BOSTON -- A federal appeals court ruling declaring the public schools officially desegregated ends a 'sad chapter' in city history, but does not mean 13 years of court-ordered busing has brought racial balance to all schools, officials said.
The ruling Monday by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows the federal judge who approved student school assignments for 13 years to remove himself from the landmark case that led to the mobilization of the National Guard to quell school violence and came to dramatize racial tensions in the North.
The three-judge panel declared the public school system desgregated, although it identified 13 schools as still 'racially identifiable' -- having more than 80 percent of students of one race.
The court ruled, however, that the city had 'performed in good faith in recent years' to end racial imbalance in the city's 123 public schools.
'This closes a long and sad chapter in the city of Boston,' said Mayor Raymond Flynn, once a busing opponent. 'Now is the time to move forward and begin getting the best educational opportunities for Boston schoolchildren.'
The case was sent back to U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who issued the original desegregation order and has overseen the system since.
The court gave Garrity permission to remove himself from the case, which spawned years of anti-busing protests, school violence and 'white flight' -- white students leaving the school system to attend private schools.
Of the 13 schools that remain predominantly white or black, the court found all were 'in compliance with the district court's desegregation orders.'
It said it was unlikely they could be further integrated since the imbalance 'is rooted not in discrimination but in more intractable demographic obstacles,' referring to the city's still largely segregated neighborhoods.
The 53-page ruling allows the School Committee to change student assignments without permission from Garrity. Garrity ended his overall involvement with the schools in 1982, but retained control over assignments.
'It says very clearly that because we've been committed to the principles of desegregation, because we do not ever want to run a segregated school system again, and because we have grown and matured as a city, we now can have some flexibility and perhaps can give parents significantly greater choice in where their children attend school,' School Committee Chairman John Nucci said.
School Committee member Joseph Casper said the ruling allows the schools to 'turn the corner,' but added that Garrity's orders had failed because many parents -- especially whites -- pulled their children out of the system.
'(Garrity) didn't achieve what he set out to do,' Casper said. 'This is like saying we won in Vietnam. We lost -- it failed. The judge's objective was not to create a quality education. He wanted to create racially balanced schools.'
Thomas I. Atkins, lawyer for the black parents, said, 'To the extent people are popping champagne corks thinking this is a mandate to return to quote neighborhood schools, they're probably prematurely celebrating.'
Atkins said he plans to argue before Garrity that the federal court should not withdraw from involvement in monitoring student assignment, but did not say whether he would consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Atkins said that while he believes student assignments must be watched, he encourages the federal court to reduce its role. 'We've never said there is a permanent camping permit for the federal court in the Boston schools.'
'I don't see the action as being any big calamity,' Atkins said. 'They (the appeals judges) wanted to know what feasibly can be done 13 years after this began. We will show them. We will demonstrate that while we agree there has been substantial progress, there has not been sufficient progress.
Enrollment dropped from 95,000 at the time of the desgregation order to the current 56,000 students, one quarter of whom are white.
Busing to achieve desegregation continues in all but four schools.
The landmark suit was filed on March 15, 1972, in U.S. District Court by the Boston branch of the NAACP, which accused the Boston School Committee of pursuing a policy of educational racism that 'borders on the fringes of racial insanity.'
On June 21, 1974, Garrity found for the plaintiffs. He put the schools in receivership and ordered the busing of thousands of students to balance the racial makeup of the city's schools.
The complex case, which eventually forced Garrity to issue some 400 orders to bring about the busing of 60 percent of the system's students, tore the city apart. Garrity was hanged in effigy, demonstrators jeered outside his home and he was guarded by U.S. marshals after he became the target of death threats.
At schools, buses were stoned and fights broke out. State police patrolled South Boston High School, the site of many of the clashes, and Gov. Francis Sargent mobilized National Guard troops on Oct. 15, 1974.
At one anti-busing protest, a white demonstrator speared a black man with an American flag on the steps of City Hall -- a haunting image captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. The case also inspired the book, 'Common Ground' by Anthony Lucas, which also won a Pulitzer.
The Supreme Court upheld Garrity's busing orders by refusing to hear appeals.