Busing students to Hyde Park (Boston) High School in 1974. Photo by Paul Connell, courtesy of The Boston Globe.
[This article originally appeared in the Summer 1978 issue of Nieman Reports.]
…I now find myself at what I hope is mid-career, writing a book about a subject which some journalists might feel I was wasting my time on. It is not exactly one of the single burning issues of American life today, as conventionally seen. It is not SALT. It is not who is going to be President in 1980. It is not energy or even who’s going to win the 1978 pennant. Probably, even for many people in this room, it starts with an enormously tedious subject—the question of what we do about schools and race in urban America. If I were to add the word busing, many of you would probably doze off over your coffee.
It was with that realization—that that word is soporific in the extreme—that I decided originally not to write about busing, but to write about the lives of three Boston families. I came up here in the summer of 1976 to select those three families. I ended up selecting my first family in Charlestown. I don’t know whether a Nieman these days strays into Charlestown. If most of you haven’t, as I suspect you haven’t, you ought to. To me, Charlestown is one of the most compelling communities in this area, the site, of course, of Bunker Hill. And on the slopes of Bunker Hill, I found a family who regard themselves as Irish, but my research shows that they stem from an Anglican clergyman on the Isle of Man in 1760. So they’re one family.
A second family is a black family who lives in a subsidized housing project in the South End (not to be confused with South Boston). The eldest daughter of that family was bused into Charlestown for two years and graduated last June with the eldest son of the ostensibly Irish family in Charlestown.
The third family is an ostensibly Yankee family. I say ostensibly Yankee because it turns out that this family is actually Northern Irish and rather similar in background to the ostensibly Irish family. But they think of themselves as Yankee while the other family thinks of itself as Irish. What I’m getting at here is sort of a subliminal attack on the Michael Novaks of this world, who see everything in terms of very rigid ethnic categories. I think those categories are often more confused than Mr. Novak or Father Andrew Greeley would admit. The third family is made up of a Harvard-educated lawyer, who went to work for Mayor Kevin White for four years, and his wife, who runs a Yankee-Jewish foundation which gives a lot of money to Boston’s black community.
So it’s the lives of these three families over a decade that I’ve been following for the last two years. And, getting back to my original notion, I’m also examining the political relationships between those three families and the three communities they represent. This will be buttressed by my look at four public figures, whose actions influence those three families: Mayor Kevin White; W. Arthur Garrity, the judge who ordered busing in Boston; Cardinal Medeiros, the successor to Cardinal Cushing as the head of the Boston Archdiocese, and Tom Winship, the Editor of The Boston Globe. The way those four individuals intersect with the lives of these families—for me that’s politics in this country today. I don’t deny that Carter versus Ford is politics. I don’t deny that it has a profound effect on the lives we lead and that we need talented journalists to report it. I’m not here to impose my vision on you of what a journalist ought to do, and I don’t want to be overly didactic, but—all right—I suppose I feel that kind of politics ought to concern us as much, or more, than politics conventionally defined. If we regard ourselves as covering the real politics of this country, the real politics of this country certainly include the politics of class and race in cities like Boston.
Among other things, it’s the question of why does Arthur Garrity hand down a busing edict which requires the poor of Charlestown and the poor of the South End to mix in schools, while exempting the middle class of Newton or Everett or the other suburbs of Boston? Now, one answer to that, which I’m constantly reminded of by my lawyer friends around this town, is that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Detroit case virtually exempts the suburbs from such orders. Judge Garrity is a very fine judge. I’m not criticizing him personally. Under Supreme Court precedents, he had very little choice. I’m questioning the broader political role of the judiciary in maintaining the status quo. I would remind you—and I’m sure that you don’t need to be reminded—that the legal profession is as subject to politics as any profession, as is the medical profession, a notion which often seems to be missing in the way most American newspapers cover those professions. We often tend to accept the mystique of the law and medicine, as defined by those professions, and forget that they are as politically and economically motivated as the rest of us tend to be.
Again, I don’t mean politics in the conventional sense—electoral or partisan politics. I mean politics in the sense of the broad power relationships between different segments of our society. And I would suggest to you that nothing could be more political in that sense than the relationship between the poor and minorities increasingly huddled in our largest cities and the overwhelmingly white, middle and upper classes who predominate in the suburban rings around those cities. When the Kerner Commission warned 10 years ago that we were becoming two societies, it was talking at least, in part, about that as well as the narrower question of who goes to what school. Can we really attack the question at its root if we simply shuffle poor blacks and poor whites back and forth across our cities and ignore the suburbs? Shouldn’t we all bear the burden of making those two societies one?
Well, those are some of the political issues which I am currently concerned with, and I find them, I must tell you, the most utterly compelling political issues which I have ever written about. I’ve had my share of big political stories as a reporter. I’ve covered Watergate for The New York Times Magazine. I have covered some presidential politics and a good deal of the domestic turmoil and the racial turmoil of the 1960’s, and I can tell you that nothing in my professional life have I found as compelling as what I’ve been doing in these past few years.
And I think I will end this stirring peroration by simply saying that I would hope that some of you would leave your years as Niemans or Southams and go back to your profession eager to write about politics broadly defined, to be defined as the power relationship which exists in society at large, rather than narrowly defined which I take to mean the quadrennial or biennial struggles that go on around an election to a particular office.…
Students and police outside South Boston High School, 1976. Photo by Jack O’Connell, courtesy of The Boston Globe.
Mr. Lukas, a 1969 Nieman Fellow, is the author of three books and is working on his fourth. His comments were made in March during a seminar with the Nieman Fellows and their guests, the Southam Fellows from Canada. For 10 years, Mr. Lukas was with The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize.