-defense was a slogan taken up by most groups, but just how this right was to be exercised was a subject of considerable disagreement, ranging from complete pacifism to adventuristic enthusiasm for any acts of resistance no matter how scattered and disorganized.

For mainly white “multinational” groups, this problem was also a problem of defending the right to self-defense in the white communities, and of winning over white people to the defense of the democratic movement. This was approached by the white revolutionaries by 1) infiltrating the ABM; 2) joining with existing organizations in the white community with “moderate” to social-democratic politics; 3) encouraging contacts to join paper “united front” organizations; 4) agitating within the trade unions; 5) some attempts to take reprisals against attacks on the oppressed nationalities. These approaches had varying degrees of success.

Intelligence Gathering

The Boston busing struggle has vindicated in practice both the Leninist theory of organization and the necessity for combining open and closed work. It has or should put an end to all fantasies of organizing revolution as one would a food co-op: in broad daylight with a sign on the door. The failures of the communist movement in Boston are also the failures of the “leaflet, forum, and demonstration” style of work which has prevailed in Marxist-Leninist circles.

Unfortunately, the ABM (inspired by other sources no doubt) proved far more faithful to Leninist norms of organization than the communist movement. With the assistance of fascist forces and the many policemen who either belong or sympathize, ROAR quickly developed secret forms of organization recognized necessary by all those serious about class struggle. These corresponded to the demands imposed by three functions crucial to victory in class war: combat; intelligence-gathering among and disruption or enemy forces; propaganda and agitation in clandestine conditions. The combat organizations of ROAR, trained by Vietnam Veterans, are better-known, mainly for their attacks on PLP and Committee Against Racism members. They operate under a variety of names, and are headed by openly-fascistic elements. ROAR was never forced to conduct agitation in difficult circumstances. That leaves intelligence-gathering and disruption, about which a word must be said.

The most interesting thing about the intelligence and disruption apparatus of ROAR was that it was largely developed during the course of the struggle. We assume that ROAR did have access to some intelligence files through police contacts. At the time of the December 14 demonstration, however, ROAR operated on little hard data about the tactics and scope of their organized opposition. By February, on the other hand, ROAR was capable of preying on the organizational and political opportunism of some Left forces.

For example, ROAR infiltrators were present at the February Conference of the National Student Coalition Against Racism, initiated by the SWP in Boston. They attached themselves to an action-oriented workshop, and urged and helped plan a demonstration the next day at Louise Day Hicks’ residence. The South Boston Information Center then “officially” called on ROAR supporters not to “counter-demonstrate,” while an “unofficial” leaflet incited youth to teach the demonstrators a lesson. Dimly aware that they might be heading into a trap, Coalition members called off their picket line.

Nothing in the historical experience of the international proletariat suggests that revolutionaries should be less technically prepared than the organized fascist forces; the proletariat unable to respond physically to fascist provocations will soon find its head on the chopping block.

The workings of the ROAR organization aroused a great deal of interest among a broad spectrum of the Boston white population who did not sympathize with its aims. As with all multi-class organizations, important contradictions surfaced in ROAR’s functioning. Decision-making came to concentrate in the hands of its Executive Board, which met secretly; the supposedly public meetings were increasingly directed toward propagandistic purposes and implementing the overall line. Despite moves toward a more cadre-like structure, however, (which at one point included plans for photo identity cards) ROAR members realized that their group was infiltrated.

Infiltration came from four general sources: the FBI; a few progressive members of the press, acting independently; Leftists; and open-minded white residents who were curious about what ROAR was up to. In the beginning, internal ROAR security was largely directed against a fifth source: Mayor White’s “agents.” The Mayor’s office knew every ROAR action before it occurred, and therefore some ROAR members believed his people infiltrated either the base or the Executive. In fact, later events indicated that members of the Executive fed White information in return for favors from the Mayor: little or no police security at demonstrations; patronage jobs; public housing accommodations for Information Center offices; and so forth. Hicks’ people were most probably responsible for this; the Hicks-White alliance is an open secret in Boston.

For Leftists, the security situation was difficult. Either ex-student types attempted to build a “cover” or long-time residents of ROAR strongholds would pass into the ROAR organization.

Difficulties present themselves in either case: since preparations had not been taken well in advance of Phase I, adequate covers were difficult to construct in the first case, and even where they existed, residences in the more integrated areas of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, or even Allston-Brighton provided immediate grounds for suspicion. In the second case, working-class people with long histories of dissent in their communities (whether over the Church, Black people, or simply the politicians) had difficulty in proving a sincere commitment. In these circumstances, the Weather Underground chose to publish an “expose” of their infiltration of ROAR.

Contrary to the views of those comfortably far from the struggle, this act demonstrates both serious tactical confusion and political irresponsibility. The essence of their infiltration reportage might be summed up as: ROAR works off of racism; and ROAR fears the anti-racist struggle. As a political statement, this doesn’t amount to much. It is too general, and the article too anecdotal, to convince ROAR members or sympathizers: they need concrete exposures of particular actions and broad propaganda around the contradictions within ROAR’s right-wing libertarian “populism.” That various ROAR members make racist remarks does not faze them very much. Revolutionaries do not infiltrate reactionary organizations in order to “expose” their general political bias. They do so to be aware of their tactical maneuvers, and, in very particular conditions, to disrupt their internal functioning. The Ossawatomie article doubtless cheered up the democratic forces. But it also served the reactionaries: with a fresh justification in hand, and with insured cooperation from the FBI (now more eager to identify the Weather Underground than anything else), ROAR heightened its internal security and undemocratic organizational practices. Thus, this action of the WUO placed many other people and their work in considerable jeopardy.[4]

Other Approaches of the Left

Uniting with community organizations has turned out to be one of the most fruitful approaches to building the democratic movement and combating the ABM in the white communities. Even when these organizations are dominated by social-democrats or reactionary clergy who want to submerge the issues of democratic rights and white supremacy in a swamp of pacifism, it is still possible to build influence among the white masses by making skillful use of united front tactics. These organizations are important since many white workers who are more progressive on the subject of busing turn to them for direction.

It is hard to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of forming “united front groups” during the course of the busing struggle since groups have generally been reluctant to admit that these are paper organizations. Therefore, several groups have lied about the size, scope, accomplishments, and so forth, of the different front organizations that they formed during the course of the struggle. These groups, however, did have their uses: the training of worker agitators through participation in these groups, the distribution of literature, calling of demonstrations, etc.

Agitation in the trade unions and in the factories was haphazard, and was hampered by the lack of unified slogans and concrete analysis oil the Left. Where the RU, for example, would call on the workers to “unite to smash the busing plan!”, the PWP would call for “arrest Hicks and Kerrigan!”, and we and the OL would call for “oppose the white boycott!”; there was little basis for systematic agitation. At the same time, almost none of the agitation developed the slogans through the use of popular facts and topical examples but rather through shrill denunciation: and general descriptions (“as the crisis intensifies the ruling class tries to shift the burden onto the backs of the workers...” and on in this way, more suited to the Book of Revelations than the workers’ movement). The local CLUW chapter adopted a progressive resolution on the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities, but since the chapter is composed primarily of leftists with few unaffiliated trade unionists, this stand had no effect on the trade union movement as a whole. In a situation like this, the agitation neither raised the political level of the advanced nor did it win over middle elements who were uncommitted.

About reprisals, we will limit ourselves to saying that the Left has a long way to go in terms of organizing itself for this type of activity, and that serious struggle against pacifism is essential for any development along these lines.

At any rate, during the fall the work of the Left among the masses was not well developed, and did not have much impact–with a couple of exceptions–on the course of the struggle. The main emphasis of the Left during this period was dealing with the opportunism in its own ranks, particularly the struggle with the mostly-white groups who opposed the busing plan and, to one extent or another, supported the anti-busing movement. A series of forums – in Boston, NYC, and elsewhere–took up some of the issues, but did not go very far toward resolving them. Several left-called demonstrations had a very small attendance. The conduct of the struggle was left to the petit-bourgeois and bourgeois forces among the democratic organizations, who, as we have seen, were pursuing collaborationist policies.

December 14 March Against Racism

The March Against Racism, on December 14, reflected and summed up many of the errors of this period.

Here is part of CAP’s description:

The fact that the revolutionaries tailed the entire event, very clearly and graphically indicated the status of the movement today....[The Fred Hampton] contingent, except for CAP, ALSC, Struggle! and some few OL and PSP comrades chose to tail to the end. RU had a contingent of [a] contingent (they had walked out of the Fred Hampton contingent the week before because they refuse to change their line on the white boycott) who were happy to march around with their red banners in a completely self-contained unit, in a true demonstration of left subjectivism. They heard a “different drummer.” But objectively all the would-be revolutionaries tailed the revisionists and labor aristocrats, and petit-bourgeois black politicians. Ourselves included.... [Crisis in Boston!!!!, pp. 29-30]

We think that CAP’s idea that a dramatic seizure of leadership at the point of confrontation with the police (“We cannot see that few police stopping 20,000 – or even the 2000 in the Hampton contingent”) embodies many of the same left subjectivist errors for which they correctly criticize the communist movement. If we want to pinpoint the failures of the revolutionaries at December 14, we must go back to the preparations that were made for the March beforehand. And nowhere in the work of the groups do we find adequate preparation of the masses for a militant action such as CAP proposed. To criticize ourselves for a month of failed preparations is correct. To rectify this by proposing actions for which the masses were unprepared “on the spot” is only to continue the separation between the revolutionaries and the masses that we wish to bring to an end.

In Boston, at least, the preparations for the Fred Hampton Contingent which we know about were not at all related to the needs of the masses. There was almost no attempt by the OL to discuss the different forces which would be present at Dec. 14, to discuss the differences between anti-imperialist slogans on the one hand and petit-bourgeois, revisionist, etc., slogans on the other. One need only contrast the organization and consciousness of the PSP contingent with that of the bulk of the Fred Hampton Contingent at the March in order to recognize the unsatisfactory preparations that had gone into the latter.

In addition, there was no attempt to unite with the March as a whole, but rather preparations were undertaken as if the Fred Hampton Contingent would form an entire demonstration by itself. The leaflet issues by the FHC scarcely mentioned the March itself, and by its shrillness and abstraction was entirely unsuited (as members of the FHC admitted privately at the time) to calling on the democratic masses to play a militant role in the March. The masses, who as a whole remain unsophisticated about the political differences within the democratic movement, remained indifferent to the FHC.

In fact, the Black masses of Boston were under-represented at the December 14 March. This was a testament to the failures of petit-bourgeois and bourgeois-assimilationist leadership in the democratic movement, but it was also a testament to the failures of the Left. The Black masses at the March were first of all Black trade-unionists from other cities, who marched in their trade-union groups without being conscious in many cases that there was an FHC at all. And second were masses of Black petit-bourgeois delegations from many cities. We will have more to say about the attitude of the revolutionaries toward this stratum when we discuss the May 17 March, in which these petit-bourgeois masses played a similar role. As for the masses of white people–largely petit-bourgeois, but also working class–they were better represented in other contingents of the March than in the FHC.

In this situation, the FHC was unable to command broad recognition by the masses and therefore unable to provide leadership to the December 14 March. It is for this reason that the “would-be revolutionaries tailed the revisionists and labor aristocrats, and petit-bourgeois black politicians.” To admit this, to analyze it, to find its roots in the political errors of the revolutionaries during the fall, would have been one thing. But the response of the OL and Guardian, was to declare the FHC the “backbone” of the December 14 March, and further, to refuse to take part in any further demonstrations called by non-proletarian leadership of the democratic movement! With “backbones” like this, it was not surprising that the liberal bourgeoisie was able to frustrate the victories of the democratic movement last fall!


[1] As far as we know, there is no evidence for the OL’s claims that these Information Centers are funded by finance capital.

[2] Groups which agreed with slogan “Oppose the white boycott” never developed concrete agitation around this slogan among the white masses. The OL dropped the slogan quietly during the winter, on the grounds that the term ’white’ suggested an attack on white workers.

[3] Boston has a history, at least during the past twenty years, of gruesome violence and savage persecution of the oppressed nationalities. These have only been publicized since the beginning of busing, and even then, incompletely.

[4] The OL’s stupid and utterly irresponsible boast at a public forum about a shadowy research group had the same effect.