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Gates arrest: Part of Boston’s racism, then & now

Published Jul 29, 2009 3:16 PM

The July 16 arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home in Cambridge, Mass., is but the latest glaring incident in the long history of racism permeating Boston, going back to the 1970s desegregation battles and before.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

From the end of Black Reconstruction following the Civil War until the 1970s, there was never a single African American on either the Boston City Council or Boston School Committee.

These all-white committees ran a segregated, separate and unequal school system in Boston up through 1974, 20 years after the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Topeka Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional.

Black parents had to go to federal court to obtain an order in 1974 mandating racial balance through busing to gain equal access to educational resources in Boston. That same year Boston became famous worldwide as a focus of racism. A right-wing white supremacist movement called “Restore our Alienated Rights,” led and organized by Boston City Councilors like Louise Day Hicks directly out of Boston City Hall, organized racist marches.

Buses carrying African-American children to schools in South Boston and other white neighborhoods were stoned. A picture was flashed round the world of a Haitian man being dragged off a porch in South Boston by a racist mob. Another picture showed African-American attorney Theodore Landsmark suffering a broken nose as he was assaulted with a U.S. flag by racists on Boston City Hall Plaza.

In 1974 progressive forces mobilized from all over the country to answer the racist forces. A 25,000-strong national march against racism took place in Boston on Dec. 14. Busloads of antiracists came from all over the country, including the Deep South. It was the largest civil rights demonstration to take place since the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The 1974 march put a halt to the racist mobilization, encouraging the people of Boston to come out against racism.

In subsequent years, antiracist forces defended African-American homes from racist attacks. African Americans, Latinas/os and Asians have gained representation on the Boston City Council. But racists, championed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, have continued to try to return to “neighborhood” unequal schools and eliminate school transportation.

After forming the Coalition for Equal Quality Education, community, labor and progressive forces beat back the attack again this year. The school committee was forced not to take action on a plan that would have drastically cut school transportation and limited access of the Black and Latina/o communities to quality educational opportunities. But the fight will continue in the fall, and racist right-wing forces will only be emboldened by the attack on Professor Gates and the right-wing chorus supporting this latest racist police conduct.