The Poor as Political Pawns

Liberty's Chosen Home: The Politics of Violence in Boston by Alan Lupo Little. Brown, 334 pages, $12.50.

In THE FALL of 1974, as Boston instituted a school desegregation plan under federal court order and buses were met by curses and stones, one reaction seemed to come, almost repetitively, from some liberals. Looking at the violence desegregation provoked in South Boston, they were perplexed by the resistance to busing by "Jack Kennedy's people." How could anyone be so ignorant, so uncaring, so racist? After all, this line of reasoning went, hadn't most of the country accepted the need to comply with Brown v. Board of Education? Why couldn't Louise Day Hicks and John Kerrigan? The implication, of course, was that at home and in their own lives these liberals were immune from the virulent racism exhibited at Andrew Square and G Street. No, at home, in Newton and Chevy Chase and Wellesley and Ardmore and Darien and Scarsdale and everywhere else there was a rational, principled realization that busing in Boston was necessary and any defiance had to be met firmly.

There were other, different reactions to the surprising outbreak of violence and hatred in the cradle of American liberty. In the South, embittered whites who had resisted integration in the sixties now pointed with undisguised glee to the hypocrisy of a battle over busing in the birthplace of Abolitionism, and a center for modern freedom riders and civil rights advocates. Some newspapers noted wryly that forced desegregation had occured with less friction in areas of the Deep South than in the only state that went for McGovern in 1972. Bostonians, it seemed, were hypocrites at heart.

Alan Lupo's Liberty's Chosen Home, a landmark study of the crisis precipitated three years ago by Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.'s decision to implement integration by busing, attempts to deal with those questions and criticisms. Lupo, an experienced Boston-bred journalist with a keen eye for detail, does not present the reader with a completely seminal work. He repeats and amplifies some of the observations Harvard's Robert Coles and the lesser-known teacher and author Kim Marshall have made about Boston's problems with busing. On balance the value of his book is that it backs up a series of telling arguments with intelligent reportage.

Boston never has deserved its reputation of being a bastion of liberalism, Lupo states early in his book--from the start, bigotry and oppression existed side-by-side with more enlightened attitudes. So Bostonians cannot accurately becharged with hypocrisy. And any surprise about Southie's revolt, or the negative feelings in Charlestown, the North End, West Roxbury and Dorchester is based on a misunderstanding of Boston's history and people.

As for the perception on the part of liberals that unfounded white racism prevented a smooth desegregation process, Liberty's Chosen Home rejects that explanation as simplistic; the deeper, and more endemic problem is wrapped up in class differences and American attitudes toward the city. It was class, as well as race, that made busing such an explosive issue: working class whites resented being the subjects in some grand social experiment designed and supported by middle-class suburbanities. Lupo condemns the arrogance and inflexibility of a system that shows little regard for the concept of neighborhood and consciously mixes the poor South Boston Irish, traditionally hostile to blacks, and the economically and socially deprived of Roxbury. The results were predictable. Moreover, little constructive purpose was served by playing chess with the groups least able to bear the burden of dislocation and change. There lies the true hypocrisy in Lupo's mind, for the educated and enlightened liberals of the belt suburbs disappeared when they were most needed. Without a plan including the suburbs--a blueprint for social change involving richer communities and their educational facilities--integration becomes a costly farce. The Supreme Court has made it difficult, if not impossible, to force integration across district lines, although voluntary plans, such as Massachusetts' METCO, can be employed legally.

Lupo writes with the same harsh, penetrating anger and displays the same compassion and understanding of the working class that New York City's Pete Hamill once demonstrated in essays like "The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class" before he lost touch with his roots and started hobnobbing with Hollywood and Manhattan's Beautiful People. And in the way Hamill knew the people of Brooklyn, Lupo knows the people of the North End and South Boston and Dorchester. He seems incapable of patronizing them. Although we see them as ignorant, fearful of change, bigoted, and often violent, their finer qualities--loyalty, pride, a sense of tradition, bravery--are also there. Scorn is reserved for the meddling "goo-goos," the knee-jerk liberals who vanish in crisis, the Brattle Street chic who, safely on the sidelines, their children in private schools, applaud Garrity's ruling. At times, Liberty's Chosen Home is devastating social history: the concerned group of clergymen unable to agree on a joint statement about the crisis over their breakfast at the Harvard Club; the silence of civil libertarians when the TPF went into the Rabbit Inn with clubs swinging; the bizarre and absurd posturing by the Boston Globe, including an article in which veterans of the anti-war and civil rights movements explain civil disobedience is morally just only when the cause is righteous.

Massachusetts' remaining Yankees--the Sargents and the Saltonstalls--fare no better, as their isolated indifference and calculated impotence is attacked. Lupo sees the Yankees as content to control the city through its finances, operating from plush State Street bank offices, escaping to North Shore farmhouses and summer homes on the Cape. In one of the more effective vignettes in the book, Lupo juxtaposes a Republican-sponsored cocktail party in placid Dover with the frantic, non-stop efforts of Kevin White to cool the city down.

Kevin White, mayor since 1967, dominates the narrative of the busing crisis. Lupo focuses on White, his staff and their concerns and problems in coordinating Phase One. White emerges as a hero of sorts, vulnerable politically, abandoned by the state government, and eventually betrayed by President Ford (in Ford's infamous press conference--televised nationally--where he as much as told Southie its actions were right). Because of Lupo's access to normally off-the-record meetings between White and his staff, Liberty's Chosen Home also offers a case-study of civic decision-making--although at times the Mayor and his aides--Bob Kiley, Ira Jackson, Eddie King, Bob Schwartz, Kirk O'Donnell--have few options and are forced to take a particular course of action. At one point, the city government discovers it must face the real possibility that the Mullens gang (which runs organized crime in South Boston) will take over the anti-busing movement in South Boston and rapidly escalate the violence. Then there is the description of Kevin White facing a hostile black crowd alone at Freedom House and his fear and exhaustion afterward.

Lupo clearly is partial to White and to the hard-nosed liberal politics of pragmatism that White practices. That partisanship unfortunately blinds Lupo to some of White's flaws and leads to some questionable assertions--that White's national aspirations were killed by his stance during the busing crisis rather than by the allegations of corruption made during the White-Timilty mayoral race. And Lupo prefers not to dwell on the way Garrity has taken control of the Boston school system, removing it from the jurisdiction of the Board of Education and White's office.

Lupo's thesis of suburban prejudice and class differences as key factors in delaying needed social change makes sense, not only for Boston, but for other American cities. Boston, often cited as a "liveable" city, faces white flight, a narrowing tax base, a degenerating school system and the same economic problems (unemployment, loss of business) plaguing the rest of New England. Lupo asks, quite rightly, "If such a place is allowed to flirt so closely with disaster, then what can the message be for the great urban centers of this republic?" Liberty's Chosen Home offers no master plan for change, but Lupo argues that unless the federal government faces up to its responsibilities in urban centers and the suburbs end their hostility to the inner city, disaster may indeed be just around the corner. Lupo's study echoes Elma Lewis's observation that if our urban problems cannot be solved in Boston, where can they be? Jefferson Flanders