‘The Busing Battleground’ and ‘The Harvest’: An education in Black and white
Students in Mississippi protest in 1969 on the one-year anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination / Randy Magee

This September, the distinguished, award-winning Public Television series The American Experience is releasing two important documentaries on this country’s uneven attempt to desegregate its schools. Much can be learned from these halting, painful experiments.

Writer-director Sharon Grimberg and director Cyndee Reeddean’s The Busing Battleground tells the story of how different neighborhoods in Boston dealt with race in the classroom. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that different regional “separate but equal” public educational standards did not meet the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity. Disparities in educational support reflected the inability and unwillingness of local jurisdictions.

Blacks and other minorities were subjected to a demonstrably lower standard than whites. Schools for minorities were unsafe and ill-provisioned. They lacked supplies, libraries, gymnasiums, laboratories, experienced teachers and robust budgets. As one critic noted, the conditions were the educational equivalence of extending slavery through generations in perpetuity. Meanwhile, their white counterparts in more affluent neighborhoods benefited from vastly greater support.

In Boston, Blacks tried to make the public education system measure up to the Supreme Court’s decision to improve education by breaking down the separate and unequal education provided in different neighborhoods. They demanded access to better education through having their children bused to better schools, where the white children were taught. As NAACP head and longtime activist Ruth Batson declared, “We were not pushing integration because of the brotherhood of man…we went there [white schools] because that’s where the money was!”

Blocking Black Bostonians from going there was the all-white right-wing Boston School Committee, the elected government agency controlling the city’s education organization. It was led by Louise Day Hicks, a vitriolic white supremacist lawyer with political aspirations. The Busing Battleground documents the step-by-step actions to thwart even the mildest attempts at integration, as Hicks and her Committee fought through the ballot box, the courts and violent control of the streets.

Local African Americans were denied attempts to win election to the School Committee. Integration-sympathetic teachers were threatened. Buses of Black students were stoned and met with thunderous chants of “Ni**er Go Home.” Violent white crowds even attacked the police escorts.

In what became the visual signature of the failed busing attempts, a huge crowd of anti-busing white protestors at Boston City Hall during the 1976 US Bicentennial celebrations attacked the first Black they came across, lawyer Ted Landsman, who was walking into City Hall. The crowd yelled “There’s a Ni**er! Get Him!” Landsman was attacked by the crowd which used an American flagpole as a spear to stab him.

While The Busing Battleground is a well-paced, richly documented, understated film, it is ultimately a bit dispiriting. Some 36,000 white students abandoned the school system, leaving the schools with 72% children of color and still straining for resources. By 1999 the Boston School Committee abandoned the use of busing for integration.

Returning home to Mississippi

The Harvest, based largely on producer Douglas A. Blackmon’s recollections and reconstruction, is a vastly different film. After a successful career in reporting, including a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Blackmon returns home to Leland, Mississippi, where his family had moved when he was three years old. He provides us with an intensely personal look at attempts at integration in the Sixties and Seventies, paralleling Busing Battleground’s Boston timeline. Family recollections and relationships flesh out the descriptions of small-town community, as institutions, schools, families, classes and teams populate The Harvest.

The look is close-up: Pictures and memories, personal observations. We get the recollections of Jesse King (Black) and Pam Pepper (white), voted most likely to succeed by their high school classmates. Billy Barber (Black), whom all his classmates revered for his leadership qualities, as well as sports, became the town’s police chief and pastor 50 years later. And of course, we get extensive personal anecdotes from producer Blackmon (white). A biracial group of parents, teachers and administrators in Leland encouraged and supported white families to keep their children in the public schools so that the first generation of integration would be a promising start.

When the federal government began to enforce integration, there was mixed success. Kids got along better in schools. Blackmon remembers a sense of optimism in Leland. It seemed rooted in the schools where young people interacted. Outside of the schools—neighborhoods, church, clubs and commerce—interactions were limited. The interactive networks, the potting soil of a successful society, weren’t allowed to grow without nourishment.

Over time, private, right-wing and religious schools pulled white children away from the public school system. Society kept growing along these fractured lines, as government support was mixed as well. Whites did not understand or feel Black aspirations, which were so often the same as their own. The school system which had offered social as well as individual progress now thwarted it.

The Harvest and The Busing Battleground are not just historical artifacts. They are as much a primer as a requiem. Certainly they convey lessons in problematic experiments. But right next to the cautionary tales are lessons for future success. On institutional, social and personal levels, schools can extend the social, economic and aspirational interactions of its students. Instead of half-hearted, underfunded, barely compliant efforts to satisfy court mandates that we see in Boston, there needs to be whole-hearted, well-planned, generously funded push to build the road to reconciliation, as we saw with many individuals in Leland. It’s not just that it can be done: In a nation as rich as this one, it must be done.

The Busing Battleground premieres Mon., Sept. 11, 9-11 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS AppThe Harvest premieres the following evening, Tues., Sept. 12, 9-11 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App.

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.