• U.S.

The Nation: Boston Heats Up Once Again

4 minute read

For a time, the 1974 federal court order decreeing widespread busing of Boston’s schoolchildren seemed to be working its will, even if not exactly winning many ardent converts. During the current school year, interracial violence was mostly limited to the prickly South Boston and Charles town high schools. But an outbreak of racial incidents over the past three weeks has brought a sharp and ugly turn for the worse.

In the first of the incidents, Theodore Landsmark, 29, a black lawyer, was set upon by six white youths who had been demonstrating against busing in front of Boston’s modern city hall. Spearing and clubbing Landsmark with a flagpole from which an American flag fluttered wildly, they broke his nose and left him badly cut and bruised. Then two black bus drivers in predominantly white and fiercely antibusing South Boston were beaten by five or six white youths; two white drivers who tried to help defend them were also pummeled.

Last week Richard Poleet, 34, a white Boston mechanic, was driving through the mostly black Roxbury section when 20 to 25 black youths began stoning his car. The blacks dragged him out of his car and began smashing his face with rocks and pieces of pavement. When police arrived, about 100 blacks were milling around his prostrate body, some shouting, “Let him die!” After working on Poleet for six hours at Boston City Hospital, doctors placed him on the danger list. Two young blacks, aged 19 and 16, were arrested.

City Council President Louise Day Hicks, a fiery busing opponent, blamed the court ruling for Boston’s continuing unease. Virginia Sheehy, activist busing foe, accused blacks of inciting the vengeful mood that led to the attack on Poleet. Black State Representative Melvin King condemned Poleet’s beating and issued a warning: “Boston is in danger of becoming a city of random, uncontrollable violence.”

By last week his fear seemed uncomfortably close to reality. As temperatures rose unseasonably into the nineties, gangs of roving youths in white and black neighborhoods stoned more cars. A 17-year-old mentally retarded girl was struck in the face when a gang of blacks surrounded a car driven by her father and one of them hurled a piece of pavement through the windshield. Admitted to Boston City with a fractured skull, by week’s end she was listed in fair condition. Frank Meehan, a white man, was dragged from his car and stabbed by four black youths in the Roslindale section. In an apparently unrelated episode, an explosion ripped through a wall of the municipal courthouse, injuring 19 people, nine seriously enough to be hospitalized. An anonymous female caller had warned courthouse officials of the blast 20 minutes before it happened.

On the March. Hoping to cool emotions, Boston Mayor Kevin White led a “march against violence” through the city’s downtown. “If you are against violence, come,” said White. “If you are for violence, you are not wanted.” Co-sponsored by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the march drew Senators Edward Kennedy and Edward Brooke. Some 30,000 people showed up, and while the march’s tone was decidedly positive and the crowds seemed concerned, militant blacks and firm busing foes were notably absent. Whether long-term peace was any closer remained in doubt.

After 20 months of off-again, on-again turmoil, Boston still had precious few ideas from its leaders about settling a dispute that could turn into an urban war. Two state legislators, one white, one black, showed how far apart the antagonists remain. Declared the black: “The violence has strengthened the resolve of the black community. But I think whites are slowly becoming more realistic, in private. There is a recognition that busing is here to stay.” Said the white: “There is no less resistance now than there was in 1973—if anything, there is more. If forced busing is here to stay, then there will be no city.”

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