Boston and Its Busing Problem — An Irish Family Feud


Why Did Busing Go So Wrong In Boston?

J. Anthony Lucas has perhaps the most interesting, and historically informed, answer to that question. The Pulitzer Prize wining author of Common Ground described the cause of the problem as “a feud within [Boston’s] Irish political family.”

Students Being Bused In South Boston Under Heavy Police Escort

The Start of Busing In South Boston—September, 1974. Photo by Bettmann/Corbis.

On one side you had players like Arthur Garrity, the federal judge who oversaw school desegregation in Boston, and Senator Ted Kennedy, one of busing’s strongest supporters. On the other, you had politicians from neighborhoods like South Boston. Louise Day Hicks, Raymond Flynn and Billy Bulger, to name a few, were fierce opponents of busing. Regardless of which side they were on, the major players named above had one thing in common: they were all Irish American. They had competing ideas of what that meant though, and busing would be the battlefield where those ideas played out.

Garrity and Kennedy were in favor of a desegregation solution that considered the city as a whole. They opposed a neighborhood-centric approach that would let each neighborhood determine whether and how they would participate in desegregation.

All Politics Is Local

Neighborhoods were at the heart of traditional Boston politics. Both of Ted Kennedy’s grandfathers rose to political power by practicing neighborhood politics. John F. Fitzgerald ruled as the boss of the North End, while P. J. Kennedy was the undisputed political chieftain across the harbor in East Boston.

However, by 1974 both Garrity and Kennedy had drifted far from their political Irish roots. Their families had achieved the American dream. They had climbed the socio-economic ladder, stripping away ethnic identity and caring more for the greater good of society than people now living on the street where their grandparents grew up.

The View Through Lace Curtains

To both men, the behavior of Irish American politicians like Hicks, Flynn and Bulger was an embarrassment. A reminder of how their ancestors conducted neighborhood politics but not the way Bostonians should behave in modern times. At least for those fortunate Bostonians who had “made it.”

It’s a common phenomenon. When somebody from a working class area makes it big in the world, their relationship with the old neighborhood can get a little complicated. There might be some guilt about being successful, maybe a little resentment that others didn’t move up and move out rather than stay where they are on the street where they grew up.

Judge Garrity and Boston Busing

U.S. District Judge Arthur W. Garrity, Jr.

How the Feud Begins

When it comes to feuds, the closer the family the harsher the fighting. In Boston, it was Irish American Arthur Garrity telling the Boston School Committee what they had to do. U.S. District Judge Garrity was particularly harsh. And perhaps more than a little ignorant, in how he made final adjustments to the master plan for desegregation. It unnecessarily pitted the two most antagonistic neighborhoods in the city against each other. That ensured anything but peace would prevail when the buses began to roll into South Boston and Roxbury.

But you can’t have a serious feud without the other family members doing their own wrong. The Boston School Committee had years to address the desegregation problem. They had many chances to come up with a plan of their own that the federal courts would accept. Committee members were elected. They represented the neighborhoods where they lived. Most were from neighborhoods with a large Irish Catholic population. They didn’t have to answer to the mayor or the city council. As the pressure grew for them to act and come up with their own desegregation plan, they instead chose a course of defiance and denial.

Committee members knew that Garrity was Irish American. It no doubt made them angry that one of their own was turning against them and forcing them to act against their neighborhoods’ interest. What followed was the messy busing crisis we know quite well.

Boston’s Irish Receive a Hostile Reception

To get at the deeper source of the Irish American family feud in Boston, the roots of it, you might have to go back pretty far. As far back as, believe it or not, 1700. That’s when the Massachusetts General Court passed a law declaring that any Catholic priest found in Massachusetts would be sent to prison for life. If he escaped and was recaptured, he’d be put to death.

Irish Immigrant Discrimination In Boston

Discrimination in Hiring — the Hostile Reception Irish Immigrants Received In Early Boston (links to page for “The Boston Irish, A Political History”)

That’s an example of the hostile reception Irish immigrants would receive for the next 200 years. Other American cities would treat their Irish poorly as well. But the Protestant establishment in Boston was far more intense in its dislike of the Celtic swarm reaching its shores than cities like New York. It happened in the workplace, and it happened in the schoolhouse. Irish Catholic children attending public schools in Boston were forced to read from textbooks that insulted their heritage and their religion.

A Turning Point

As a result of widespread discrimination, assimilation for Irish Americans in Boston was a lot more difficult. The Protestants resisted sharing political power as long as possible. With the Irish Catholic population increasing dramatically in the late 1800s though, one thing became clear. At some point the establishment would have to cede, or at least share, political power with the papists.

James Michael Curley, Mayor of Boston

James Michael Curley (aka “The Rascal King”) Elected Mayor of Boston in 1914.

With Rising Power Comes a Choice

This is when the split becomes apparent in the Irish community. After decades of abuse, some were calling for an adversarial approach to gaining political power. James Michael Curley was perhaps the most famous Irish American to embrace that stance. He had a political personality that reflected the view of most Boston Irish. You take care of your own people first. You fight for your neighborhood.

One interesting anecdote retold by Thomas H. O’Connor in his book The Boston Irish: A Political History, says it all.

A well-to-do Beacon Hill woman went campaigning for her school committee candidate, a Harvard graduate with a distinguished pedigree. Knocking on doors in an Irish neighborhood, she pitched her candidate to an Irish housewife, who asked, “Doesn’t he have a sister who works for the school system?”

The Beacon Hill campaigner answered, “I assure you, Madam, my candidate is not the sort of man who would use his position to advance the cause of his own sister.”

The Irish housewife replied, “Well, if the son of a bitch wouldn’t help his own sister, then why would I vote for him?”

Hugh O’Brien, the Peacemaker

That’s how most Boston Irish saw things, particularly the supporters of James Michael Curley. However, other Boston Irish politicians felt that they needed to work within the system that existed. Embrace the philosophy of the Puritan founders. Focus on the well being of the whole city, not just on the interest of those in your own neighborhood.

In 1985, the first Irish Catholic mayor of Boston was sworn into office. Born in Ireland, Hugh O’Brien ran on a platform of cooperation with a nervous Protestant establishment. He held true to his word and served four consecutive terms as a steady, reliable, impartial mayor. You could call it smart, or you could call it selling out.

Boston Mayors Patrick Collins and Hugh O'Brien

Boston Mayors Patrick Collins (1902–1905) and Hugh O’Brien (1885–1889)

Patrick Collins was another Irish Catholic mayor who didn’t rock the boat. The Yankee Protestants admired his humble, industrious rise from poverty. Like O’Brien, Collins knew how to dress, walk and talk like a Protestant. He knew how to embrace the point of view of the establishment.

James Michael Curley, the Troublemaker

But Boston’s Irish community could only be so patient with leaders who betrayed their heritage and compromised their identity. It wasn’t long before leaders like James Michael Curley finally won election to office. They had a more combative approach and wrested power by whatever means necessary. Curley wasn’t above breaking the law. He once served time behind bars for helping a friend get a Post Office job by taking the exam for him.

It wouldn’t be last time Curley served prison time. Rather than apologize for his tactics, Curley bragged about them. He was helping decent people start a career in a system that had long fought to keep them out. The majority of Boston Irish loved Curley for his defiance. They continued to elect him to office, and he did everything he could to help them out.

That’s a simple take on the split personality in Boston’s Irish community. But it shows how a neighborhood-focused philosophy began and how it continued well into the 20th century. Had the Protestant establishment been more accommodating in the process of assimilation, the political polarization might not have been so intense and might not have lasted so long.

Boston Mayors Hynes and Collins — Urban Renewal

Boston Mayors John B. Hynes (1950–1960) and John F. Collins (1960–1968)

Shifting Focus From the Neighborhoods

James Michael Curley’s neighborhood-focused approach persisted at the mayoral level until 1950. That’s when mayors John B. Hynes and John F. Collins took Boston in a very different direction for the next eighteen years. Both Irish American, they abandoned Curley’s ways and focused on rebuilding downtown Boston at the expense of its neighborhoods.

In downtown Boston, the old West End neighborhood tenements were torn down. The residents were promised housing in a modernized downtown core. Instead, the tenements were replaced with expensive high rise apartments that few of the former residents could afford. The plan was to do the same to Boston’s North End neighborhood. Residents there had seen what happened in the West End and organized to resist what the mayors referred to as “urban renewal”.

Boston's North End Neighborhood

Boston’s North End Neighborhood

Anyone who’s enjoyed a visit to Boston’s North End should be grateful to those who fought to keep the bulldozers and wrecking cranes away. If anything, the North End is now considered a gem in the city’s crown.

Finding a Balanced Approach

Following Mayors Hynes and Collins were Kevin White and Ray Flynn. They took a more balanced approach, working to build Boston as a world class city while respecting neighborhood identity. Mayor White established “little City Halls” in various parts of the city. Not much more than trailers with a city seal painted on the outside, these neighborhood City Halls allowed people to get a permit or renew a license without having to venture downtown. A small but significant gesture.

Ray Flynn had the difficult task of healing the racial wounds from busing and building bridges across Boston’s different communities. He had the good of the city in mind. It cost him though. A resident of South Boston—in fact, the city’s first mayor who was actually from South Boston—Flynn would win election by carrying every neighborhood in Boston except his own. South Boston didn’t appreciate him putting its interests second to those of the larger city.

South Boston Political Foes — William Bulger and Ray Flynn

William Bulger and Ray Flynn, South Boston Politicians With Different Points of View

Bulger vs Flynn

Some would say it’s ironic that the mayor who fought so hard for South Boston during school desegregation fought against its interests when healing the city after busing.

In his memoir, While the Music Lasts, fellow South Boston politician Billy Bulger talks about Flynn as someone who was always holding his finger up to test the political winds. A politician who looked for ways to take more than one side on an issue, so that when the dust settled Flynn would be on the winning side, whatever side that happened to be.

Flynn would probably call it nuance, and a willingness to change with the times. I think it’s a mix of all those motivations. One thing is certain: After busing, Boston needed to change. Flynn was able to bring the neighborhoods together and move the city forward. For that he deserves credit.

Historical Perspective

Bulger and Flynn might best represent in modern times (and maybe for the last time) the city’s Irish family feud. Bulger stayed true to his neighborhood’s interests and never put them second to anything. Flynn found a way to move up without moving out.

For more reading about the Boston Irish—The Boston Irish: A Political History is a sweeping look at the Irish American experience in Boston written by historian Thomas H. O’Connor. It can read as a text book at times, but it’s interesting and comprehensive. (link goes to, but the book is also available elsewhere).

To read more about Irish-American history and contemporary Irish issues, check out Mark Holan’s blog. He’s an Irish-American journalist living in Tampa, FL, and his blog has some very interesting posts.

Read Another Post:   Whitey Bulger — How He Shipped Arms to the IRA

Whitey Bulger — How He Terrified Mayor Kevin White

Whitey Bulger — How He Beat the State Police

Remembering Kevin White

Home Page:  The Chieftains of South Boston

(This post authored by Steve Burke)

Steve Burke