The Celtics and the busing rift
HISTORY REVISED: Did Larry Bird really unite a racially divided city?
In the mid 1970s, violent opposition to the long-delayed desegregation of Boston's public schools made headlines all over the world. Now, some 35 years later, BostonHerald writer Michael Connelly has come out with a book that purports to tell the aftermath of this story from a new angle. According to Connelly, the deep racial wounds that were opened up by the Boston busing crisis of the mid '70s first began to heal when whites and blacks came together to support the Boston Celtics' championship team of 1981.
Why this team? The '81 Celtics comprised six white and six black players who valued teamwork. They captured the imagination of the city by staging a dramatic comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference final and then going on to win their 14th NBA championship, and their first in five seasons. And they were led by one of the most popular athletes in Boston sports history: Larry Bird.
The book's 24 chapters mostly alternate between an entertaining history of the Celtics and an account of the conflict that reached a boiling point on June 21, 1974, when federal judge W. Arthur Garrity declared "that the entire school system of Boston" had been "knowingly" and "unconstitutionally segregated." Garrity ruled that the schools were to be integrated through the busing of large numbers of black students into white neighborhoods and a similar number of white students into neighborhoods that were mostly black.
What Connelly fails to establish is the connection between these events and the '81 Celtics and the racial healing that did eventually come to Boston. He points to the fact that the Celtics' victory rally in May 1981 (at which there were relatively few black fans) took place at the same Government Center location where, five years earlier, the image of a white man spearing a black man with the pole of an American flag had been immortalized in a Pulitzer Prize–winning Herald photo by Stanley Forman. But is that more than a coincidence?
Worse than any half-baked theory about racial healing in Boston is Connelly's historical revisionism. In his reinterpretation, the black and white communities were equally to blame for fanning the flames of the crisis, and busing itself was the primary cause of the violence that threatened to rip the city apart. He seems unaware of the implications of equating the black community's insistence on achieving its constitutional rights with the rights of those Bostonians who fiercely — and sometimes violently — opposed busing because they wanted to "preserve their way of life."
Connelly's own feelings about Judge Garrity's ruling come through in his description of the September 28, 1979, incident that left Darryl Williams, a black football player from Jamaica Plain High School, paralyzed from the neck down after he'd been shot during halftime of a game in all-white Charlestown. Three teenagers were arrested for the crime.
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