"The Schools are Killing our Kids!": The African American Fight for Self-Determination in the Boston Public Schools, 1949-1985

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This dissertation examines a grassroots movement led by black Bostonians to achieve racial justice, quality education, and community empowerment in the Boston Public Schools during the postwar period. From the late 1940s through the early 1980s black parents, teachers, and students employed a wide-range of strategies in pursuit of these goals including staging school boycotts, creating freedom schools, establishing independent alternative schools, lobbying for legislation, forming parent and youth groups, and organizing hundreds of grassroots organizations. At the heart of this movement was a desire to improve the quality of education afforded to black youth and to expand the power of black Bostonians in educational governance. This dissertation demonstrates that desegregation and community control were not mutually exclusive goals or strategies of black educational activism. I examine the evolution of the goals, ideology, and strategy of this movement over the course of more than three decades in response to shifts in the national and local political climate. This work traces the close ties between this local movement in Boston and broader movements for racial and social justice unfolding across the nation in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Most importantly, my dissertation puts this movement in conversation with a broader national project of various marginalized groups in the postwar period to radically transform the institutions of democracy.

This dissertation challenges a well-known narrative of civil rights and school desegregation in Boston in this period. This story of the so-called Boston "busing crisis" focuses on white resistance, a narrow period of time in the mid-1970s, and court-ordered desegregation. In the rare instances in which black Bostonians are included in this narrative it is as victims or apathetic bystanders. The rhetoric of "busing," particularly the framing of opposition to desegregation as "anti-busing," obscured and continues to obscure the more complex racial politics driving the opposition to the integration of the Boston Public Schools. My scholarship brings light to a much broader and more nuanced history of racial politics in Boston and demonstrates that we cannot understand the period of court-ordered desegregation without examining the decades of grassroots activism which preceded it.