Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Unity League

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

6. Mar.- May 1975: Warfare of Position

The compromises of the liberal bourgeoisie during the winter had shown an increased pliability to the demands of the ABM. At the same time, the ABM shifted tactics in the light of new conditions, taking up the tactics of “combining legal and illegal work.” Within the democratic movement, a ’left’ turn within the Marxist-Leninist groups gradually drove them away from the forefront of the busing struggle. The result was that the ABM made significant gains during the spring.

The change in ABM tactics was signaled by their increasing difficulty in bringing out the masses to large demonstrations. Their counter-demonstration to the December 14 March Against Racism was a failure; so was their heavily-publicized national march on Washington. What was happening was that some of the white masses were becoming disaffected from the ABM, not in most cases because they came to disagree with its goals, but more because they began to believe that the tactics of the ABM were inadequate to accomplish them.

Under these circumstances, it would have been easy for the ABM to become inactive, spontaneous, as was the case in the anti-war movement. But the hardliners within the ABM were able to shift their tactics away from mass mobilizations toward more careful organizational work and more persistent agitation and propaganda. ROAR became more of a cadre organization, for example, as its politics moved to the right, complete with a plan for the use of photo-identity cards, secret meetings, and division of labor. A public ’cover’ was developed (for example, ROAR is not publicly advocating a white boycott this year, although privately they support it), and began to organize white youth where previously it had only incited them. Organizations like the KKK and the John Birch Society began to build stable bases in the white communities, and increasingly their literature and ideology were put forward at meetings of ROAR. From a “single-issue” politics, the ABM as a whole began to embrace a more coherent white-supremacist ideology.

The ABM began to intensify the line that the Blacks can get away with anything, while the liberals strip us of all our rights.

But the ABM combined legal with illegal work as well. The “moderate” politicians began a carefully orchestrated program of sabotaging the court order, working at all levels within the plan. All of this under the slogan that the liberals were foisting an unworkable reform on the people of Boston, a reform that was only serving to whip up racial tension in the city (a line which found its counterpart within the democratic movement with groups like RU, the East Boston Workers’ Group, and the Workers’ Viewpoint journal). They attracted some trade union support through soliciting campaign money for the “open members” in politics, although this work was limited to unions close to the traditional patronage system, and was not conducted in full view of the members.

In the communities, the ABM intensified systematic terror against the oppressed nationalities, and intimidated those white sections of the masses who were reluctant to go along with their plans. With the cooperation of the police, they were able to drive many Black and Hispanic tenants from their homes in white sections of the city, and to harass people of the oppressed nationalities who stepped “out of place.” Lacking any firm leadership, opposition still arose in the democratic movement to these new tactics. There was spontaneous resistance wherever the terror of the ABM struck, some of it armed. The masses raised the demand for adequate police protection for the oppressed nationalities, although this demand did not receive much organizational attention.

In particular, the Marxist-Leninist groups in Boston changed their focus from the busing situation to issues of unemployment and economic militance. The busing issue was not forgotten, but it was relegated to a secondary place, as part of the general crisis. This was coupled to a ’left’ turn on the part of several organizations, who decided that 1975 was the year in which they would constitute themselves as parties.

In the OL, for example, this decision provoked a whole series of ’left’ errors, the result of subjectivism, sectarianism and their national ambitions. Comrades in the Boston district who were too insistent on continuing to fight the ABM were accused of “holding the white-skin privilege line”, and the result of the struggle was that the fight against the “segregationist movement” (the term ’white’ was dropped from their slogans) would find its place in the grand scheme of “building the fight-back of the working class.” But the actual forces of the OL and their actual connections with the masses were overestimated, so that the fight-back actually took the form of unemployment work and the work of fighting the ABM faltered and halted during the spring. This partial liquidation of the busing issue was not merely a local problem: one finds the busing crisis dropped from the pages of The Call for several months. Finally, in the July issue, in the article “People Get Organized for Busing Battle” OL makes it appear that their consistent grass-roots work (as, for example, in a local organization RUN, from which the OL has since split in order to form Dorchester People “United”) has prepared the democratic movement for the fall struggle!!

The Edelin Trial

Two demonstrations highlight the confusion and disorganization that had set in among all forces in the struggle by midwinter. The responses of the ABM and the democratic movement show the superior tactical abilities of the ABM, the disastrous penetration of ’left’ sectarianism among the Marxist-Leninists, and the setbacks this produced for the democratic movement.

The first demonstration was actually a series of demonstrations following on the conviction of Dr. Kenneth Edelin for manslaughter in the performance of an abortion at Boston City Hospital.

The long-standing historical relationship between women’s emancipation and the Black national liberation struggle should have alerted the democratic forces to the importance of the Edelin case. It was no coincidence that Boston, scene of the most intensive struggle around desegregation in several years, also witnessed the first concerted attack on women’s right to abortion since the 1973 Supreme Court decision. This connection was very clear to the ABM: Edelin’s indictment had been backed by prominent ABM leaders like Ray Flynn and Albert “Dapper” O’Neil. And the ABM was quick to exploit the trial for “right to life” publicity in the white communities.

The change made good tactical sense for the ABM. With the failure of their mass mobilizations, they could use the Edelin trial to move into the courtroom, previously the domain of the liberal bourgeoisie and the NAACP. While their opposition to busing strained the alliance between the ABM and the Catholic Church,[1] the Edelin trial helped to “mend fences.” At the same time, the ABM could keep their supporters primed with lurid tales about a Black doctor cutting off the air and food to a “new-born infant.” And finally, the attack on a Black professional at Boston City Hospital continued an historic resistance by upper-level Civil Service workers, police and ABM politicians to the “destruction” of “quality” patient care at BCH, a resistance which had historically focused on the increasing numbers of patients and health workers at BCH who were Black or Hispanic.[2]

But however calculated, this move by the ABM could have provided an unprecedented platform for the democratic forces. The choice of Edelin as a target for indictment was too obvious: A Black doctor helping a Black woman to exercise her right to abortion. The democratic forces could have exposed the ABM as a politically coherent right-wing movement, rather than simply an extension of old community organizations in a single-issue coalition. Where the ABM had previously posed as the defenders of “quality education,” protesting the “diversion” of funds from “childrens’ education” to “busing,” the ABM now fought an “abortionist” at BCH – a hospital which has been the object of drastic budget cuts – in the name of “quality health care.” But most importantly for the democratic forces, the ABM stand on “right to life” revealed a central theme in their reactionary position which will one day bring them to disaster: a “no compromise” attack on women’s rights.

As in any community-based movement, women make up the bulk of the ABM’s forces. They staff the Information Centers, they run the telephones, they distribute the leaflets, and they predominate in the marches. The Edelin case revealed a contradiction which reflected the various class forces within it.

On the one hand, reactionary “populism” claimed that parents (basically mothers) have a “right” to their children, a “right” to send them to whatever school the parents want, or not to school, regardless of the bourgeois state (in fact, this is not a “right” as the whole apparatus of bourgeois education demonstrates).

On the other hand, a more fascist slant was behind the attack on abortion, and, later, on the ERA. This position upholds women’s place as the producers of children for the bourgeois state, regardless of their own wishes, and represents the most extreme wing of the bourgeois “austerity” offensive against the working class, an offensive aimed at driving women even further into the kitchen. Where the German Nazi’s goose-stepped to the slogan “Church, Children, and Kitchen,” Leo Kahian, John Bircher and American Party candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, preaches “God, Country, and Family.”

These contradictory policies permeate the activities of the ABM. Thus the ABM attacked Edelin (providing lurid stories of “experimentation on fetuses” at BCH); they led a group of women in disrupting a pro-ERA rally the next month; and this fall, they conducted prayer marches against forced busing, where mothers appealed to the various saints to deliver them from desegregation.

But despite the support of ABM leaders like Flynn, O’Neil, Hicks, Pallidino, etc., only small numbers of women protested with the Right-to-Life forces; and the prayer marches have only involved a hundred women at a time. In fact, the leadership has had to enlist men to help in all three cases: even now, they look to men to supplement the small numbers of women at the widely-publicized “mother’s marches.”

In the face of these contradictions within the ABM, both the organized womens’ movement and the Marxist-Leninists failed to make decisive interventions.

First of all, the busing struggle revealed once again the practical bankruptcy of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois feminist leadership in the women’s movement. Gloria Steinem and Florence Kennedy jetted in for the Dec. 14 March Against Racism, expressed their desire to “reach out” to the sisters of South Boston, and jetted out again.

The organized women’s movement in Boston, like other sections of the movement, had little base and virtually no program for the masses of women, a large number of whom are mothers, do have to work in the house and take care of a family. People within Boston Women’s Union have marched, picketed, and protested, generally along with sections of the white tenants’ movement, but this activity, like the activity of the revolutionary movement in general, has had little impact among the masses.

Nor has this situation been confined to the womens’ organizations. The Marxist-Leninists have also maintained a narrow perspective on the question of women’s emancipation, which goes a long way toward explaining the hostility of revolutionary-minded women toward Marxism-Leninism. Although right opportunism prevails on some questions (for example, a refusal to analyze the contradictions within the working-class family), ’left’ sectarianism currently dominates the organized Marxist-Leninist approach to questions of women’s emancipation and the struggle against male supremacy. The opposition to ERA legislation on the part of groups like the RU is an example of this “leftism,” which pretends that democratic reforms will direct the cause of women’s emancipation along bourgeois lines and therefore all reforms should be opposed!

The demonstrations following Edelin’s conviction show clearly the dovetailing of “left” sectarianism on the woman question with “left” and right shades of white opportunism.

Naturally, the SWP Trotskyists attempted to restrict the struggle around Edelin to the abortion issue alone. In response, the major Marxist-Leninist organizations all but boycotted the struggle. The RU conducted some oral agitation; a small OL contingent appeared with a banner at the demonstration protesting Edelin’s conviction. But neither attempted to mobilize the people around Edelin’s case, to contest the SWP within the struggle against his conviction, or to raise the political content of that struggle itself. To raise the political content of the Edelin case would have meant to draw out the relationship between women’s emancipation, the national liberation movements internal to the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and the struggle for socialism. The Marxist-Leninists and the Women’s Union failed to do this. The OL, for example, opposed propaganda and agitation in Boston which brought out this relationship. They opposed mentioning the fact that Edelin was a Black doctor, and attributed no significance to this fact! Instead, they prepared their “left” abstentionist, “pure” anti-revisionist demonstration for New York on March 8. Here, in a situation that cried out for conscious intervention, the major organizations abdicated the struggle, and left the field of action to the craven reformists of the SWP, the ABM-backed Right to Life forces, and the interested but unorganized masses.

As a result, what could have been a major blunder on the part of the ABM turned into a tactical victory for them. The OL crowed that their small New York demonstration had marked nothing less than “a turn in this country’s celebration of International Women’s Day.” From the perspective of the Boston struggle, it was a turn all right: a turn from failure to lead the democratic forces toward failure to even try!

This “left” turn left the masses without leadership. Despite the belief of some Marxist-Leninists that only bourgeois feminists and Trotskyists concern themselves with the struggle around issues like abortion, tens of thousands followed the Edelin case with intense interest. Abortion is an extremely popular demand among the working class, including many working-class Catholics. Thousands of these people, white as well as Black, understood that the Right to Life movement had deliberately chosen a Black doctor as the point of attack in their campaign. Two examples of this: first, an Italian-American factory worker from East Boston who served as an alternate juror in the trial risked life and livelihood to expose the white chauvinism of the jury. And second, the day following the conviction saw the largest progressive demonstration in Boston since December 14. A coalition of women’s groups issued the call for a protest; a “women’s” TV show gave out information for the demonstration, and the result overwhelmed the organizers. Two thousand people showed up, including a large number of young, white, working class couples, some in their teens. The demonstration had been arranged as a “moral witness” type of protest. And no one was prepared (least of all the few Marxist-Leninists present) to speak, to convert the affair into a militant rally, or to do much more than walk around in a circle.

May 17

If the response of the democratic movement to the Edelin trial demonstrated their inability to change methods of struggle under changing conditions, the May 17 demonstration showed their inability to press forward in the face of desertion by the liberal bourgeoisie.

The May 17 demonstration was called by the NAACP and the SWP-dominated National Student Coalition Against Racism (NSCAR). With the exception of the CLPUSNA and ourselves, the Marxist-Leninists were completely uninvolved in the demonstration. The result was that the demonstration was well attended by masses of the Black petit-bourgeoisie, but it was politically ineffectual and utterly devoid of the analysis and leadership that the Black masses were seeking at this point in the struggle.

The demonstration came at a point when the NAACP had been isolated in the struggle for a Phase II plan. When Garrity essentially approved the Masters’ Plan, with all of its undesirable consequences for desegregation, for bilingual education, and for improvement of schools within the Black community, the NAACP initially objected, and then decided not to appeal the new plan. This last decision did not reflect NAACP satisfaction with the plan, but simply their isolation following the “compromise” desertion by the liberal bourgeoisie which Phase II reflected. Having isolated themselves from the democratic masses by their assimilationist politics, the NAACP was now forced to “call” on the masses from a position of weakness. This pattern was later to be repeated with the Carson’s Beach demonstration.

During the spring, there had been a lull in all mass activity brought on by the exhaustion of both the ABM and the democratic movement. Inside the schools, the masses of Black and white students had settled into a routine and mainly wanted the school year to end quickly and quietly. In some schools, this represented genuine accommodation to desegregated education (and it was one noxious feature of the Phase II plan that most of these students would be reassigned in the fall). But in other schools, Hyde Park High for example, this routine represented only an uneasy truce which was periodically broken by new incidents of racial attacks. The rising concern of the Hispanic community (which had fought a losing battle in the courtroom to retain bilingual education in the context of Phase II) and of the Asian community (which was to be bused massively into Charlestown in the fall) was not evenly expressed in mass meetings of parents in these communities. It was the time for full explanation in the working class communities of the objectionable features of Phase II, for education and organization, not for a mass call.

Nevertheless, masses of Black people–students, democratic petit-bourgeoisie, and some trade-unionists–did respond to the call for a May 17 demonstration, the anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision which ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. In the situation that did develop, the NAACP met the masses weakly, and the Marxist-Leninists didn’t meet the masses at all.

The local NAACP joined in with the demonstrations already being planned by the national NAACP and the NSCAR. The slogans for the demonstration fully reflected the leadership: the SWP put forward “Keep the Buses Rolling!” falling all over themselves to support a liberal bourgeoisie headed in the wrong direction. The NAACP, in addition to noting the anniversary of Brown et. al. vs. Board of Education, completely contradicted the defeat the Phase II plan signified by urging the demonstration to “Support Quality Desegregated Education and the Constitution.” At the demonstration, Boston NAACP head Thomas Atkins told the Black masses that it was right for them to put their faith in the courts!

The combination of an inopportune tactic and these incorrect slogans made the May 17 demonstration, in terms of the masses in Boston, a failure. The local NAACP continued its policy of not preparing the masses by making no effort until the last week or two to mobilize the Black community in Boston. As a result, the 15,000 people who came to the demonstration mostly came from out of town. A mass demonstration in which, once again, the Boston masses were under-represented.

The situation called for initiatives by the Marxist-Leninists, to provide leadership where the NAACP would not, to explain the latest turn in the busing struggle, to put forward boldly a clear line for the new period, to link the new tactics of the ABM with their failures among the white masses, and so forth. But again, the “left” abstentionism of the majority of the Marxist-Leninist forces led them away from the masses.

The October League, ALSC, Struggle!, and other forces who had taken part in the Fred Hampton Contingent, announced that they would boycott the demonstration. The OL gave as their reason the fact that the NAACP and the SWP would not permit them to put forward their own politics. Of course, what they meant by this was that the SWP had manipulated the national planning conference to exclude any effective opposition to their bankrupt line. But, why should the revolutionaries have expected the SWP to do anything different? In a child, such a temper tantrum might be cute, but among revolutionaries it is what Lenin aptly called the infantile disease of “leftism.”

In the July Call, the OL described how “People Get Organized for Busing Battle.” They recognized the instability of the mass support for the ABM, and they stressed the need for “further development and consolidation of the people’s forces behind anti-imperialist” leadership and in opposition to the vacillating elements within the Black community. Fine words, but as in the Edelin situation, the “people’s forces” turned out to mean the supporters of the OL, and “development and consolidation” turned out to mean “development” of increased isolation from the masses and “consolidation” of a firmly abstentionist line.

The May 17 demonstration took place on the same day that ROAR was holding a national convention in Boston. Many participants saw the demonstration as a show of strength against ROAR. Apparently not the OL. Of course, they were quite busy that week, continuing to “expose” the imperialists. On May 15, they sponsored a demonstration in support of the liberation of Cambodia (with which we have no quarrel) at which they failed to present an explanation of their position on the NAACP demonstration, much less urge people to attend. Further, May 17 itself was Call Day, a day for OL supporters to go out into communities to sell the Call. Needless to say, they failed to show up at the demonstration.

What we and the CLPUSNA recognized, along with some of the white tenant groups and other Left forces, was that there was no reason not to conduct independent agitation before and during the May 17 demonstration, identifying correct reasons for supporting the demonstration, criticizing the leadership, and making our views known to the masses on Phase II, the ABM, and so forth.

But apparently, the OL felt that “the imperialists were exposed as the enemy of all working and oppressed people” by the “backbone” of the December 14 March, and that “it was made clear that the enemy was not the white people of South Boston.” [Call, July, 1975] With this sort of logic, obviously no Marxist-Leninist participation in the May 17 demonstration was necessary. The Marxist-Leninists had simply to issue a call for a boycott, and the democratic masses would stay home. In fact, however, the masses turned out despite the OL and others, and were treated to wave upon wave of revisionist and trotskyist leafleteers, along with the Constitutionalist sonorities of Atkins and company. In the sorry history of communist participation in the busing struggle, another opportunity to take part in the democratic movement was missed.[3]


[1] Cardinal Madeiros had ordered parochial schools not to accept transfers of busing opponents to the parochial schools; many parishes, however, paid little attention to this order, and by the opening of Phase II, Boston-area parochial schools had experienced a rise in enrollment in relation to the general decline of parochial school enrollment in Massachusetts. Despite Madeiros’ reiteration of this order before Phase II, large numbers of Charlestown children attend parochial schools in Everett, Somerville, and Maiden. So much for neighborhood schools!

[2] The Steve Washington case at BCH and the attitude of ABM politicians about budget cuts at BCH are two important points in this history.

[3] The OL, we understand, has made a self-criticism of their failure to participate in the May 17 demonstration, a thoroughly unprecedented “internal” self-criticism which cannot be made public for “tactical reasons.” But whatever mistakes the OL thinks they made, we can judge from their succeeding practice that “left abstentionism” is not among them. At Carson’s Beach, another demonstration misled by the NAACP, the OL (complete with resuscitated Fred Hampton Contingent) came to the demonstration, not to try to lead it, but simply to criticize the NAACP. From this “left” perspective, they led a retreat from the beach that was met with cries of “traitor!” from the crowd. Again, in their touted September 13 demonstration (armed this time with the Boston Anti-Repression Coalition composed on OL front groups and a handful of unaffiliated people) they were so narrow and so isolated that the press confused them with another staunch advocate of “independence,” the PLP-initiated CAR! Through the Guardian and the Call we learn that “over two hundred” or simply “hundreds” of demonstrators marched on September 13. We again warn the Call and the Guardian against exaggerating the numbers and importance of OL actions. This type of irresponsible, self-congratulatory reporting prevents serious evaluation of the revolutionary movement and encourages cynicism among the masses.