What 'Black Mass' forgets about Whitey Bulger, Boston busing and Southie's lost generation

WGBH News
Whitey Bulger

James "Whitey" Bulger's Alcatraz mugshot from 1959.

Federal Bureau of Prisons

Busing was the best thing that ever happened to Whitey Bulger.

In the years leading up to the 1974 busing plan, my neighborhood — South Boston — was perceived as the bastion of white supremacy and privilege in Boston. After all, some of the city’s most powerful politicians were from South Boston, and the most egregious symbol of white supremacy in Boston, school committee member (later city councilor) Louise Day Hicks, was a resident of the affluent and beautiful shoreline of South Boston’s City Point.

Although the reasoning behind the State Board of Education’s busing plan will forever remain a mystery, I have had to presume that this was the motivation for a plan that — disastrously — included busing students from predominantly black Roxbury to Irish-American South Boston and vice versa, even though both groups were desperately poor with desperately underfunded schools.

Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie’s three large housing projects and the “Lower End,” three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent, female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men.

In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury) — “the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.”

This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics. Our powerful politicians and community spokespeople, who lived on the other side of Dorchester Heights, usually did not have kids at South Boston High; their kids went to Boston Latin or private or parochial schools. Clearly, there were two South Bostons. Clearly, there are white people and there are not-quite-white people.

It’s too bad Judge W. Arthur Garrity, his advisors, and the State Board of Education never considered these realities when they went in for the takedown of Southie’s perceived power.

In my neighborhood, we always knew there were two Southies — and that while some people in Southie “knew people,” most of us had absolutely no connection to power. I knew the term “white n*****” applied to “project rats” like me and my neighbors, the very people who populated an already decrepit South Boston High School. But while busing divided the city of Boston, it united our neighborhood like never before.

Our chants of Hell No We Won’t Go rose up in unison from the the grimy projects to the vinyl-sided row houses of the West Side to the hills of City Point. And united we jumped into the arms of career politicians whose popularity soared in a community that, rightly or wrongly, felt under siege. Our unified, loud and sometimes violent resistance ended up benefiting Judge Garrity, whose all-white, very well-funded schools in elite Wellesley would never be considered “racially imbalanced,” a term reserved by law for schools that were more than 50 percent “minority.”

Once Southie exploded, Garrity’s plan would appear justified to liberals all over the country. National news crews descended on the neighborhood to focus only on the scenes of inexcusable racist violence, without examining any of the equally important class manipulation at play in a plan that would send rightfully aggrieved African American students into a school that, in spite of its predominant complexion, was as bad if not worse than the one they came from. In essence, liberal Garrity and conservative Hicks were working very well together, for their own class interests, which sacrificed South Boston and Roxbury families.

Sacrificed how? That us-against-them enmity that they and other leaders inspired from on high, which may have felt justified and righteous to some at the time, benefited James “Whitey” Bulger more than anyone. His rise and fall is chronicled in the new film, "Black Mass." To thrive, Bulger needed Southie united in a closed, paranoid, and conspiratorial culture of silence. And for many of our poorest families, that ultimately worked toward our own destruction.

Whitey was notoriously opposed to the busing plan, sponsoring militant violence against the pro-busing Boston Globe and the Kennedy homestead in Brookline. But no one made out from busing like Whitey did. He rose to ascendance precisely during the chaos of busing.

Just like we jumped into the arms of career politicians, so many of our poorest were ready to jump into the arms of anyone promising protection from the enemy “out there” — some of those enemies fabricated, some of them real. In proudly Irish American Southie, as helicopters hovered overhead, as police marched through the streets in riot gear, as snipers stood on our rooftops, many people equated busing with the British occupation of the north of Ireland.

Indeed, the State Board of Education, which devised the busing plan that Garrity approved, was not only stacked with WASP names like “Saltonstall” — but also, Charles Glenn, who wrote the plan, was descended from Ulster Protestants. In a show of solidarity and that famously Irish insistence to “stand one’s ground,” many South Boston public school students — the neighborhood’s poorest, those who could not escape to private or parochial schools — boycotted and eventually dropped out.

A generation was lost to that chaos.

In 1981-1982, Boston public schools had the country’s worst attendance rates. And South Boston High School’s attendance the worst in the city, averaging a daily rate of 55.6 percent, more than 14 percentage points lower than any other Boston public school. Throughout the 1990s, South Boston’s white public school students held the city’s highest dropout rate, no doubt the legacy of busing and a sense of “lost schools” combined with the lure of the streets, which seemed at the time to offer so much to so many.

And who ran the streets? In Southie’s three large housing projects where he reigned supreme, busing gave Whitey a large population of poor, unemployed teenage dropouts, a lucrative market for the drugs he brought in, and a source of recruitment for all the Southie-based criminal enterprises that brought Whitey a cut.

And so our poorest families were summarily slaughtered in these years and in the following decades by our protector’s drugs and crime.

I grew up in the belly of that beast. One of Southie’s top three cocaine distributors who paid Whitey tribute, Paul “Polecat” Moore, lived only one apartment over from my family at 8 Patterson Way in the Old Colony Housing Project. Every day I saw the constant traffic of known lesser dealers at Polecat’s door, most of whom were of that very first generation of busing dropouts.

I smelled the freebasing in our cellars and hallways, and saw the “baseheads” regularly chasing each other down the streets with hockey sticks. Worse, we heard the gunshots more and more until Whitey — not wanting the attention that street crime was getting among our imagined enemies in Roxbury — cleverly put a stop to all that noise, reportedly making an example of those who would engage in open gunfire, while keeping the cocaine flowing.

And our unemployed busing dropouts were most readily swept up into criminal activity, whether bank robberies or truck hijackings, most of which also lined Whitey’s pockets. In my own family of 10 children growing up with a single mother in Old Colony Project, five of the eight who entered Boston Public High Schools dropped out. Of those five, three died young; one is crippled and severely brain-damaged from the era’s drugs, crime, and violence; and I am the fifth.

While my sister lay in a coma for four months, I sat by her bed every day instead of going to classes at Boston Latin. Rather than be kept back, I dropped out of Latin — and got my assignment to Madison Park High School in Roxbury. But there was no way, at 16 in the still racially tense Boston of 1981, that I would agree to be the one white kid (and from Southie!) at Madison Park.

Instead, I got a GED and went to UMass. I had already lost too many older siblings to Whitey’s trade to go that route and become another casualty. I suppose that’s why I am still alive.

But not everyone in my neighborhood saw through the myths. Throughout the late 70s, 80s and 90s, we felt more and more separate from the city of Boston. Southie became a world unto itself, despised as “racist white trash” by mainstream middle class and wealthy white liberals outside — those who had treated us as if we were the privileged white ascendancy that we were not.

Too many of my neighbors continued to believe we were “protected” by our political power base who pretended to fight for our interests, keeping blacks and crime out, while our own homegrown gangsters lured us into hell. In four decades since busing, Southie consistently held one of the city’s highest death rates from drug overdose and suicide, often competing for that distinction with similarly working class and poor white Charlestown, which similarly exploded in the Phase II busing plan in the fall of 1975.

Who comes right behind us in those dire public health statistics? Roxbury, also working class and poor, mostly black and Latino. They led us in homicide headlines — probably because Whitey limited street shootings and made sure his bodies disappeared and could not be found.

Way back in 1974, the very first year of busing — way before we lost all those kids to overdoses and before Roxbury lost all those kids to gun violence — social scientists had declared South Boston and Roxbury “death zones” for their tragic health indicators, including infant mortality rates. Though our own leaders never touted such things, I have to wonder whether it would have been that difficult for Judge Garrity and his “expert” planners Robert Dentler and Marvin Scott or the Mass. State Board of Education to know such things. If they did, would they have cared?

Author Jonathan Kozol’s "Death at an Early Age," first published in 1967, had helped inspire Boston’s black communities to call — and rightfully so — for a more just allocation of funding and access to better education. But in Kozol’s 1985 epilogue to that book, he lamented the “Pyrrhic victory” of desegregation, with its top-down busing plan that had been willfully oblivious to on-the-ground realities, and which ultimately didn’t increase anyone’s access to high-quality education.

In fact, it did the opposite. Kozol wrote that today in Boston, “Poor whites, poor blacks and poor Hispanics now become illiterate together.”

Many of the adults of Boston’s busing battle are gone. Garrity passed away in 1999 at the age of 79, Hicks in 2003 at age 87, Dentler in 2008 at age 79. Gone too are many of the young people from those days, although they died young and not so peacefully. Still alive at 85, James “Whitey” Bulger, after 16 quite comfortable years on the lam, is finally in prison for racketeering and 11 direct murders, but not for the hundreds upon hundreds of drug-related indirect murders of young people we lost in Southie through the years.

The reality of Kozol’s statement can be seen not only in our shared post-busing literacy rates and related death statistics, it can be felt most profoundly today in the reality that poor and working class people of all complexions can no longer afford to live in that city whose turf we fought over, died on, and ultimately lost to speculators and developers who — just like the politicians, policymakers and gangsters whose careers were made during busing — had none of us in mind.

Michael Patrick MacDonald is the author of the memoir, "All Souls: A Family Story From Southie." A version of this essay first appeared on WGBHNews.org and The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. This essay was part of a collaboration between WGBH News and The Schuster Institute exploring the 40th anniversary of Boston's court-ordered busing program.

For permission to reuse or reprint, please contact mpatrickmacdonald at mac.com.