Charles Willie: A life’s work tearing apart educational inequity, starting in Boston

Charles Willie stepped into the crowded city bus, paid his fare and walked past all the white people in the front. It was 1943 in Dallas and Willie had to make his way to the back of the bus with the rest of the black passengers.

Dressed in peg-leg trousers, high-top shoes and a straw hat, 16-year-old Willie pushed his way through, school books in one hand, brass trumpet in the other. His trumpet case knocked against the shins of the white passengers at the front. It was his silent form of rebellion.

“I think I’ve torn up a number of people’s stockings,” Willie says with a chuckle. “If I have to go to the back, then get out of my way.”

On the bus in Dallas, Willie could not protest. It was before the civil rights movement and speaking out meant fearing retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan. Thirty years later, Willie was given the chance he didn’t have as a teenager. Shortly after taking a tenured post at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, he was called on to end separation between black and white students in Boston. It was an insurmountable task of integrating a school system amid societal forces that wanted nothing to do with busing.

He’s now in his late 80’s, retired and looks back at that period of strife and disarray with disappointment. A workable plan was possible but it would require regional integration. The Supreme Court had, in 1974, blocked desegregation over city-suburban borders in the Detroit case Milliken v. Bradley.

Willie says he still cries knowing desegregation, an important component of education, was unsuccessful in Boston. “Desegregation is beneficial to blacks and whites,” he says, “it enhances education.”

In many ways, segregation is alive in Boston. In 2014, white students made up 13 percent of the city’s public schools. At Dorchester Academy, nearly 70 percent of  the students are black while 3 percent of  the students are white. East Boston High School has a Latino student population of 66 percent, a black student population of 13 percent and a white population of 18 percent.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, says the problem of segregation was not fully solvable in Boston, though the city had a lot of missed opportunities. For instance, he says, expanding METCO could have been good for the city, but it did not happen.


Throughout his career, Willie has regretted seeing these missed opportunities. He lives with his wife of 53 years, Mary Sue, in the Concord home where they raised three children in an integrated family.

On a hot June day, he wore a plaid button-down shirt tucked into a pair of slacks. He walked in dress shoes on his carpeted living-room floor, reluctantly using a cane for support. The room is surrounded by shelves of books, the shelves surrounded by stacks. Their titles reflect Willie’s work and include “Justice as Fairness,” “The Education of African Americans” and “School Diversity, Choice, and School Improvement.” He’s authored many himself.

Willie closes his eyes when he speaks, thinking and remembering. His voice is soft but assertive as he recalls a career focused on school integration. After Boston, he served as a consultant, expert witness and court-appointed master in other major desegregation cases in Hartford, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Little Rock, Milwaukee, San Jose, Seattle and St. Louis.

Willie holds his right hip in discomfort as he remembers the elusive task he was given in Boston. Mandatory busing shook the city, leading to riots, boycotting and many white families fleeing their homes to avoid the trouble. Willie, a sociologist who specialized in school integration, looks back in dismay knowing that his hands were tied. Societal forces beyond his control stood in the way of desegregation. When the first phase of busing was ordered, the original goals of integration were lost.

“Desegregation was supposed to create access while maintaining caring climates that created aspiration,” says Vanessa Siddle Walker, professor of Education at Emory University. “In its actual implementation, instead of being an additive formula, we created what I call the great exchange.” Once black students were given the access to resources they were previously denied, the nurturing classroom environment they once had was taken away.

When the court mandated desegregation in 1974, quality of education was overlooked for the sake of quick integration. That problem, says Willie, reaches back to the court’s decision in Brown V. Board of Education in 1954.

“Brown gave responsibility to the school board. It was like telling a fox who’s been caught stealing chickens to make a plan to stop it,” says Willie. When the School Board didn’t act, the court took control.

Systematically, the city was divided into too many districts, making it easy for families to move if they weren’t satisfied.

“The whites said, ‘We don’t want to go there, so we’re moving,’” says Willie, adding that leaders “didn’t understand that people would just pick up and leave.”

In January 1975, after the School Committee failed to deliver a court-approved desegregation plan, Garrity hired a team. Two education experts would design the plan. Four legal masters, including Willie, the Charles William Eliot professor of education at Harvard, would hear testimony and make recommendations on plans submitted to the court. They heard from the school committee, school department and the NAACP but the masters found none completely satisfactory.

“We talked and discussed with each other. We debated our issues and we didn’t say I won and I lost,” says Willie. They reflected back on Brown vs. Board of Education to ensure that under the reformed plan every student in the city would receive an equal and adequate education.

Though their plan wasn’t chosen, the School Committee did not back down. Kathleen Sullivan Alioto, consulting vice president of development at the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College and former School Committee member remembers advocating for a metropolitan plan.

“I was in court everyday asking for a more measured plan,” says Alioto. “They did not listen.”

As Willie remembers, other members of the community like city councilwoman and anti-busing advocate Louise Day Hicks were harder to cooperate with.

“She was a mean woman … She thought other people ought to like what she liked. She didn’t know anything about diversity,” says Willie. “It’s not that she didn’t like black people but she wanted black people to accommodate her interests.”

Phase two, announced in March of 1975, was met with mixed reactions. The plan was implemented in September of that year and lasted nearly 15 years, until Judge Garrity turned over the administration of desegregation efforts to the Boston School Committee in 1989.

That year, Willie was called on again, this time by Mayor Ray Flynn, to form a new plan. With his colleague Michael Alves, Willie developed Controlled Choice, reorganizing the city into three large districts. It lasted until 1999 when the school committee voted to eliminate race as a consideration in school assignments.

“I really felt that I had made a real contribution to the community,” says Willie. “I understand that when you make a contribution to the community not everybody is going to understand.”

Willie says he has given up his hands for Boston, but he has not given up hope. He still believes that “in due time, Boston will recognize the value of diversity.”

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