Theodore Landsmark: The beating that turned a son of Harlem into a prominent voice that led Boston out of the busing era

Photo: StanleyFormanphotos.com, Pulitzer Prize 1977, “The Soiling of Old Glory”

Theodore Landsmark was used to being the only black person in the room by the time he was an undergraduate at Yale University’s Davenport College in the winter of 1968. But he was unprepared to confront the blatant racism he heard in a seminar room.

Former fourth grade teacher and National Book Award Winner Jonathan Kozol played tapes of Boston School Committee meetings for the college class. Landsmark said he was stunned to hear black children clearly referred to as “monkeys.” He couldn’t believe an elected official would make such a derogatory, clearly racist comment at a public meeting.

“Not only was there racial discrimination here, but it was the kind that was openly tolerated by the electorate,” Landsmark said. “The people who were electing the Boston School Committee knew exactly what the committee members were saying about black children, and they were letting it go on.”

Landsmark was too stunned to speak inside the white wood paneled room in New Haven, Connecticut that day. Nearly a decade later, he would be accidentally drawn into a melee of the school integration crisis in Boston and eventually play a role in ending busing as a tactic for racially balancing the city’s schools.

As a young man, Landsmark joined the March on Washington, raised money for the Freedom Riders and protested the Vietnam War on the steps of the Pentagon. After graduating from Yale’s Law School, he advocated for more minority jobs as the executive director of the Contractor’s Association of Boston.

On April 5, 1976, Landsmark was walking to a meeting at City Hall when he rounded a corner and ran into a group of 250 South Boston and Charlestown High School students. Police had just broken up a fight in the plaza involving the boycotting students and 60 black students. Landsmark was photographed by Boston Herald American photographer Stanley Forman as he was held, tossed to the ground and beaten.

A black doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital treated his wounds, including bending his broken nose back into place. Landsmark said the doctor warned him that he would face a crowd of journalists and added extra bandages to keep the press conference short.

As he read a prepared statement, Landsmark, who didn’t even have friends with children in Boston Public Schools, was recognized as a new, articulate civil rights leader.

“I certainly didn’t ask to have myself cast in that role because I knew there were people who knew a lot more than I did who could be more articulate on the subject than I could,” Landsmark said.

Landsmark was appointed to positions at the MBTA, Massachusetts College of Art and Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he could advocate and create access to jobs for minorities. In 1988, he joined Mayor Raymond L. Flynn’s administration and later started the mayor’s Safe Neighborhoods Plan in the midst of a gang-related crime wave. During his tenure, the city’s homicide rate dropped by half, and there were no teens murdered in the city during his last two years as director.

Neil Sullivan, executive director of the non-profit organization Boston Private City Council and Mayor Flynn’s chief policy adviser at the time, worked with Landsmark throughout those years. Sullivan got to know Landsmark “as both sincere and a good listener,” he said.

“His dedication to public service easily earns the trust of a variety of people,” Sullivan said. “That’s where he fit in.”

This was sorely needed in a Boston that was becoming more diverse. Landsmark recognized this, Sullivan said, and was willing and ready to respond.

Jerry Mogul, executive director of the non-profit corporation Massachusetts Advocates for Children, worked with Landsmark in 1992 on a city project that would come to be known as Healthy Boston. He said that Landsmark could bridge Boston’s tribal communities.

“I remember a time when Ted and I met a couple of leaders of Southie’s old guard,” Mogul said. “We were trying to explain what the project was, a new way of doing things. And they looked at us and said, what’s wrong with the old way? Moments like this encapsulated what the project was all about and why Ted was important in breaking Boston out of its insular neighborhoods.”

Southie, North End and Beacon Hill dragged their feet on creating Health Boston coalitions and missed out on grants for community development.

In September 1987, a federal appeals court recognized the changing demographics of Boston and Judge Arthur Garrity later issued an opinion in which he doubted that the city would resegregate the schools. Mayor Flynn quickly appointed a committee to revise the 1975 Phase 2 busing system and hired Charles Willie and Michael Alves as consultants. During 1989, Boston approved a controlled choice plan that included three school assignment districts that needed to be racially balanced. In 1991, the city abolished the elected school committee system, and Landsmark chaired the group that recommended members for the new mayor-appointed school board.

“My voice wasn’t perceived as tainted by my having taken a position, one way or another,” Landsmark remarked about his birthplace out of Boston. “I represented a voice of what the city wanted to be and was, in fact, becoming.”

Long before school desegregation, Boston was undergoing a major economic shift. Between 1950–1990, jobs from manufactured non-durables like textiles, shoes and razor blades declined by 75 percent. By 2000, healthcare provided one-out-of-five jobs in the city, and the Progressive Policy Institute put Massachusetts at the top of the nation’s “digital economy” due to the state’s high proportion of “knowledge jobs.”

The demographics of the city were also changing. Between 1950–1970, Boston’s minority population tripled from 5 percent to 18 percent. Over the next two decades, Boston’s minority population doubled again and became more diverse and wealthier than minority households in most American cities. In 1970, two thirds of minorities were black and half of them were born in Boston. By 1995, blacks shrank to half of Boston’s minority population and 40% of them were foreign born. Boston was becoming filled with people, like Landsmark, who had been born outside the city.

As a child in New York’s East Harlem, Landsmark was one of four black fourth graders bused to Inwood, a suburban hamlet on Long Island. The program was an early busing experiment to see what would happen if black children were educated in an environment with high professional expectations. Landsmark remembered the care taken to select culturally adaptable children.

“The decision was made largely based on our ability to deal with the social changes in a way that would permit us to take advantage of the academic possibilities that would be available to us,” Landsmark said.

Landsmark said the Harlem-Inwood busing program was focused on improving learning, whereas the Boston busing program haphazardly shuffled children between neighborhoods to comply with the state’s Racial Imbalance Law of 1965.

“I don’t think there was ever an argument that the quality of education was going to go one way or another as a result of busing,” Landsmark said. “Any of a range of other solutions could have been negotiated. The elected officials chose not to choose those alternatives.”

Through his own busing experience, Landsmark said he learned that the goals of school integration could not be achieved exclusively in the classroom. Children had to have a chance to interact and build friendships.

In 1993, Landsmark proposed phasing out the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), a state-subsidized program that voluntarily bused minority children to suburban schools. At the time, METCO enrolled about 3,500 students in 36 suburban districts, leaving about 50,000 minority students in city schools.

Landsmark argued that METCO students should return to Boston to be role models for other children and use the money saved to improve education. Most METCO students spent two or more hours on buses a day, making it difficult for them to socially integrate with their suburban classmates after school. Landsmark said that he was surprised when METCO parents said that they wanted long bus rides to substitute for day care.

“Busing had more than run its course in terms of what could it could achieve,” Landsmark said.

Landsmark faced tough opposition and his proposal was shelved. A 1997 Harvard survey found that two thirds of METCO parents had reached out to a policy maker in support of the program. Although extremely popular among students, parents and alumni, statistics on METCO’s efficacy are mixed. A 2011 white paper by the Pioneer Institute found that METCO students performed better on the MCAS tests than their Boston peers and graduated high school at a higher rate than the state average. But, a peer reviewed study published by the American Economic Review in 2002 reported that METCO students in Brookline underperformed local students so severely that they reduced schoolwide MCAS test results.

In 2003, Landsmark was given a chance to unravel the legacy of forced busing. As the chair of a task force, Landsmark explored a neighborhood-based system where more students could walk to school and a computerized lottery system would help parents select schools. The proposal would have cut the busing budget by nearly a third. But, the task force was unable to reach a consensus.

“People always want things to change, but there are always tradeoffs in making public policy,” Sullivan said. “Ted was willing to take the position that perhaps time had come to focus less on desegregation and more on school quality.”

It took a decade for the ideas of the 2003 task force to become politically acceptable. In March 2013, the Boston School Committee approved a neighborhood-based school plan with computerized lottery assignments and no geographic barriers to balance attendance. Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, was the first day in 40 years that Boston city schools operated without a trace of the busing crisis that started with the legal ruling of Morgan v. Hennigan.

“There was a significant turnaround in the demographics of the population of Boston starting in the mid-1990s,” Landsmark said, explaining the smooth acceptance of the 2013 school plan. “That was not only the point where the population started to grow again, but became significantly more diverse.”

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