The following is excerpted from Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss. Read our interview with authors Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill here.
In its charred aftermath, it's hard to imagine that school desegregation snuck up on Southie. But indeed it did.
It had been dismissed out of hand in the beginning. Busing blacks into the preeminent Irish bastion to desegregate schools? Never happen. Who would even propose something that explosive? Who had the political firewall to withstand what it would unleash?
And if it ever became a real prospect, the battle-tested town would simply do what it always did — shout it down without letup. The way it had routed urban renewal a decade earlier. And it always could depend on how the Boston School Committee genuflected before its ballot box. The whole thing was preposterous.
But enter Judge W. Arthur Garrity, a focused man impervious to street noise.
A former U.S. attorney with strong Kennedy connections, Garrity had been a federal judge for ten years, a job he seemed destined for by intellect and disposition. But the appearance of a quiet ascetic with refined manners and excessive politeness cloaked a man of steel. Once he made up his mind, the matter was considered closed. Forthwith and period. Raucous protests notwithstanding.
It took a while for Southie to realize it had met its match.
It began on a sultry day in 1974 with the suddenness of a summer storm. A case suffused with precedents that supported busing to remedy segregation had quietly worked its way through the federal courthouse. On a June morning, less than three months before schools reopened, the court sprang a cataclysm on a sleepy town.
Garrity ruled that decades of intentional discrimination against blacks by the Boston School Committee now required that schools be racially balanced and resources equally shared. The findings, taken from committee minutes, were irrefutable. But the remedy of large- scale busing turned Boston upside down for nearly a decade. It achieved neither balanced schools nor better education. In fact, the opposite happened.
The Achilles' heel of the ruling was the most radical provision — that black students from Roxbury High be sent to South Boston and vice versa. The idea was to slay the "never" dragon dead on Telegraph Hill in South Boston. Within weeks, the unthinkable was under way.
Whitey Bulger's rise in Southie did not just result from doing in Donald Killeen and then troublesome Mullens one by one. Or from becoming a Top Echelon informant for John Connolly. Or from falling heir to Winter Hill's jackpot after Howie Winter went to jail and handed off a gambling network that rivaled the Mafia's.
His home turf was in historic turmoil that worked to his benefit. Among the legion of unforeseen consequences of Garrity's radical solution was that it proved good for Whitey Bulger's business. A town at loose ends was a crime haven.
Indeed, the peak year for serious crime for the last half century was 1975. This was the first full year of busing in South Boston. And it was the year that class warfare became the bitter backdrop to a vicious election between Mayor Kevin White and his downtown liberal supporters and Dorchester marine Joseph Timilty.