Stricken Boston

A City in Terror: 1919
The Boston Police Strike

by Francis Russell
Viking, 256 pp., $10.00

Boston, during the past winter and spring, offered Southerners a fistful of ironies. While schools in Mississippi’s Delta or the so-called Black Belt of Alabama, just over ten years ago the bastions of segregationist resistance to the civil rights movement, have been quietly desegregated for several years, Boston’s schools have been described by a federal court as deliberately and overwhelmingly segregated. Judge Garrity’s effort to change that state of affairs met with opposition that surely rivals the worst kind once experienced by black children in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. Boston is a delicious object for Southern scorn, or serious or mock indignation. Boston, and its metropolitan area, is not just one of many Northern cities—though for some Southerners, one suspects, any evidence whatsoever of moral hypocrisy on the part of that nondescript group still called “Yankees” would be sufficient.

For well over a century the city has been regarded as among the nation’s educational and cultural leaders—one of the centers of abolitionist sentiment in the years before the Civil War,1 the capital city of the state whose sons both fought in large numbers against the Confederacy and went South after that war to rule in the name of a victorious federal government, and whose nationally known universities recently sent many students, faculty members, ministers, and aroused laymen to Selma and Montgomery, to the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry, the medical program at Mound Bayou in Mississippi, the last for a long while directly affiliated with Tufts University. Black people in the rural parts of Mississippi or Alabama, who had heard through the grapevine (there is a constant return of departed kin for vacations, family crises, or celebrations) about the disadvantages of Detroit or Chicago, would often wonder about Boston: it must be different up there.

And to a degree it was. The city attracted in the earlier decades of this century only a small percentage of the black immigrants who left an impoverished and often brutal life in search of work and the relative sanctuary of a slum—no omnipotent and arbitrary sheriff, no Ku Klux Klan with its bonfires and its crazy talk and, sometimes, action. In Boston, as late as the 1940s, there wasn’t even a large black ghetto. Roxbury, now the heart of the city’s black section, was predominantly Jewish, with the Irish holding on firmly to one neighborhood. There were some old Boston black families; in certain ways they resembled the Brahmins. That is, blacks who were class conscious, who looked down on other blacks, who recited to anyone available how long it had been since they first arrived in the city. Malcolm X has described this vividly and with a proper measure of irony in his autobiography.

During and immediately after the Second World War, when those longtime black Bostonians and some more recent arrivals mostly lived in the South End, not far from white people, the city’s tensions were primarily religious and ethnic. John Roy Carlson, a muckraking reporter of the 1930s who…

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