Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: March 21, 1989
Camera Rolls: 4111-4112
Sound Rolls: 440
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Alan Lupo, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 21, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
What was the Boston School Committee all about before deseg and who had reason to have a beef with them?
You know there's a great piece of mythology in the city of Boston and it goes like this: the schools were wonderful before desegregation. Bussing hurt the schools. Tore them apart. Well the truth is of course that busing helped and busing hurt. But the mythology, again, is that the schools were good. The schools were not good before busing. The schools had been in trouble practically from the day Horace Mann pushed public schools. We're talking 1830 something. From day one, you had a class problem. You had wealthy Yankee folk saying, "We don't want our kids going to school with those swamp Yankees." You had all kinds of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants saying, "There are too many Irish in the schools." You had loads of Jewish and Italian people coming into the public schools in the late 1800's, scaring the heck out of teachers and administrators alike. But mainly what you had in the Boston schools was a political patronage system. Now, patronage is not a dirty word. Good patronage is fine. You also had bad patronage. It was a real tight family affair. They went to the same schools. They grow up in the same neighborhoods. They got appointed to certain jobs whether they were competent or not competent and the people who served on the School Committee with some exception were mainly a bunch of pals who were trying to either advance on their profession that is politics or at least do favors for their pals. The School Committee was a bucket shop, stuff was for sale. You ran for School Committee or you ran for reelection and what you ended up doing was holding, what they call, a time. And a time is a political affair. And teachers would get in the mail little invitations. They were real cute. "Help John Kerrigan (or somebody) celebrate his, ah, 45th birthday. He's always been our good friend and for a fifty dollar donation you can make him feel even better." And a lot of teachers and principals and head masters and administrators and custodians and secretaries, etcetera, felt pressure to contribute to those things. The message being that maybe your job wouldn't be so pleasant or maybe your job wouldn't be, period, if you didn't. That's what the Boston schools were.
Excellent. So, now, let me ask you this. If you could write the lead paragraph describing the first day of desegregation of Boston public schools in '74, how would it go?
You are now standing in front of South Boston High School that day in 1974. And the buses rolled up and some of the violence began, as was expected. But the story that came out of Boston was the story only of violence. And had I been a reporter of that day, writing that story, I think I would have said something like this. "Despite a couple of centuries of racism and bigotry and class warfare, Boston began desegregating its schools today with a minimum of violence." Because the real story of Boston is the story of two cities. It's a story of the traditional, alleged, liberal abolitionist Boston, the progressive Boston, the folk who sent Cesar Chavez money for his grape union. The folks who supported the Hungarian Revolution in 1800 something. But the other Boston is a very hidebound, distrustful, turf conscious, class conscious, parochial city, full of people who did not make much progress over the years. I'm talking about White folks. They were not middle income people. They were poor folk and they were running hard-scrabble operations. And they were scared folk. And they had had plenty of things done to them. Highways had come through their living rooms. Nobody bothered to ask. Airports expanded into their neighborhoods. Nobody bothered to ask. Some of their neighborhoods had been torn down totally, two of them integrated neighborhoods. Nobody bothered to ask them. By the time busing came around, these people were ripe for revolution**
OK, now, I hear what you're saying in terms of the violence wasn't the only story in Boston but it did happen, and as someone who knows this city how do you understand and how do you explain the phenomenon of the hatred that did explode?
The hatred is almost inherited in this city. We had, ah, people, early on, who came here for religious freedom. And as soon as somebody stood up and said, "Gee, I think I'll be a Quaker," they either hanged him or they banished them. That kind of set the tone, all right. And when the Irish showed up, the brutality exhibited toward them was as close as anything anyone has ever seen, not counting what has happened to the Blacks, even more so than other immigrants. So we had a tradition of this in the city, not just in this city, in many places, but particularly poignant here because everybody was fighting for crumbs. And the economy was hardly ever good. I remember personal experiences of the early '40s, into the '50s, being in a gang, happens to be a gang of Jews, self protection. Protect your religion. Protect your class. Protect your turf, because somebody else is calling you names. Somebody else wants to get you. So we had religious wars here. We had class wars here. The Blue Hill Avenue now runs through a Black neighborhood. Once upon a time it was a Jewish neighborhood and the Irish kids called it Jew Hill Avenue. And they didn't say that as a joke, maybe to them it was a joke, but if you were Jewish, it wasn't a joke. So that's the kind of atmosphere you had here. Now you have two groups clashing on the day busing begins. Two oppressed groups of people, you've got Blacks who have been denied equal educational opportunity among many other things they're being denied. But they include some very tough customers from very tough neighborhoods because it's the history of the world, that when you're poor, you're often tough. And they include a lot of White folks who are very tough, very tough customers from very tough neighborhoods, not necessarily as poor but not that distant. How else could it have, how else could violence have been avoided?
Now, paint us a word picture of what you saw, and what you heard outside of South Boston High, that first day.
What sticks in my mind from the first day of busing, standing outside of Southie High School, was a sort of a rush of a crowd, verbal, not a roar really, but, but a, although that's what they called themselves, roar. It was almost like a growl. And it was scary. And I learned the word "nigger" and I saw something fly through the air, a bottle or a can and it smacked the ground. You were a Black person walking into the school. That sticks in my mind more than anything else in terms of what I heard. But then there's what I saw. And that's more important than what I heard. What I saw was Black kids looking at where they were being bussed and being disappointed. Black kids smiling as if to be cocky but really nervous. Blacks walking as if to taunt the White kids but I think really scared. White families looking, with perhaps a combination of hatred and fear, and other Whites looking with no hatred but fear and curiosity. Children looking with ignorance and awe. Their hands being held by parents who had been through a lot of hell in their White lives and were looking at a change that they couldn't understand. It was a pitiful sight for everybody.
People in South Boston felt used and abused by the media, as a representative of the media, what's your response?
I've been on both sides of stories, both as a reporter and as a subject, and yes, no story is ever perfect and no story is ever therefore, totally accurate. So anybody who's been the subject of the media theoretically can feel burned or abused. Southie has a point. First of all, we shouldn't overlook the racism that was evident there. And that had to be reported. On the other hand there was a lot of fear there. There were a lot of deeply held sentiments that were more complex than racism and we hardly ever got deeply into that. Hardly ever does it ever happen that we get deeply into that. But what burned me watching it all was that everybody shows up with the cameras to record racial fighting on the hill but when a well to do suburb quietly, behind closed doors, says effectively that a certain race or class of people can't live there, I don't see any television cameras.
So, can you tell us about that media-conscious exchange you heard that day in Southie?
On day in Southie we were coming up the hill in one of the, ah, Mayor's cars, and I was sitting with Bob Kiley, who was essentially a Deputy Mayor. And there had just been I'm sorry--
We were going up a hill one day in South Boston. I think it was probably the second or third or fourth week of busing. And I was with, ah, Bob Kiley, who was essentially the Deputy Mayor, sitting in one of the Mayor's cars, heading up the hill. There had just been yet another incident. Cops, White cops dealing with their White neighbors, and police screaming, ah, "Get out of the way!" and kids and mothers and fathers screaming, "Police brutality!" Sort of a replay of the White college kids fighting with cops earlier, or Blacks dealing with cops in the street. History was repeating itself in interesting ways, and a crowd of kids were moving up the hill, and our window was open. And we clearly heard one kid say to another, "No, that'll be too late to make the six o'clock, but it'll be on the eleven o'clock news." And, Kiley turned to me and shook his head, and said, "Don't tell me these people aren't aware." In other words, they're out there for a principle, bad or good, but folks also get out because they want to be on TV There's no question about it. Now, I would argue that were there no television, there would still have been fighting in the street. There still would have been hatred, there still would have been moments of accommodation. But the presence of the camera is startling, and for your lot of people, for a lot of people who will have their names in the newspaper only when they die, and there will be a little paid death notice, almost anything, any kind of access to becoming a star, even for 30 seconds is quite important to them, White or Black.
Now, you told me that you thought there are a couple of levels of understanding and connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-busing movement.
You know, it was an ironic thing to watch and listen to the people opposing, actively opposing busing. A number of them said essentially, "If Martin Luther King was a hero for sitting on the street, or blocking traffic, or picketing or demonstrating, how come we're not heroes? How come the media are treating us differently than it did the White college students who opposed Vietnam, or the Blacks who had sit-ins?" Some people were very sincere when they raised that question. They felt there was no difference. They felt they were demonstrating for their homes, their neighborhoods, their children, their, their view of education. Their civil rights. Other people, I think, were a little less sincere.
Some people, I fear, were not so sincere. Perhaps some of the leaders who thought they were being cute. And may or may not have seen any parallels, but decided to run that guilt trip on the media, and say, "Oh, so now you're discriminating against us." So you had both. You had those who honestly saw no difference. And believed that their civil rights were in danger and they had a right to demonstrate. And you had those who were maybe playing it for all it was worth.
Now, I want to go back to the comment before when you were talking about, um, um, how people, ah, wanted the glamour of being on TV. Don't you think they understood the bad effect that it would have if what was on TV was violence?
I think when you're living in a tight little neighborhood, where disputes are often settled with a fist, that maybe you don't think that a fist-fight or a confrontation is such a terrible thing. You're not going to worry about your image. And I think there's at least one good reason for that. When you're living in that kind of neighborhood, and this I know personally, you begin to feel after about six or seven years old, that a lot of the folks who put you down are from somewhere else and maybe they're hypocrites. They have more money. They have more benefits. They get jobs at, ah, federal governments that they call appointments. Our kind of folk get jobs that are called patronage. You see? There's a difference there, America, and a lot of people feel that. So, you settle disputes one way, maybe by shouting, maybe by fighting, maybe by some kind of political connection. Other people settle disputes more quietly, but not necessarily more humanely. And if your back is up against the wall, or if you think your back is up against the wall, you're not going to worry about what the rest of the world thinks of you, because you figure the rest of the world isn't out there to help you anyway.
OK, Cut. Great.
So can you give us that story?
During busing, in my own community, which is just on the Boston border. It's a self-governing town, it's not part of the city, it's technically a suburb. About 20,000 people in one square mile. A number of us decided it would be a good idea to get involved in the METCO program, in which Black youngsters are bused voluntarily to suburban neighborhoods. The state pays the cost, and the White kids stay in their own school. We had our heads handed to us by our own neighbors. Some of it was racism, which of course everyone denied. A lot of it was fear. And what it was essentially was a precursor of what was going to begin happening outside the big cities. The fear, the racism, the anxiety of being outside the big city, and wondering who's next in this revolution that nobody seemed to understand. People who had known me for years continued to be my friends, and I am their friend during all of this, but they let me know in no uncertain terms, and with much discomfort sometimes on their own part, that this was not going to happen. And indeed it didn't. Our school committee voted four to one against it. And what was this piece of trauma, what were we talking about? We were talking about 18 Black youngsters, aged 5 to what, 18, coming in every day on a bus, and filling up empty seats in our adequate but not extraordinary school system. Wholesome people said, "No, it's a long trip. It could be dangerous for them." "We don't have enough empty seats," they said. Well, the Blacks were willing to take the long trip. They were willing to encounter whatever real or alleged danger might have existed. And as far as no empty seats, we subsequently closed two schools for lack of students. But I could tell that people were afraid. And I'm not sure, and I don't know if they were sure what it was that scared them.