Foreign visitors seek lessons from Boston’s divided past
17 April 2009
James Smith (Boston Globe)
Robert Lewis Jr., who lived through Boston’s court-ordered school busing as a black student at East Boston High School in the mid-1970s, had no trouble summoning memories of those tumultuous days for a busload of out-of-town visitors.
“Picture it the way it was then,” he said the other day, as the bus pulled up in front of South Boston High School, where black students were first bused in from Roxbury in September 1974. “Folks are coming and tipping the buses. The street is filled with police.”
And when the tour reached the new sports fields at Charlestown High School, Lewis, now an executive at the Boston Foundation, drew a lesson of hope from the ethnic mix of athletes playing there. “See that diversity that’s on that field? That could never have happened before busing.”
Lewis’s audience on the unusual tour had no difficulty conjuring images of strife of the streets, for these visitors had come from divided cities across the globe, places where physical or psychological barriers have kept or still keep people of different backgrounds ruthlessly apart.
They were here at the invitation of Padraig O’Malley, a lanky Irishman, professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and specialist in mediation with a track record of peacemaking from South Africa to Iraq. He created the “Forum for Cities in Transition” to let rivals from five divided communities meet in a neutral, unthreatening setting, and let them learn from others who are confronting similar tensions. The three-day gathering ended yesterday. He wants it to be an annual forum for officials from the five cities.
The 30 delegates came from Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland; Nicosia in Cyprus; Mitrovica in Kosovo; Kirkuk in Iraq. The tour of landmarks in Boston’s years of court-ordered integration was O’Malley’s way of giving the visiting officials a glimpse of the city’s steps toward reconciliation, as well as the continuing fallout from mistakes and lost opportunities.
At a panel discussion at UMass before the bus tour, some of the key players from the busing era spelled out how high the costs became for blacks and whites alike, and how, in the midst of crisis, opportunities for creative solutions are often sadly missed.
Hubie Jones, a lifelong civil rights campaigner and educator, said the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, despite a pledge not to allow its schools to become a haven for fleeing whites, expanded significantly. “The irony is that segregation saved the Catholic school system,” he said.
What was missed was a chance to envision a broader solution to the school desegregation issue that could have made suburban school systems part of the remedy. “We had one fleeting moment to think about metropolitan education, to bring suburbs into the mix to solve the segregation problem,” Jones said. “This program has never been creatively used to go to the next step.”
Al Holland, a black teacher at South Boston High at the time, said the greatest disappointment was that “adults – the political leadership in Boston – never stood up and said ‘we have to make this work for the safety of our youngsters.’ Both black kids and white kids were used as pawns.”
The visiting foreign officials found the lessons to be provocative, if not always directly relevant.
Mark Hamilton, a police officer in Belfast, said the busing story resonated because he had dealt with a situation in 2001 in which children were attacked while trying to go to school. The incident “has had an untold influence upon community relations, which went beyond the children,” he said. “Involving children always increases the emotions and has the potential for long-range damage to communities.”
A Serbian from Mitrovica, Momcilo Arlov, noted a distinction between Boston and his home: the United States has a single Constitution that is the ultimate arbiter and that all sides respect. For divided cities elsewhere, national loyalties are often split – in his city’s case between Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, and there’s no shared mandate.
But he said the forum had achieved one breakthrough: the participants from Mitrovica had needed to travel 7,000 miles to be able to speak with one another freely about municipal services. A river splits the Serb and Albanian sections of the city of 85,000, and few people ever cross the single bridge.
“This was really a key opportunity for us to meet in a relaxed setting, and to deal with the technical issues that are about improving everyday life,” Arlov said.
A Kurdish delegate from Kirkuk, Awad Mohamed Ameen, said the discussions among Kurds and Arabs from Kirkuk had achieved “a sort of psychological diminishing of our differences. And there is a qualitative change in our attitude when we see how Boston has confronted these issues and when we see in practice how democracy works in a modern society.”